Opinionista Benjamin Trisk 7 April 2021

Anarchic but respectful: Remembering the great integrity and passion of Jonathan Ball

Jon was nothing if not a literate man and his life was books. They were the standard measure for him of how humanity organises itself. Unsurprisingly, therefore, he saw a body of literature, in its breadth and complexity, as an arbiter of culture because it is a physical entity reflecting back all the shards of intelligence that sustain reference and capacity.

One of the more inane comments that I have read over the past few days concerning the untimely death of Jonathan Augustus Benjamin Ball was that “he was the doyen of the South African publishing industry”. Among the many things he was, that he wasn’t. 

He was the publishing industry: certainly that part of it that has grown to be the validation of civil society — political publishing. Prior to his publication of a book of immense bravery and lasting significance, The Super Afrikaners (1978), in-depth political commentary tended to be found in the courage of journalists writing for their newspapers or magazines. There simply wasn’t the appetite among local book publishers to take on the Nationalist establishment. That is why even a personal account of the Treason Trial by Helen Joseph (who was a banned person after the trial) found its first home with Andre Deutsch in London.

Jon, with his great integrity and passion for righting wrongs (fed in large measure first by the racial dystopia of the apartheid regime and then by the ideological dystopia of the ANC) ploughed in a rich field; and that alone was enough to keep him anchored to this place all his life. His publishing relationships were legion and he could have chosen to practise his profession elsewhere.

As is the case with every great publisher I have met, Jon was the intellectual manufacturer of the book. He had a unique ability to synthesise all the currents of thought that go towards building a moment in time, distil them into one central idea and then find the right person to produce the book that he has already read in abstract before even a page has been submitted.

He was both respectful and anarchic. Respectful around those he admired, who generally shunned the identity politics to which popular thinking seems to adhere, but anarchic when confronted by the ideas and politics of such thinking. Underlying both was his rather anachronistic outlook on life (he shunned social media). It was mirrored in his value system. In his penultimate conversation with me he was emphatic that cultural advancement (a broad phrase, I know) required a written record. 

Jon was nothing if not a literate man and his life was books. They were the standard measure for him of how humanity organises itself. Unsurprisingly, therefore, he saw a body of literature, in its breadth and complexity, as an arbiter of culture because it is a physical entity reflecting back all the shards of intelligence that sustain reference and capacity. If huge libraries do not exist, for whatever reason, then the bandwidth for the transmission of cultural identity is inevitably diminished or narrowed. 

It is an intimidating thought and it is wrong. Nevertheless, this was the man and our own social history over the past 40 years is better for it. Personally, his politics were not much different to that of a Whig Grandee of the 19th century and they were anchored in ideas loosely around constitutionalism, the separation of powers, a free press, merit and property rights. He never went to university himself and found it preposterous that marks for university admission are set so low that vast numbers of South Africans see a university education as a “right”. 

In part, his exuberance and love of language was the wellspring for his publishing catalogue. It never faltered until the very recent knowledge that he was dying, and the arcane detail of marshalling his life’s achievement for the benefit of his matchless loving family, took hold. I encountered then a sobriety of thought and care that raised him still higher in my estimation. His bravery in the face of his illness was exceptional.

John Aubrey in his Brief Lives describes Thomas Hobbes as “flumen ingenii” (never dry), an apt description for the life of Jon Ball. He could be infuriating, self-absorbed, irascible and downright wrong in some of his arguments: but he was also open-hearted, generous, emotional, kind to a fault and the greatest fun to be with. He did not so much live a full life — he caroused it!

I knew him through more than 40 years of the greatest fellowship. We were ever-present for each other at family events: he gave the address at my wedding to Helen Maisels, describing me as “small but perfectly formed”. I gave the speech at his first marriage and shared the honours both the second time he married and on the occasion of his 60th. He was at my younger son’s briss and at his bar mitzvah. When my older boy married, for the second time, in Jamaica, he was there. If there is ever to be a third marriage, perhaps in Kathmandu or Khiva, I will smoke my first Marlboro in his memory. His smoking has always been legendary and for a while I made light of it, joking that I was sure the obituary would precede his 60th. I am thankful that his wilful desire always to replace one cigarette in his mouth with the next, propelled him well beyond that milestone. Last Friday, dying from cancer brought about by his incessant craving for nicotine, he finished a box of Marlboro (plain): a man true to himself.

In the evening of 31 March he called me. The subtext of that conversation was that we must say goodbye to one another. We both knew instinctively that his road, best lived though it was, had reached its end.

Jon held his own version of Catholicism dear. He was raised a Catholic and he died one. As he lay dying last Saturday afternoon, he was unflinching in the face of the inevitable. The palliative care nurse (who had looked after his wife when she died in 2018) was again on hand to administer the last rites and he then passed away as the afternoon inexorably moved on from summer to fall. He died in the arms of his three loving stepchildren whose care for him was exemplary.

He leaves a void in my life. DM

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