Journal Entry #13

NORFOLK, Conn.—A correspondent and later an editor named David Watts and I had—please note the tense—a friendship that stretched across the sky, it seems to me now. I treasured it and will say a few things about it here. It is the moment to do so.

I first met David when the late, quite great Far Eastern Economic Review sent me to Singapore in the autumn of 1981. I had gone out to Asia only months earlier, and this was my first time running a bureau. I was 31. A few weeks before my arrival, Singaporeans—immensely to their credit—had elected their first opposition MP in 16 years. Opposition MPs in the beautifully gardened police state tended to live, let’s say, busy lives. None lasted long in office. One could cover them honestly or the other way. For the small band of foreign correspondents then living in Singers, this was not a choice—not for me and not for David.

I say small band: This was long before Bloomberg News even existed—longer still before such organizations would send out hoards of people with no political consciousness whatever to tickle the stock market numbers, corporate results, bond prices, and other such fleetingly important things. When I arrived, there was David Watts (The Times, London), Jack Thompson (the BBC), Jack’s wife, Kathryn Davies (the FT), Giulio Pecora (ANSA, the Italian news agency), Dinah Claire Lee (Washington Post at this time), a UPI man (no slight but I forget his name) who seemed to have arrived shortly after Sir Stamford Raffles and kept a disheveled bureau in one of the famed hotel’s rooms, and a crew of Japanese correspondents. The Asahi Shimbun men, three of them, had an ever-silent bureau next door to mine and played a very great deal of golf. I always wondered who watered the palms.

I think that was it.

I envied my comrades. They were always flying off to Bangkok or Manila or Jakarta or some other news-generating place to file on spot events: Marcos in his final years, post–Khmer Rouge Indochina, East Timor. When they returned they would usually remark that Singapore was oppressive, O.K., but the telephones worked and you could safely drink the water. It drove me slightly crazy because Singapore did. They went, they saw, they filed. My lot was different. A Fareer man had one thing and one thing only to write about. I had tiny Singapore—“Eastern Europe with palm trees,” I used to call it, “except this may be unfair to Eastern Europe.” I had to get granular, as we would say now. I had to get dirt under my fingernails taking on topics these others would never consider. My greatest adventure was the 45-minute hop to Kuala Lumpur.

So far as I recall, all of us except for Jack, the Beeb man, went to a building called Marina House, just opposite my bureau in the very district that had elected the opposition MP before my arrival, to file via Reuters. There, the telex operators—I’m going back a long way, obviously—would take our typed copy, type it again, and transmit it.

David once told the story of a visiting correspondent who got his transmitted copy back and found the operator—English a second language for all of them—had left out a lot of punctuation. So he marked up all the errors and returned, asking that corrections be sent to his foreign desk toot sweet. Incorrect punctuation can, indeed, change one’s meaning, sometimes significantly. This may well have been the case.

Back again to Reuters the correspondent went a few hours later, as David related the tale, and the telex man handed him what he, the operator, considered the transmitted fixes. It was a page filled with something like this:

, . ; “ ,” — . . : ? . ,

And so on until the good old “endit.”

David died April 10th, in London, and I have just heard. Liver cancer, born with the quiet dignity that was always part of who he was. He was too young for this—72. This entry in Cú Chulainn is my very modest celebration of the man and how he was. When I press “send” to get it off to Clifford Tremblay, my masterful web manager up in Portland, Maine, I will copy Shizuko, David’s wife of 41 years. It was she who sent the news I awakened to in Manhattan just a few days ago. He is buried today, in Co Durham, adjacent to North Yorkshire in England’s northeast, from whence he came.

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I recall so many evenings with David and Shizuko, and some occasions when David and I were side by side covering the same event. I will have to leave all that unmanifest but in memory, where it belongs. He was good, I could see instantly—knowing and confident in ways I had not yet learned (and in some cases never did). At some passing “presser” I would be frantically scribbling some minister’s every word in a large school composition book—a scrawl to be deciphered later, 90 percent of it of no use. David had a tiny spiral notebook and simply listened, impassive as a man waiting for a bus. Every once in a while he would jot down what must have been a single word, then look back up. I was a touch in awe. I always felt green when reporting with David. I was the hick overdressed at the big-city dinner party.

That opposition MP was good copy for everyone—for David and the others on occasion, for me very steadily. His name was J.B. Jeyaretnam. He had a reputation as a political naïf, a clod, but I always found that mere propaganda put out by the government. He had principles and held to them—which in Singapore seemed naïve and cloddish, fair enough. I admired him, and we came to respect one another. I covered “Jeya” assiduously, recognizing that he had laid bare Singapore’s disgraceful façade of democratic process as Lee Kuan Yew’s people relentlessly harassed him. Thank God, I say now. I have nothing to regret all these years later, nothing to expunge from the clipping books, and not every correspondent can say this.

But it got me in trouble. A year and some into my tour I was expelled.

The day came to tell my colleagues what had befallen me, and I recall it vividly. I detested Singapore and what it stood for and worked as hard as I could to avoid depression and make the time pass. One Saturday the small band had chartered a fishing boat to sail out for the day to a group of islets called the Four Sisters. Dinah Lee and I were a couple then. It was a sad time. I wanted out of Singapore like nobody’s business, but at the end of a proper tour. My expulsion was a disruptive blow in several ways, professional and personal. Together, Dinah and I decided I had to break the story, which was then some days old, and the how and when of it.

After a picnic lunch and a lot of wine, I drew myself up and asked everyone’s attention. As I delivered the news, I found myself choking up. I had not planned on that. It was only then I understood the sadness I felt. Our crowd was stunned and angry. David and Jack, in particular , drew especially close. (They both filed on the incident soon afterward, as did Dinah.) Some bond was forged that day. It stretched far and wide in years to come, but it never broke.

