In his office one day he pointed to a shelf, at a novel by Colm Toibin, who by then had made the move from journalism into widely acclaimed fiction.
Terrific writer, Aengus said, but he shook his head and claimed he didn't understand this urge to write books. You spend a year writing a novel, he said, and what -- maybe a few thousand people read it? How could that compare with writing in a Sunday newspaper that was read every week by a million people?
He was being mischievous, knowing I was writing a book at the time. Aengus Fanning's conversation -- maybe a quote from Kavanagh or an argument drawn from a history of European politics -- showed him to be more widely read than most of us. He once harboured thoughts of writing fiction. But at the centre of his working life there was a deep, consuming, uncomplicated love of newspapers.
Love of the splash that got everyone talking, love of the story, the fresh angle, the well-turned phrase. He took real pride in the fact that in a declining market, more than a quarter of a million people went out each week and bought the newspaper he put together -- and more than a million read it.
There's no shortage of those who would draw up a list of his failures and controversies -- and if Aengus was here he'd throw in one or two they forgot. But he'd also mention huge stories, like Joe Joyce and Don Buckley's Kerry Babies stunner, Sam Smyth's Greencore scoop, Liam Collins's tax evasion story that recouped hundreds of millions for the State -- and if Aengus was here he'd throw in quite a lot more.
For my own part, I was wary of him at first. Our politics and background in journalism were very different. When I talked to him about working for his paper he laid down one rule -- don't bore the reader. I asked a friend, what's he like to work for? A middle-of-the-road conservative, I was told, but with an anarchistic streak. "If Aengus gives his word, he keeps it." And that proved true.
Only once in over 20 years did he ask me to take anything out of a column. Near the beginning of this recession, he was going through a let's-be-positive phase (which he soon got over). There was a paragraph, he said, and he'd leave it in if I insisted (though, as editor, he didn't need my permission). But, "Ah, God it's terrible negative." For me, it was a paragraph not at all central to the piece, so I told him OK. What was notable was that the column was unrelentingly critical -- even vicious -- about a public figure who was a friend of Aengus's. He didn't seek to change a comma of that.
I never once heard him brag about his prowess as an editor. He trumpeted the paper, but mostly he credited others -- Anne Harris, Willie Kealy and the rest of the team. Otherwise, he affected to find the whole editorial success thing a mystery.
My favourite Aengus line was one he used with another newspaper editor who wanted to do some new things but was feeling cautious.
Go for it, Aengus advised. "What do you want them to say about you at your funeral? That he always kept within his budgets?"