Sunday, September 22, 2019
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ARGENTINA | 06-07-2019 22:07

History, humour and humility: Remembering Andrew Graham-Yooll

Respected, influential and talented writer and journalist, whose experiences with Argentina’s brutal 1976-1983 military dictatorship he shared with the world, has died in London aged 75. 

Andrew Graham-Yooll, the respected, influential and talented writer and journalist whose experiences with Argentina’s brutal 1976-1983 military dictatorship he shared with the world, has died aged 75. 

Born in the southern Greater Buenos Aires suburb of Ranelagh (where he grew up) in the first week of 1944, the former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald was a totem of the English-speaking community in Argentina. So much so that many assumed he had been born on the other side of the Atlantic. 

Skilled in both Spanish, English and ‘spanglés’ (or “Spanglish”), as he called it, he always saw himself as an individual who straddled two cultures.

The devastating news that he passed away in London in the early hours of Saturday morning – less than a day after arriving in the Britain to attend his granddaughter’s wedding, visit family and friends and to give the Jorge Luis Borges lecture to the Anglo-Argentine Society – also means we will no longer be able to have him grace the pages of our own humble publication, the Buenos Aires Times, for which he was a weekly columnist.

We are blessed, however, that he has left the world so many beautifully written pieces already – books, articles, columns and reports that have already stood the test of time.

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Andrew Michael Graham-Yooll OBE was the son of a Scottish father and English mother. A prolific writer in both English and Spanish, he produced thousands of articles and columns and more than 30 books. He had even recently signed a contract to pen two more books.

Among his most famous works are 1985’s A State of Fear: Memories of Argentina’s Nightmare (which his childhood hero Graham Greene described at the time as “the book of the year”), 1981’s The Forgotten Colony: A History of the English-speaking Communities in Argentina and 2006’s Tiempo de Tragedias y Esperanzas: Cronología histórica 1955-2005, de Perón a Kirchner.

But while Andrew is best-known as an author and journalist, but it is unfair to think of him as just that. He was at various times also a poet, a very well-respected translator and perhaps most important of all, a historian. He had immense knowledge and awareness of the history of Argentina and the English-speaking community within it, often regaling family, friends and acquaintances with long-forgotten stories from the past.

The Argentine is mostly known in his homeland, however, for his many years spent at the Buenos Aires Herald, Argentina’s famed English-language newspaper that was closed in mid-2017 after 144 years of publishing.

A Herald stalwart, he first began with the publication in 1966, serving 10 years before he was forced into exile by the 1976-1983 military dictatorship, as threats against his life and those of his colleague’s became more pronounced. 

Graham-Yooll’s time at the paper, under the fearless editorship of Robert ‘Bob’ Cox, had seen him help spread the news of those who were being disappeared by the death squads, putting his life in danger.

He soon came under the junta's radar. Graham-Yooll, like Cox, dared to go where others would not go. Explaining his actions some years on, he rejected the idea that they were fearless. "Of course we were afraid in the Herald," he said. "But it's one thing to be afraid and another thing to be a coward. "

The book that emerged a decade on, detailing his experiences during that dark period of state terror, the classic A State of Fear, would be hailed in many quarters as a masterpiece.

As with so many others, those days would come to define him in the eyes of most. On many occasions, he detailed why he went into exile, explaining that a judge had told him to flee as soon as he could, after his reporting and interviews with left-wing guerrillas had landed him in trouble.

"They came looking for me with wicked-looking weapons and a car loaded full of guns," he told The Scotsman in an interview in 2002. 

"They came to kill me, but they usually did it by stealth, and they got the timing wrong. As they couldn’t kill me, they put me in prison. I was arrested and charged with condoning violence,” he recalled. “I was found not guilty, but the judge told me: ‘You had better get out’."

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In exile in the United Kingdom, Andrew continued working in the media industry for a number of publications, including The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph and South magazine. He also became a fellow of Wolfson College, Cambridge, during his time in England. 

For The Guardian, he became a war correspondent during the Malvinas (Falklands) War, returning briefly to Argentina to report on a conflict that saw the two nations that were his own at odds. His experiences would later be collected in the Spanish-language book, Buenos Aires, Otoño 1982.

In 1989, he was appointed editor of Index on Censorship magazine, the campaigning quarterly of the organisation that fights for freedom of expression across the world. He was deeply fond of that publication, penning columns about it for the Times in recent years, and he remained in touch with staff there into his final years.

Freedom of speech and how to deal with fear were key topics for Andrew. Two months ago, at the British Embassy, British ​​Ambassador Mark Kent recorded a brief interview with him to mark World Press Freedom Day. In a video, Andrew detailed his thoughts.

“Freedom of the press, for me, is a [human] right. It's a right, as it is to eat, to drink clean water," he said.

Referencing his time at the Herald during the days of the dictatorship, he said: "For my generation, I believe the most difficult time we lived was the seven years of the last military dictatorship from 1976 to 1983. Fortunately it didn't carry on, but it was a unique moment in the history of Argentina."

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In 1994, fiercely missing Argentina, he decided to take a bold step and return to his land of birth permanently, taking up an offer to become editor-in-chief of the Buenos Aires Herald and assuming the position of president of the newspaper’s board. In 1998, he became the newspaper’s senior editor for a period that stretched until December, 2007.

In 2002, in recognition of his life's work, he was honoured with an OBE (Order of the British Empire) by Britain, choosing to collect his honour from Edinburgh’s Holyrood Palace, in tribute to his father, who had left the city in 1928 to head for Patagonia.

Back in Argentina, he would go on to write for Perfil, La Nación and Pagina/12, among other local publications, subsequently becoming the ombudsman for the former publication as he forged closer ties with the media company led by Jorge Fontevecchia.

In recent years, Andrew had slowed his workload a little, but after the closure of the Herald and the birth of the new Buenos Aires Times newspaper in its wake, he accepted an invitation to pen weekly columns and become an honorary editor of the publication, returning to weekly writing.

He was told there were no restrictions: write what you want. And midweek, every week, as punctual as you like, columns would arrive in my inbox on a host of themes – press, corruption, local politics, the space race, trains, even fishing. They were always unique and I had no idea what would arrive each week from Larroque, Entre Ríos province, where he had made his final home.

My favourites, however, were those that set Argentina firmly in context, addressing the past and the present, digging deep into a nation’s history. 

Now, Andrew has become part of history, though his work will undoubtedly live on. More musings will likely emerge too. In a sign of his typically humble approach to life and his work, two years ago he donated his personal archive to the University of San Andrés – a collection of 43 boxes of correspondence, books, magazines, diaries, photographs, and more.

Questioned as to why he did so, his humour and humility once again shone through. "I did not think I was making a great contribution to Argentine history,” he told Infobae. “But I felt sorry that everything may be burned."

That humour, which is evident in almost everything he wrote, and was often let loose will his laughter, is how many of us will remember him.

Rest in peace Andrew. You will be sorely missed.

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If you would like to share your own memories of Andrew, please email us at buenosairestimes@perfil.com. We shall endeavour to share them with the wider community at some point in the future.

James Grainger

James Grainger

Editor-in-Chief, Buenos Aires Times.

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