Books, covers, etc

When I joined the JWT ad agency in London during the Autumn of 1971, one of the first accounts I was asked to cut my teeth on was the South African Wine Farmers Association (SAWFA). This presented me with a moral dilemma. Being Left-Wing and clueless, it didn’t occur to me to investigate the details about SAWFA: it was South African, and ergo sum it must be Bad. No way was I doing anything to support Apartheid.

My Kennedy Democrat boss Judie Lannon was a little distressed at this impasse, and tried to explain how SAWFA was a model employer. But I wasn’t having any of it. I knew it all, didn’t I? I was a Politics graduate for crying out loud.

But there was another, much older woman in the Creative Research Unit. She was in charge of consumer recruitment for research samples, and her name was Patricia Chiswell. Pat was – like most people in JWT at the time – more cut-glass than Waterford Crystal. I suppose I saw her as an haute bourgeoise who must be 97 at least. She was probably a fraction over 50: I thought she was smashing, but I also thought she hadn’t a clue about politics, right, wrong, race or indeed any of the subjects in which my own wisdom was of course universal.

One morning, Pat pitched up at my desk around noon and said c’mon, we’re going to lunch. This was clearly an order not an invite, and so I said fine, let’s go. At the time, JWT had an expenses code number, ‘H47’. To a few privileged employees, it was a licence to become morbidly obese at the company’s expense, as its official designation was ‘Staff Motivation’. Anyway, off we went to a long-since deceased eaterie called Serafinos.

As we played with bread sticks and ordered the usual pre-lunch G&T – the past is another country – I learned that far from being a product of Roedean, Pat Chiswell was South African. The story that unfolded taught me never to prejudge…and was also quite amazing.

Patricia Chiswell had founded a chain of ultra-upmarket fashion shops – particularly renowned for its hats – in 1950s Johannesburg. She was married to a nationally-known radio personality called Peter Chiswell. His catch-phrase – “Be-Beep” – was an integral part of a weekly Saturday show for kids on the main State channel. (In those days, the Nationalist Party kept TV away from the populace as a dangerous foreign influence).

Pete Chiswell was a distinguished Second World War fighter pilot. Oxbridge educated in the 1930s, he wasn’t a Communist – but he was virulently anti-Fascist. Before South Africa even bothered to get its conscription act together in 1939, Peter stowed away on a ship to England, and immediately joined the RAF.

Twenty years later, Peter and Patricia lived a life of unimaginable privilege right at the top of the social scale among the South African white minority. Together, they nurtured an image as the perfect conformist couple. They seemed about as political as Donald Duck. They lived in a massive house in Joburg’s best area, and their society parties were legendary.

But in fact, the couple were working hard for the ANC. Peter was slotting code-words and phrases into his radio broadcasts to inform black activists about this or that development or danger. Patricia meanwhile was funnelling untaxed cash from her rich clientele’s purchases into foreign ANC bank accounts.

During the summer of 1961, things turned very, very nasty in Nationalist South Africa. The ANC formed a military wing in May of that year, and the Chiswells wondered whether they could continue to support terrorist violence. Their ruminations became somewhat academic when, shortly afterwards, Peter received a phone call from a sympathiser. The voice used an immediately recognisable code: get out now. Chiswell rang his wife, telling her to grab their passports and meet him at Joburg airport. They left everything behind, and caught a flight to London that afternoon.

During that 1971 lunch a decade later, Patricia patiently explained to me how SAWFA was not only a model employer, but also a Liberal Party supporter under constant BOSS surveillance. But after she’d finished – in a most matter-of-fact way – telling me about their lives in South Africa, I really did feel something of an inadeqate prick. The bravest thing I’d ever done was throw eggs at Harold Wilson on his arrival at Lime Street station in 1968.

“In 1959,” Pat told me, “I asked my cook ‘You won’t kill me after the revolution will you?’ And she said, ‘Oh no ma’am, I’m going to kill the people next door – they’re coming round here to kill you’. She then giggled, but I was never entirely sure how much was gallows, and how much humour, in that response”.

A great deal of life is about learning to be humble about some stuff. I didn’t feel humiliated by Pat – she was the kindest of people – but I was humbled by her account. And I went to work with gusto on the SAWFA account.