Saturday, September 25, 2021

OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 20-07-2019 09:10

Remembering Andrew

His ability to blend in without committing himself is what allowed him to get on well with members of the leftist and Peronist “revolutionary” fraternity which, in the days before the military took power, was very much alive in Argentina.

There is official time, which is remorselessly sequential and puts everything in its allotted place. And then there is personal time, in which the events of half a century ago remain closer than much of what happened yesterday. That, no doubt, is why, for me at any rate, Andrew is still the young man whom I knew fairly well, but not that well, because there was something elusive about him in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

His subsequent career was notable. It saw him writing a number of interesting books, translating and putting together a bilingual anthology of Argentine poetry, editing influential publications in London and then, back in Buenos Aires, the Herald, as well as serving on boards and committees. But in my mind the successful public man he became never replaced the person with whom I had once shared so many conversations. Barely a year ago, we promised to get together again one day and resume them, but the weeks slipped by and we never did.

Like many other intelligent members of his generation, Andrew had acquired a passion for books. I must admit that I felt a bit sceptical about his chances of making a living by writing as he insisted he would, it being something that relatively few people, especially those who wrote in Spanish before the “boom” that put some of them well and truly on the international literary map, managed to do. But I was impressed by his determination to make a go of it in his two languages and by his unusual awareness that he had much to learn. He regularly asked advice from more seasoned practitioners of his chosen trade; one such was V. S. Naipaul who, I was told, tried to discourage him in his usual disdainful manner.

As well as being a hard worker, Andrew had a pragmatic streak and, being of an amiable disposition, he was very good at networking, a talent that as time went by would stand him in good stead as an editor. He soon made his intentions clear. Before Google made keeping track of what was going on far easier he, like many other journalists, myself included, had got into the habit of jotting down and dating newspaper headlines that caught his attention – a new minister is appointed, terrorists gun down someone, president Onganía plays polo with a Spanish prince, somebody says something. But unlike the rest of us, he had the chutzpah to take his aide-mémoire to a publisher and call it Time of Tragedy: Chronology of the Argentine Revolution. His success in making a book out of such easily available but at first sight unpromising material was a source of wry and slightly envious amusement at the Herald, but it proved to be a very smart move because it enabled him to join the ranks of established writers without having to break sweat. Needless to say, he then went on to produce many well-researched works, which did require a great deal of effort.

It soon became clear to me that Andrew had a novelist’s temperament, not exactly the “splinter of ice in the heart” Graham Greene recommended but perhaps some cool water which enabled him to participate in otherwise closed circles, without really belonging to them. His ability to blend in without committing himself is what allowed him to get on well with members of the leftist and Peronist “revolutionary” fraternity which, in the days before the military took power, was very much alive in Argentina and which, to the chagrin of a small high-minded Francophile or Anglophile elite, then – as, to a certain extent, today – dominated many cultural activities, while presumably retaining his faith in certain democratic values. Being non-judgemental by nature, he seemed indifferent to ideological matters and did not express strong opinions about what was going on, or the people behind the gruesome events they or their comrades were perpetrating.

His apparent neutrality made it hard to know what he really thought about his Montonero acquaintances or, should one say, contacts. In any event, he was wise to leave Argentina when he did: as was made clear very soon after the coup that put an end to Isabelita’s spell in the Pink House, the military regime’s enforcers were not the kind of individuals who would try to distinguish between dangerous terrorists and those who, for their own motives, on occasion consorted either with them or with individuals in some way associated with them.

Andrew was a very astute observer of the terrorist milieux and, as I wrote in late 1981 for the British magazine Encounter, in his book Portrait of an Exile, he provided us with what in my view was “by far the best description of Argentina in the 1970s.” Being an Anglo-Argentine, both an insider and an outsider, certainly helped him write “an elegy for the Argentina he knew, a country haunted by messianic fantasies and brutalised by sordid violence, where the distinction between politics and gangsterism is vague, and where the shifting clouds of suspicion move erratically, hanging over conservatives (in so far as any Argentine can be said to be conservative) one month and over left-wingers the next. Like large numbers of sons and daughters of immigrants, Graham-Yooll was responsive to the terrorist dream. Unlike many of them, he was too decent and honest to become an actor in the confusing drama that was being played. He remained a reporter, standing on the rim, who savoured with some relish the corrupt and raffish climate that pervaded everything. Its flavour was – and is – Dostoyevskian, a pot-pourri of disembodied ideals, moments of tenderness, sudden overwhelming perceptions, dialogues than in retrospect acquire a frightening significance, wild lunging after truth, and everything else that comes bubbling up when student rebels aflame with far-fetched Utopian plans for refashioning society engage in all-out warfare against secret police and the military guardians of a decaying system.”

Andrew cannot have been surprised to see the world he evoked so well acquire “a romantic haze and be recalled with nostalgia” after 20 years had passed. Though even he, “no moralist” sometimes forgot just how “corrupt and debilitating it really was.” The sardonic sketches he drew of some of the individuals he knew then suggest that he was always aware that, in their way, they represented a part of Argentina that would survive the military onslaught and continue to have a deleterious effect on the country.

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James Neilson

James Neilson

Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).


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