A writer writes late into sunset, into darkness, into old age. So I learnt. This is how the poet Dylan Thomas puts it: “Do not go gentle into that good night. Old age should burn and rave at close of day. Rage, rage against the dying of light.”
At 80, how I wish he is still writing his ‘Sad Sam’ column as is the trend in the journalism world out there far beyond our shores where old journalists still ply their trade till death do them part. Like wine, their writing tastes mature, tastes better and better with age. They have seen it all. For them, there is nothing new under the sun.
But my old columnist and hero Sam Amuka-Pemu popularly known as Sad Sam in his writing days stopped the music long, long ago and went into silence and oblivion, far from the madding crowd of today’s young, garrulous columnists throwing jaw-breaking words around like reckless boxers in the ring of life. Hahahahahaha! Don’t mind me.
So, why did Sad Sam stop writing at his old age? He was 80 on June 13 and a book of essays is to be launched in his honour next Thursday at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, Lagos. Why did the music stop? This was the question I was dying to ask him.
As a young man, he had done everything I did. He turned column-writing into everything, into an art, into an adventure, into drama, into a narrative of the life of ordinary people, interesting people, telling their untold stories. In those days of innocence, Sam Amuka as Sad Sam used to go about town, venturing into sometimes dangerous and forbidden places, looking for stories to turn into a column. Such an audacious and daring journalist he was!
“A good journalist must be daring,” he told me. “You must not be afraid of anything. You must not be afraid to ask any question. In journalism, there is this maxim that ‘knock many doors, there is a story.’”
But to Amuka’s regret, “that credo is dying nowadays.” It has been replaced with what he calls “armchair journalism” which is responsible for “so much weakness and untidiness in journalism of today.”
He looks at today’s papers and spots so many grammatical errors—errors that should not have gone into the paper.
Old age brings along nostalgia: the dreams of the good old days gone by. Amuka is no exemption. “In our days, journalists were more thorough than today,” he says with a tinge of regret. “In our days you were groomed as an all-round newspaper professional. Newspapers then were more professional than what we have today. You had to learn it. These days they don’t bother to learn the trade. They don’t take the pains to learn how to produce a newspaper.
“When a reporter files his report to the news editor who sends it to the sub-editor, the sub-editor takes the report and breaks it into pieces to get his own angle. If he needs any extra information, the reporter would be there to supply it. The sub-editor invariably rewrites the story. Professionally, the sub-editors in the Daily Times were highly skilled. We don’t have that now. Today, if a reporter makes a mistake, that mistake would end up published in the newspaper.”
He continues: “We had the culture of sub-editors. They are the behind-the-scene journalists who, unlike reporters, are not known because they don’t have bylines. They are the custodians of house style and good grammar. They are the ones who through editing and corrections help largely in grooming the young reporters on how to report accurately in good readable prose. Today, sub-editors are endangered species in the newsroom. That very important aspect of newspaper work is dying and we are all suffering from the absence of sub-editors.”
Still waxing in nostalgia, the sad man of Nigerian journalism still kept looking at the rear mirror trying to capture his past of over half a dozen decades in journalism all gone:
“When I started newspaper work, people were more careful. You didn’t take people’s name in vain. Reputation was highly guarded. When I look back, those were the days of innocence. The country changed with the war—when soldiers went to war and came back. That was a watershed in our history. Everything else changed.”
About that time, Amuka wrote one of his most popular columns titled “Night in Kakadu”. Kakadu was the hottest nightclub in Lagos where Fela and other reigning stars of the era used to play. There he encountered a prostitute and out of the experience with the prostitute he wrote a column.
“In those days, I was a young man about town, who was just observing the society and having a big laugh,” he recalls. “We told the truth about real life encounters—interesting life encounters. I wrote about interesting people I met. I remember the column ‘Night in Kakadu.’ It was an experience I had with a young prostitute. She was drinking and we got to talk. Here you find a girl opening her heart to you, telling you about what led her into prostitution, her disappointment with the society. I wrote about that sort of thing. Real life encounters. As a columnist, I just said what I liked. I went out to town, reported as I saw them and expressed my views. With Sad Sam, I had a big laugh. I had fun. I am still having fun, but I cannot say the things I see anymore.”
So, why did he stop writing? The question again. This time, he gave reasons he quit column-writing.
“I stopped writing my Sad Sam column because I grew old. I lost my innocence. Times change. Things I wrote then when I was doing a column, I couldn’t do them now. We are talking of over twenty-something years ago. It got to a stage where people expressed confidences to you and you couldn’t let them down. I grew old for the column.”
The Sam Amuka interview was conducted while working on the book Segun Osoba—The Newspaper Years by Mike Awoyinfa and Dimgba Igwe, published by Corporate Biographers Limited. He paid tribute to Osoba as the quintessential reporter, one of the best this country has ever produced.
“Osoba’s métier was news,” he declared. “He was a newsman to the core. That is what he is known for. As for me, I am features man. I have very little reporting background. But Osoba’s niche was newsgathering. He wasn’t a features man, and he wasn’t a columnist. He was a newsman.”
In an age where news is now mainly sourced online, Amuka still loves the crispness and the freshness of a daily newspaper which he compares to the birth of a new baby every new day. It’s a life-long love affair that doesn’t wane with age.
He says: “For us in this business of journalism, every day is a new day. Holding an edition of a newspaper is like holding a new baby. It is exciting. You get fulfilled. A time would come when you would realise that money is not everything. If it was, those people with money won’t be asking you have their names eight point in the newspaper, to see their pictures in newspapers. Newspaper has power, has influence on the society.”
There was this series I was doing in this column titled ‘100 Heroes of Nigeria at 100.’ Remember it? I was going round interviewing Nigerians who themselves are heroes and asking them to pick their heroes. I met Sam Amuka at a conference and asked him to name his hero. His answer dazzled and confused me: “My heroes are Mike Awoyinfa and Dimgba Igwe. And I mean what I am saying. For two of you to pioneer Weekend Concord, make it successful and to repeat your success in creating The Sun newspaper from the scratch make you my newspaper heroes. And when you left The Sun, you reinvented yourself by churning out books. I love how you have been able to stick together through thick and thin.”
WORLD EDITORS BOOK FOR DIMGBA IGWE
To mark the anniversary of Dimgba Igwe’s death, WORLD EDITORS, a book of interviews with 50 editors around the world co-authored by Mike Awoyinfa and Dimgba Igwe will be launched on September 15 at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs (NIIA), Lagos. Our chairman of the occasion? Who else other than our hero: Sam Amuka-Pemu formerly known as Sad Sam? The sad man of Nigerian journalism.
For all of you who wished me happy birthday on July 23, thank you very much. May we all grow and pass 80. Like our Daddy and Granddaddy Sam Amuka-Pemu who has made his mark as a journalist and entrepreneur.