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I returned to the Fareer’s head office in Hong Kong. A year or so went by. Then The Times transferred David to Sydney, where he was Asia editor. More years went by, and David was transferred (back) to Tokyo. I left the Review—one of the larger mistakes of my professional life—and after intermediate stops joined the International Herald Tribune. (Maybe I carry a curse: It is gone now, too.) Within a year or so the Trib sent me to none other than Tokyo, where I was to open a new bureau.

David and Shizuko and I resumed things as if we had seen each other a few days earlier. I remember how well David received me in his sprawling bureau on a high floor of the Asahi building down near the Tsukiji fish market. The New York Times bureau was across the hall; while its correspondents and I were “cousins” by virtue of the Trib’s ownership structure, David’s open door made the Times’, which was but slightly ajar, seem all the less professional. (And was that ever a harbinger of coldness, resentment, envy, and eventually sabotage to come.)

Tokyo is vast, of course, and was busy at that time—late-1980s, the bubble period, the successive scandals in Kasumigaseki and Nagata-cho, Hirohito’s death, the post–Cold War political unraveling. David and Shizuko and I saw each other not so easily as in Singapore—a sandbox by comparison. They lived more or less suburbanly, while I was near the center of the city in an old geisha neighborhood called Kagurazaka. But we gathered from time to time, ever in good spirits.

One dinner party is worth remembering for a line David delivered. It was spontaneous but has stayed with me ever since. I share it from time to time.

We were a table of correspondents and a few exes (ex-correspondents, I mean, not departed spouses). Richard Nations (ex–Review) gave it with his other half, Siew Eng Koh, at their splendid apartment in Roppongi. David and Shizuko were there. So were Titiano Terzani, the late, monumentally self-regarding Italian who wrote for Der Spiegel, and his monumentally indulgent wife, Angela. There was a scholar named Steven Platzer, who was to help me a great deal later on. Possibly Philippe Pons, the long-serving Le Monde man in Japan.

In any event, the telephone rang, and David, having given his “where” to his foreign desk as all correspondents do, took a call from London. There had been some uptick in interest rates, or a minor change in cabinet personnel, or a turn in the Recruit scandal—I cannot recall, except that it was news of minor magnitude. I had no intention of filing to Paris, certainly. But David returned to the table and announced he had a late-night trip across town to the bureau ahead of him.

Don’t be ridiculous, Watts,” I remember saying in the spirit of all others present. “Tell them to take wires.”

David stood looking down at us, his hands holding the back of Shizuko’s chair.

There are two kinds of correspondents,” he said with his wry smile. “Paranoids and failures.”

With that, he went back to Tsukiji and filed.

That was David. Loyal to the profession by way of uncompromising performance. It is one of the things I admired most in him.

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I arrived in Tokyo toward the end of David’s tour, and in not so long he was back in London, rising on the foreign desk at The Times. Flip many pages of the calendar down, as in the old Hollywood movies. We saw each other, he and Shizuko and I, whenever I passed through London. Their two boys, Mark and Dominic, had been incommunicado as only small children can be when we first met in Singapore. I remember David picking me up once at their train stop in North London and driving me to their home for dinner. Mark and Dominic were… what?… late teens, early twenties?… with plenty to say about plenty of things. Solid young men.

After that, something weird. I returned to the States for good (once) in 1993 and (finally) in 2010. On both occasions I put my bags down to get my bearings in the Hudson Valley, the Rhinebeck–Kingston area, known as the “Mid–Hudson,” where my sister lives. Talking fonely to David once we wondered when we would see one another and how—idle chat. When I uttered “Rhinebeck” he perked up instantly. He had a lifelong enthusiasm for airplanes, and had just returned from the famous aerodrome—biplanes, stunt shows, conventions of aficionados, all that—just north of town. We’d been a couple of miles apart for several days.

I spent the Christmas season of 2009 in an apartment in Paris, rue des Cannettes. Christmas I was across the Channel with friends in London. I decided to organize a dinner for old friends of the hacking kind, and David and Shizuko swooped down from far-off North London to someplace not far from the Thames. (I was staying in Greenwich, the South Bank.) It was a long, splendid evening. David was either retired or about to assume said status, I cannot recall exactly. We were in touch afterward more than we had been for some time, partly because I had begun writing columns again and David helped me understand the doings in political London.

But that winter night six Christmases back was the last time I saw David, though hardly could I have imagined it would be. Except for one thing. When Shizuko wrote with the awful news last week, she sent a picture taken that evening, David and I arms around one another’s shoulders. “With fond memories,” Shizuko signed off.

Yes, many and many.

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Shizuko also sent the obit in The Times, published May 17th. It was very honorably done, making clear the exceptional regard David’s colleagues had for him. Times obits are peculiar to American readers in a not-at-all unattractive way. They tell the life first, and announce the death only at the end, and only briefly. There’s a certain dignity to it, I have found after reading them from time to time for decades.

David was one of those Englishmen who is modest and reserved nearly to a fault. (I say “nearly” because I wish I could master the attribute.) As such people are bound to do, they leave you to discover all manner of exploits, adventures, and accomplishments you knew nothing about during the years of your friendship. So it is with David. While young he had bluffed his way into a job as a waiter on Canadian Pacific Railways, sailed back to England on a catamaran, crossed he Asian landmass on the Trans–Siberian to teach English in Tokyo, found an English-language daily in Kobe called Kansai Action, and meet his future wife. Long later he was diplomatic correspondent—a highly elevated position in English-language journalism—and went on to manage The Times’ coverage of September 11th.

I knew little of his past prior to that autumn of 1981 when we met. It was as if I were meeting someone new, reading that obituary. Except that I knew David, and he was one of those people the knowing of whom never stops enriching one’s life.

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