herald

Thursday 16 August 2018

My scrape with Samuel Beckett and a letter to the Pope

He summoned me down to his office once and I found him rummaging through a desk drawer that he was in the process of cleaning out, being barely a wet week in his job as Editor of the Irish Independent, just shortly after the Stardust disaster.

He threw me across an old memo to the paper's personnel department from a former managing editor about a young fella called Hopkins on a provincial paper who "was worth going after''.

Across the top Vincent 'Vinnie' Doyle had scrawled in his own inimitable handwriting "Never forget where you got the start ... Vinnie!''

I never have done.

And it was to be the start of what I considered a beautiful relationship with a man who taught me much more about newspapers than I ever imagined possible, and of a relationship that is imbued with stellar stories that could only have had their origins in a man who was, though small in stature, larger than life in this fractious world that is the relentless daily deadline.



Demanded

Though he shunned the limelight at the helm of the Indo -- he was effectively a shy man and only appeared on TV and radio twice during his 25 years as the paper's Editor -- in the newsroom he was master of all he surveyed. He demanded it.

Once he got me to buy the rights from the New York Times of a piece by Samuel Beckett on his 80th birthday, a piece I calculated would need two full broadsheet pages to carry it. The copy overran on press day and I demanded a third page.

"No way,'' he said. "I've got the Spring Show coming out my ears.''

"What'll I do with Beckett?''

"Cut him,'' he said, "that's what you're paid to do.''

So I duly cut Beckett and have lived with the shame of it ever since.

Vinnie knew the importance of being Beckett, but he also knew the Spring Show back then was right in his growing territory of emerging middle-class Ireland.

If you were able to ask him now if he had ever made a bad call, he probably would admit to that of taking on the weekly syndicated column of the musings of Pope Paul VI and giving it pride of place on Saturday's Comment page.

Six months on, market research showed nobody was reading the turgid prose, lost in translation.

"The Pope's gotta go,'' Vinnie told his inner sanctum of assistant editors.

"We know,'' we said collectively, "we told you so.''

"Yeah,'' he said, "problem is who's going to tell His Holiness?''

As far as I know Vinnie himself had to write that letter to the Vatican.

He was the man, the main man for 'noseing' the Front Page story, for the 'grab-'em-between-the-eyes' headline, and for giving his readers the light and shade of colour stories versus hard news.

In the days before it was truly fashionable, he understood the cult of celebrity whether it was Monroe or Diana or, indeed, the Pope.

Perhaps his greatest strength was that he managed to stay at the helm of the Indo for a quarter of a century and steer it always in the right direction, at a time when we were changing from a rural, Catholic ethos, into a modern, secular society -- and keep the circulation on course.

Vincent S. Doyle was the consummate newspaper man. Now his own deadline approached and he is gone.

Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.

Paul Hopkins is former Independent production editor, now working with the Belfast Telegraph

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