Thursday 30 March 2017

John Bowman on the loss of his son: 'Not only do you not get over it, you don't want to get over it'

John Bowman's 'Ireland: The Autobiography' is out now. Photo: Damien Eagers
John Bowman's 'Ireland: The Autobiography' is out now. Photo: Damien Eagers
National treasure: John Bowman

John Bowman (74) is a broadcaster and historian. Born in Dublin, he studied at Trinity College, where he completed his PhD thesis on Eamon de Valera, later published as a book. He began freelancing for RTÉ during his college years, and went on to become one of the country's most respected broadcasters, hosting Day by Day on radio in the 1980s and Questions and Answers from 1988 until it ended in 2009. He now mines the RTÉ archives on Radio One's Bowman: Sunday.

Bowman met his wife Eimer, a psychiatrist, when he was 21, and the couple had four children, Jonathan, Abie, Emma and Daniel. His eldest son Jonathan died in a tragic accident in 2000.

If you have a great holiday, never go back. One time, Eimer and I went on an impromptu holiday in Dinard, at a hotel with a restaurant that had a Michelin star and we were there at a package price. It was absolutely sensational. About 30 years later we were close by and said we would go to dinner there. It was like a prison. There was no restaurant, just a B&B. Don't go back; remember the holiday and freeze it.

In any argument about politics, try to recognise early if the other person is not open to persuasion. When I was in America on a tour for my book on de Valera, I met some Irish-Americans who were interested in Northern Ireland, but arguing with them about the subtleties of it is generally a waste of time. Know when to close it down, agree to differ and say "every man to his own opinion".

Don't confuse your own preferences with your duty to be fair. I have views of my own, of course, but I don't much discuss them, because I think it's quite important in broadcasting not to talk about your own views.

Learn how to concentrate; isolate yourself and tell the world you're not for interrupting. I write pretty well all day, I might stop at about 10pm, and then I would catch up with the newspapers or the broadcast. I try to cut myself off during the day and know I'm going to be in the 1920s for seven hours, it's a wonderful experience.

Browse in a library; occasionally stray away from the subject you're researching. When I was working on my latest book, I was particularly fond of material that I think hasn't been seen before. I love working in archives and I love finding needles in haystacks, that excites me.

What's been lost in journalism is the unimportance of the journalist. I think journalists and broadcasters ought to be like a good referee in a match. If the referee is invisible and the match is good, then the referee has done a brilliant job. I think that journalists increasingly are becoming more important than the story they are covering.

If you are to be highly regarded, you need to be highly regarded because of the work you do. Not because of any sort of fame, which I think is a false, flashy, shallow currency. When I do a book I'll do interviews, but I generally don't do interviews - let the work speak for itself.

Listen to your critics, they usually have a point. And be your own toughest critic. Don't look for what went right in a project; ask how it could be improved next time.

I have three glasses of wine every night of my life, and I never drink anything else. I don't like the effect of alcohol, I just love wine. I think wine is one of these subjects where life is too short to learn everything about it, but I have learned that it's worth buying quality and paying the premium.

I think where a parent discovers that one of the children shares an interest with them, and perhaps not with the wider family, you bond in a totally different way. It's a terrific experience. Daniel introduced me to Manchester United around 2000, and we went to see a match together in Birmingham.

One of the phrases people use about loss that I think is probably wrong is, "You'll get over it". Not only do you not get over it, you don't want to get over it. It becomes part of the furniture, and part of your life story. To get over it means almost to forget it. But at the same time, life does go on, and there are times when I am a bit cross with Jonathan for allowing himself to be so vulnerable that he couldn't save himself. He had taken too much to drink, fell into a glass door and cut his forehead and he was not able to use his phone and save himself.

Never be offended if you overhear a negative comment about yourself if it wasn't intended for your ears. I learned that as a teenager, I must have been all of 15 at the time, and I thought I had a girlfriend. When I phoned her, I got a crossed line, and she was talking to another fellow. I put down the phone - I didn't want to snoop - but she said something about me which didn't please me, about how she didn't much care for me. I decided at that moment that those words were not intended for my ears, so not to take offence.

Ignore the latest fashion: always wear what you yourself find comfortable. I was never concerned with fashions. I never bought a double-breasted suit, I think they're absolutely terrible, they just imprison people. Linen is underused by men; I wear linen all year round, I find it so comfortable and I don't much care if it looks a bit crumpled. OK, so it creases fairly quickly; men might ask: "Did he sleep in that suit last night?" But women understand linen.

I think age is a number. I'm with Brian O'Driscoll on that. If you still want to do it and they still want you to do it, then do. There are lots of things I still want to do, a number of history projects and documentaries, but I'm quite a believer in not talking about future work, just do it.

'Ireland: The Autobiography', published by Penguin at €25, is out now

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