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Anne Harris: His heart defined him, and he died at his post, where he wanted to die


SOLEMN THOUGHT: Anne Harris, deputy editor of the 'Sunday Independent', lays a hand on the coffin of her late husband, Aengus Fanning, on Friday, with Charles Lysaght, and Dion and Evan Fanning in background. Photo: David Conachy

SOLEMN THOUGHT: Anne Harris, deputy editor of the 'Sunday Independent', lays a hand on the coffin of her late husband, Aengus Fanning, on Friday, with Charles Lysaght, and Dion and Evan Fanning in background. Photo: David Conachy

SOLEMN THOUGHT: Anne Harris, deputy editor of the 'Sunday Independent', lays a hand on the coffin of her late husband, Aengus Fanning, on Friday, with Charles Lysaght, and Dion and Evan Fanning in background. Photo: David Conachy

NOT long after Aengus took over the editor's seat, Kevin Kelly produced the first big Who's Who in Ireland. The entry on Aengus noted that he was "level-headed and energetic".

This was a source of some perplexity: "But I'm neurotic and lazy," he protested. This searing self-critique is the key to understanding the consummate hard-working editor. He was an advocate of Pope's maxim, "Know then thyself, presume not God to scan: the proper study of Mankind is Man".

But he was, as he would say, "in two minds" about the self-knowledge. He complained that the only time everybody agreed with him was when he criticised himself. This too was perplexing. Because you were never required to agree with him. That was the whole point of Aengus, as an editor, and as a man.

In a way, editorship was thrust upon him. There is no school for editors. Only the school of life. And he went to a good school. He started out with an embarrassment of riches -- the kind of riches the bright boy cultivates to transcend the dreary steeples of the provincial town.

An athlete, Gaelic footballer, Kerry minor and an accomplished clarinettist, his dreams were of the far pavilions of Lord's cricket ground. And the dazzling and self-destructive cornetist Bix Beiderbecke. Not surprisingly, as soon as he escaped to university, he chose the Artist's Way. He tried acting, which led to a life-time's love of performing and applause. His stint as a barman in the Queen's Elm, London, gave a lifetime's supply of anecdotes. He was particularly proud of the cunning plan he devised to make Kingsley Amis's gin and tonic sizzle. This involved filling the glass with ice and putting it in the freezer and waiting till Kingsley arrived promptly at noon. Kingsley loved the sound of the ice crackling, and Aengus loved that Kingsley loved it.

He chose the very opposite way to specialisation, the narrowness summed up by the Jamaican cricket writer CLR James, "What Do They Know of Cricket Who Only Cricket Know?" and he lived life red in tooth and claw. The kind of life you need to be a great surgeon, a great pastor. A great editor. Because he did not specialise in anything, he considered himself uneducated. This, besides being untrue, did not bother him. He was sceptical of all so-called knowledge. He applied the Socratic Method to a degree that would drive us to distraction at editorial conferences. "I'm only asking the question" was his constant refrain. And no point in responding "I'm only answering the question". Because he was ever alert for the conventional wisdom -- in order to slap it down.

Aengus's boredom threshold has been much commented upon. And much misunderstood. He hated what he called "the bleedin' obvious" and loved anything original, no matter how small or simple. He found women more interesting than men because he thought their minds more subtle. And his mind was subtle and lyrical. And he was proud of his feminine side.

His mind was brilliant. So brilliant he was content to make himself simple. He hid his smarts and allowed people to think they were smarter than he was. And some, the fools, did. Even his boredom interested him. Noting that 18th-Century Italian poet and philosopher Giacomo Leopardi believed that the cure was "suffering and sleep", he decided to raise the matter with Nelson Mandela in the context of Robben Island, when the great man came to Dublin to give an Independent lecture.

