At Montreal Airport, awaiting a flight to New York. Freezing rain. Deep tangible greyness. And having just negotiated the usual security labyrinth I cannot help but remember when, back in the mid-seventies, I would frequently walk to a boarding gate with a lit cigarette on the go and something alcoholic in hand. I recall a transatlantic flight in 1979 from Dublin to New York during my Abbey Theatre years when the very brilliant economics editor of The Irish Times, Paul Tansey, sat with me on the emergency exit hump of one of Aer Lingus’s jumbo jets, smoking like idiots, downing a ceaseless supply of miniature bottles of Jameson’s whiskey, and one of the air hostesses giving us a plastic cup filled with water to use as a makeshift ashtray. Paul was one of the most intellectually gifted and wittiest people I’d ever encountered – and nine months later he helped jump-start my ambitions as a writer when, upon my return to Dublin from three insane weeks in a sunstruck Egypt, he commissioned three pieces from me on that endlessly compelling and unnerving corner of northeastern Africa – thereby giving me my first foray into print journalism. That was the year my first radio play was broadcast on the BBC – and again it was an encouraging producer, Robert Cooper (who, like Paul, was just a few years my senior), who accepted the play for production and got my first creative work on the air (and on the BBC no less – I was so chuffed).

It astonishes me to think that this was all thirty-two years ago, for time does have this bullet-like velocity, I saw Robert a few weeks ago in London. He has had a distinguished career in broadcasting – and has become one of the more important independent television producers in the UK. As I reminded him over our recent lunch, his thumbs-up for my radio play all those years ago gave a huge jolt of confidence at a moment when I was wondering if I could ever make it as a writer. Just as Paul’s commissioning of those articles on Egypt gave me an entree into print journalism which was to prove crucial in the years ahead after I quit my job at the Abbey Theatre and used freelance writing (first in Dublin, then in London) as a way of supporting my book-writing habit. Alas, Paul is no longer with us – having died from an out-of-nowhere heart attack a few years ago. And the terrible thing about losing a good friend – especially prematurely – is that the conversation is abruptly curtailed forever. And you are left thinking about how random and fragile all of life is, and how you always need to remember the individuals who mentored you at a certain juncture in your life when you needed encouragement and guidance. And how this time of year always gets me looking over my shoulder at all that has transpired – for better and for worse – in my life, and how I am so beholden to certain people who helped me along at a crucial moment in time.

Benevolence is a vastly underrated virtue. And an essential one.

  • barbara

    As usual Douglas, you have made me think.