Entertainment Books

Wednesday 14 November 2018

wise old bird of the newspaper jungle

Veteran journalist James Downey's memoir is an elegant, fascinating read, writes Booker Prize-winner John Banville

In Sumatra it is said that when the tiger dies the other animals of the jungle set up a great lamentation in which even the jackals join. Behind the clamour, though, there can still be faintly heard, for those with ears to hear, the voices of wise old birds who sing as they always did and always will, and whose music in time calms and quells the loud sorrowings of the others. Read James Downey's wonderful memoir, and hearken.

Downey is well known to readers of this newspaper for his weekly political column. It is superfluous to say that he is one of this country's finest journalists. Born in Dromohair, Co Leitrim, the son of a schoolmaster, he began his newspaper career in the early 1950s when his father wangled him a job, of sorts, with the Sligo Champion, mostly proof-reading the Donegal electoral register, which the Champion published. In time he went on to much more rewarding work with that fine paper the Carlow Nationalist, where he learned his trade -- along with, amongst others, Olivia O'Leary -- and developed an addiction to the mingled tang of ink and lead, the very essence of newspaper offices in the days before 'new technology'.

Many of us who lived through the 1950s in Ireland bemoan the stultifying social and intellectual atmosphere of the time, the general lack of opportunity, the awful poverty, the gloom; James Downey well remembers all these things, but he was luckier -- that is, more enterprising and more daring -- than most, and managed to some extent to slip by the constraints of the time.

He travelled, not only to London, the bright lights of which drew so many of us in those days, but farther and more adventurously afield, to Italy, to France, and to Spain where he spent six months as an English teacher.

From there he moved back to London, and after a somewhat bizarre spell as a bean-counter for ICI got a job with a truly bizarre organisation, the Express and Independent group, based in a 'ramshackle shed' in east London, where to his joy he "recognised the good old smell, ink and lead..."

He returned to Ireland in 1959, and was offered the job editing the Post, a new local weekly in Dun Laoghaire; he lasted, he tells us, only 10 weeks before getting the sack. About this he is sanguine, as he is about many, though not all, of the misfortunes that befell him in his professional life.

Post-Post he did not want for work. The Irish Times had just started up the Sunday Review, where the legendary -- it is the only word -- Liam Mac Gabhann offered him casual spots.

This was his first encounter with the arcanum that was the Times, and certainly he can have had no inkling then of the tears and travails that awaited him years later in the Westmoreland Street warren. James Downey has always maintained a patrician mien, as befits the son of the village master who went on to tread the corridors of power in the pursuit of news, yet he is a traditional newspaperman to his inky fingertips.

"Although most of my work has taken me out of the streets and into the palaces of the mighty," he writes, "I remain at heart an old-time 'foot-in-the-door' reporter who would do anything compatible with decency and legality for a scoop."

And many a scoop he had over the years, not a few of them of the variety that come in glasses.

He is open about the role that alcohol played in the high old buccaneering days of journalism, recalling fondly, for instance, The Irish Times Club in Fleet Street where tired reptiles would gather in the early hours after the last edition had gone. As he says, the name suggests leather armchairs and the rich aroma of cigars and brandy, but the club was surely one of the grottiest drinking holes in the city, as anyone who survived the place will attest.

His account of the involved process by which he lost out the editorship of The Irish Times to Conor Brady in 1986 makes for painful reading. His bêtes noires in the affair are Douglas Gageby, the retiring editor, and the chairman, Major Tom McDowell. He was treated shabbily, and the wounds that he suffered then are still fresh. After months of vacillation and backstairs intrigue, Gageby one evening climbed on to a chair in the Times newsroom and announced Brady's appointment "into an astonished silence", adding, with a cruelty that was, one hopes, unintended: "Jim is being well looked after." With perfect Times timing, the announcement came on the evening of the annual Christmas party, an occasion of recrimination, fury and violence that has become the stuff of legend. Downey is admirably laconic: "Scuffles broke out. Nobody was hurt."

It was, for him, the end of a dream, and he is candid about the hurt it inflicted on him.

He does not languish. He grinds his axes merrily, and buries his hatchets with dispatch in the backs of his enemies' skulls, but he knows how fortunate he has been.

Of his Independent column he writes: "Short of editing a national newspaper, it is hard to think of anything more desirable for a journalist than occupying the most enviable slot in the top-selling paper on the best day of the week for readership."

He has access yet to the "palaces of the mighty" but still keeps a sharp eye on the street.

His memoir is fascinating, elegant, packed with incident and wonderfully entertaining, and just the thing the mourning jungle needs.

In My Own Time: Inside Irish Politics and Society by James Downey (Gill & Macmillan)

Irish Independent

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