For Aengus, Mandela's response was one of the most profound paradoxes of experiential philosophy. "But I did not suffer," said Mandela. Buddhism, stoicism, realism -- Aengus knew there was a powerful, mysterious truth here. He would never say -- even think -- anything so obvious, but I think he absorbed it into his DNA where this philosophy certainly surfaced in the last nine months and led him to describe -- indeed, see -- his second home for the last nine months, Cedar Ward in St Vincent's Hospital, as "a place of love".

So what made him?

His core belief -- his only belief -- was Kant's "Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing is ever made". A cop-out of the idea of perfectibility? A truism? Anything but. The crooked timber haunted him. It led him to be the student of history he increasingly became in recent decades, to the exclusion of some of his earlier interests. The lessons of history had to be learned, so as not to be repeated and I suppose it was the reason he was so exercised -- and years ahead of everyone else -- by the rise of Frankfurt Rule. Armageddon was how he described much that was happening. But he was a realist. If it had to be Europe, then we should get the most out of it. And never, ever, shut the door on our nearest neighbours.

He had only one editorial agenda and that was never to give comfort to terrorists -- because of his passion for history, he saw terrorism as the chameleon with the power to re-invent itself with a

smiling face in cunning places. And he never weakened or wavered editorially.

He had interesting takes on the crooked timber too. It takes an honest man to admit he has told a lie, he would say.

He thought of himself as an agnostic, like his father, but he had far more of his mother's Northern Presbyterianism in him. He worked 52 Saturdays a year. From five o'clock onwards every Sunday, he tormented newsagents all over the country, checking to see how sales were going. He bought every torn copy so as not to short-change the reader. The reader came first and last, and was never to be short-changed. The musician in him made him respect the talent. The talent came first -- he filled the paper with the writers he respected and admired and he had scant regard for budgets.

His two personal favourites were Eoghan Harris and Gene Kerrigan. "Polar opposites," he would say with satisfaction. And on this he wasn't in two minds.

History drove him but his heart was what defined him. It was Churchillian in its size. It was huge. His proudest achievement was his three sons -- Dion, Evan and Stephen. He never went to sleep without telling them that he loved them.

Although Aengus was only a few years younger, Tony O'Reilly was the only father figure he acknowledged. He died at his post because he loved it and because Gavin O'Reilly, Joe Webb and Declan Carlyle gave him all the time he needed and were grateful for his sporadic bursts these last months.

And the team he built up -- Willie Kealy, Campbell Spray, Dave Conachy, John Greene, Fergus McDonnell, Nick Webb, Liam Collins, Jody Corcoran, John Drennan, Jim Cusack, Danny McConnell, Mary O'Sullivan, Jerome Reilly, Louise McBride, Barry Egan, Madeleine Keane, Brendan O'Connor, John Chambers, Tony Gavin, Gerry Mooney, Niamh Horan, Tony Tormey, Shane Fitzsimons, Willy Brennan, Ronald Quinlan, Maeve Sheehan, Gemma Fullam, Liadan Hynes, Andrea Byrne, Joanna Kiernan, Marie Crowe -- all unstintingly took up the slack. There were two other invisible members of Aengus's team, without whom the show would not have been kept on the road. Harry Allen who kept the finances in order and house- and life-keeper Eileen Cullen.

His post was where he wanted to die. As had his great friends and colleagues Alan Ruddock, Patricia Redlich, Jonathan Philbin Bowman and Veronica Guerin. They weren't all cricketers, but they all stood up and played the game.

I cannot, today, get the words of Francis Thompson's At Lord's out of my mind:

It is little I repair to the matches of the Southron folk,

Though my own red roses there may blow;

It is little I repair to the matches of the Southron folk,

Though the red roses crest the caps, I know.

For the field is full of shades as I near the shadowy coast,

And a ghostly batsman plays to the bowling of a ghost,

And I look through my tears on a soundless-clapping host

As the run-stealers flicker to and fro,

To and fro: --

O my Hornby and my Barlow long ago!

Sunday Independent