Bleak news coming out of my radio this morning – double bleak news. Gerry Anderson of BBC radio and TV fame has died at 69 and former Taoiseach Albert Reynolds has died at 81.
I first became aware of Gerry’s existence when he started doing radio programmes from BBC Radio Foyle with Sean Coyle. I was working at the time on a kind of ‘Pick of the week’ for BBC radio in Belfast, and the two Derrymen’s humour jumped out at me immediately and featured again and again on our Pick of the Week. At that time his imagination, or his imagination along with that of Sean Coyle, was wonderfully fresh and surreal. Like a lot of people, I remember laughing out loud every time they produced another item from their instruction manual on how to learn swimming from the comfort and privacy of your own home. I sat at the same table with him in London when he received the equivalent of a radio Oscar for his work and typically he had caustic comments on a number of the speeches.
Even though he invented Stroke City to refer to Derry/Londonderry, he appeared totally uninterested in politics. On his morning programme once, he and Sean were discussing what they’d do if they could afford to quit working. Gerry made no bones about it: he’d get out of this place as fast as he could. “Them and their flags!” was his sum-up. In his later years he could be self-absorbed when interviewing people, and his short time with BBC Radio Four in London was a near-disaster. And like us all, he could at times be tetchy – sometimes pretend-tetchy, others real-tetchy. But he brought a note of wildness, recklessness and hilarity to broadcasting on BBC Raidio Uladh/Radio Ulster that has never been matched.
Albert Reynolds was a very political man, even though he came to politics relatively late in life- after he’d made his millions on dance halls and pet-food. His input to the peace process was vital, as Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness both acknowledged this morning. There was an energy as well as a down-to-earthness about him that was infectious. Unionists sensed that this was a businessman, someone who, unlike his predecessor Charlie Haughey, carried no baggage. My abiding image of him is as he emerges from a car in Downing Street and hurries towards a waiting John Major, smiling and rubbing his hands together. You could sense his determination to get stuck into the hard work of peace-making and his relish for so doing. Because he knew that business on this island has little time for borders, he was able to appeal to those in unionism who thought in similar terms.
That’s how we tend to remember him. The British tend to remember him for the case he brought against the Sunday Times, a key part of Murdoch’s empire. Under the heading of ‘Goodbye Gombeen Man’, the paper accused him – in its British but not its Irish edition – of lying. Reynolds fought the case with energy and won it. The judge awarded him one penny in damages.
Does British justice often work that way, Virginia? Sorry – pass.
Ar dheis Dé go raibh a n-anamnacha – May they rest in peace.