You've Just Got To Keep On Keeping On
Created by Tony 9 months ago
I have read and watched and scrolled through so many words in the last 24 hours. All of them say the same: 'He was one of the good guys'. I found those words both fantastic and sad. Fantastic because my friend James certainly was but of course, sad, because it seems so rare, especially when talking of politics.
Much of the obituaries, of course, focus on James the public man. I am truly blessed to have met him when nothing mattered and before government life.
Almost 32 years ago to the day of James's death, I walked under the steps of Devonshire House on Exeter University's campus and into the student radio station (URE) and a big smile and warm handshake greeted me. It was never any different.
That was James.
He asked me what I wanted to do and I told him 'everything'. He told me that he fronted a travel show on a Wednesday night. I informed him I had been to Peru and Colombia and had just returned from being a campsite courier for Canvas Holidays in France! Would I like to do the show with him? Frankly, I was stunned that a student radio station had an audio equivalent of the Holiday programme. I suspect he couldn't believe it when I said I would love to. Normally, you either wanted to be a DJ or read the news.
Within hours, we were recording. He knew on instinct that I could broadcast and I knew he was going to be my mentor. I was clear that I wanted a career in radio and it makes me smile over the years when people claim to have 'discovered you'. The truth is that title belongs with James. Together with our dear friend Nick Thatcher, the three of us were - not quite inseparable - but as close as you could get.
One thing that I would add about that time is this: everybody who walks through the doors of our student station understands legacy and of passing it on to the next generation. There were some incredible people and broadcasters in my year alone, let alone its entire history. Every senior passes on that legacy anecdotally. James was my story-teller.
And by the way, if he had chosen that path, he would have made a top broadcasting job like the Today Programme his own, without a doubt. He knew everything about LBC and was a phenomenal talent on air who loved nothing better than broadcasting with three different people talking in his ear. His calmness thrived in the perceived chaos.
Always confident but with it friendly, he showed me that you could be driven without driving everyone else off the road. Manners, he had a plenty.
Frequently, he told me stuff that I didn't want to hear but he did so as a friend in a way only the best friends do. As the years passed, and I based myself in the North with James working in London or Northern Ireland, he was the only go to person when I was seeking the hardest advice - the stuff that I didn't really want to hear but needed to. That is a special love. In both directions - that I could ask and that he could give. We used to joke when James would ring at 2200. 'Who is ringing now?' 'Oh, it's the Home Office!'
But before all of that happened, I shared New Years Eves on his kitchen floor, he and I retreated to his parents' cottage in Cornwall when England were beating the West Indies in 1990 (?) in the Caribbean. I remember being in his car when we first heard Del Amitri's 'Nothing Ever Happens' and both of us being transfixed. Those moments when you share a song with somebody for the first time - nobody can take those back or deny you them.
I am lucky enough to have just me and James moments like those - and of course, there are plenty.
For Christmas 1989, I bought James the book of Michael Palin's Around The World in 80 Days. Neither of us had ever seen it because we were on the air at the same time the TV show went out. I hope Cathy still has the book somewhere. I bet James never read it! But I do know that he read what I wrote on the inside cover. I said that I hoped our friendship would go as far as Palin had on our travels.
I think it is fair to say we came good on the deal!
And you know - here is the thing. I have those me and James moments. Two people in a small radio studio breeds deep friendships or deep rivalry. We would just hang out for hours and hours. But friendships are also about the time you are not together. As James excelled in public life, I beamed from afar. I knew he was always there even if it had been a year or so. That is the mark of a person with integrity and with whom the bond was formed early. It runs deep and does not expire.
I messaged James on September 1st. He told me that he was 'still keeping upbeat' and 'you've got to keep on keeping on!' That is James for you.
I messaged again on September 29th and when he didn't reply, I think I knew. It really was that quick, I think.
But, I just want to say this. Rightly, there is an incredible outpouring at his death. I got lucky: in that message of September 1st and on previous occasions, I enacted a mantra that I had decided a few years ago when I hit that age when I started to lose friends. I told him while he was alive how proud I was of what he had achieved and how he carried himself, and that I loved him.
It really is important to get those words out in real time, not in after time. And that, apart from incredible amazing memories, is the only consolation I could take when I heard the news.
With love and respect