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The Saddest Lines I Ever Wrote

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I imagine we all have that “special person”: the soul guide, the one whose love can’t be easily described, the one for whom our feelings run so deep it can be terrifying.

A year ago today, at just after 1015 on a beautiful sunny day in Edinburgh, I kissed mine for the last time. Afterwards I sat in Princes Street Gardens, in the city he and I both loved deeply, as the Festival madness erupted all around me, and I started to work on the saddest lines I ever wrote – his obituary. The details of his life are astounding enough even in this hugely compressed account. But what was missing was the details of his love – a love I felt from my very earliest days, a love that comforted me and held me up through all my fears and frustrations, successes and failures, a love that accompanied me and grew with me through my entire life. A love that I carry in my heart still.

NORMAN FENTON (1940 – 2012)

The television producer, director and investigative journalist Norman Fenton has died in Edinburgh after a short illness. He was 71.Norman was born and bred in Govan, Glasgow, the son of an Irish father and a Scottish mother. His early career as an alter boy disabused him of any interest in the Catholic Church or religion, but the world around him in Govan bred a life-long commitment to socialism and the Trades Union movement. Benefitting from the social mobility that the UK Labour party had made possible at that time, he read physics at Glasgow University and in 1961 became one of a select band of working-class trainees at the British Broadcasting Corporation. A career in local and network news, principally for Yorkshire Television, followed. During this period he met and married June Notman, a production assistant at the BBC. June shared his love of travel, politics, antiques and music and film until her death from motor neurone disease in 2004.

In 1974 Norman’s career really came into focus with his appointment as a producer/director first on the seminal current affairs tv series “This Week” and then on its replacement “TV Eye”. He embarked on a two decade long period of travel all over the world making films on topics as diverse as the Yorkshire Ripper; the Baader-Meinhof gang; the nuclear accidents at Five Mile Island and Cherynobl; and wars and civil conflicts from Guatemala to the Lebannon the Falklands. As Norman would later frequently lament, few then understood that this was the high-water mark of UK television current affairs programming.

His work frequently put him in personal danger. Filming in the Lebanon he and several other journalists were held down by sniper fire. Seeing a young journalist flee ill-advisedly for cover Norman dashed out, scooped her up over his shoulder and carried her to safety. In Buenos Aires covering the Falklands War in 1982 he and his crew were kidnapped by Argentinian naval intelligence. Upon release they were invited to dinner with President Galtieri, thereby obtaining the only interview he gave to the British media.

He had a gift for getting into the places few Western journalists could. During the Iranian Revolution he filmed and interviewed Ayatollah Khomeini, though was later held prisoner by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard whilst filming the Iran/Iraq war. Covertly entering the Lenin shipyards in Gdansk, Poland, he managed to film the entire Solidarity strike, which many believe heralded the end of the Cold War.

For Norman the starting point was always – what are ‘they’ not asking? He was relentless in his pursuit of the unasked question. On the 15th of February 1974 a trawler ship out of Hull, the Gaul, and its entire crew of 36 men were lost in the Arctic Sea. The UK authorities claimed that the wreck could not be found, quickly abandoning an investigation into its fate. However the families of the crew insisted that the trawler had in fact been spying on the Soviet Northern Fleet. Norman spent several years following the trail of the Gaul until finally in August 1997 the survey vessel he had chartered located it in 920 feet of water off the north coast of Norway. The film forced the UK government to reopen the investigation the following year, which sensationally confirmed that British fishing vessels had indeed been used to spy on the Soviets. More importantly to Norman, his discovery offered the families of the lost seamen some long overdue comfort.

In 1982 the US Navy missile destroyer, the USS Vincennes, shot down an Iranair passenger jet over the Persian Gulf. More innocent passengers died in that incident than were lost when Pan Am 103 was brought down over Lockerbie some months later. Norman made a BBC/US co-production film about that incident, becoming convinced that Libya were not involved in the Scottish disaster.

In 1984 he co-wrote with Jon Blair “The Biko Inquest”, a dramatised television account of the inquest in Pretoria into the murder of anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko while in police custody. Their play was later staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company in London with Ian McKellen as the Biko family lawyer, and subsequently broadcast by Channel 4 with Albert Finney playing the lead.

From 1984 onwards Norman worked as a freelance producer/director. Working for ITV, CBS, the BBC Channel 4 he made films about the “Gaul”, Afghanistan (“Kabul Autumn”), and the “The Sinking of the Scharnhorst”.

His numerous experiences of the world at its very worst never dimmed his love of life or people. He was a wonderful raconteur, drinking companion, and friend. His commitment to the working classes and the oppressed extended far beyond his work. He was National Chairman of the Association of Cinematograph Television and Allied Technicians during the 1970s, and bemoaned the death of the unions in TV and the rise of the ‘yuppie intern’ culture, twin forces he believed were largely responsible for the tidal wave of trivia and celebrity “news” that now dominates our screens. For him current affairs TV of late was all too often not about the ‘unasked questions’ but about ‘questions that were not worth asking, still less answering’.

His views are best summed up in this extract from one of his favourite pieces of political rhetoric – Jimmy Reid’s rectorial address to Glasgow University in 1972:

“All that is good in man’s heritage involves recognition of our common humanity, an unashamed acknowledgement that man is good by nature. Burns expressed it in a poem that technically was not his best, yet captured the spirit. In “Why should we idly waste our prime…”:

“The golden age, we’ll then revive, each man shall be a brother,
In harmony we all shall live and till the earth together,
In virtue trained, enlightened youth shall move each fellow creature,
And time shall surely prove the truth that man is good by nature.”

It’s my belief that all the factors to make a practical reality of such a world are maturing now. I would like to think that our generation took mankind some way along the road towards this goal. It’s a goal worth fighting for.”

Norman died in Edinburgh one week to the day after travelling home to Scotland. He greeted his death as he had lived his life – with curiosity, humour, and a great deal of compassion for those around him.

 

In My Uncle’s Study

Norman

Exactly a year ago today I held my beloved Norman as he told me he was dying. Two weeks later I kissed him goodbye for the last time. I will always be grateful for that two weeks I had with him; for the love we shared. About a year before that I wrote the post below in Purity’s blog and shared it with him. Though we had been incredibly close my whole life, being Scots we rarely talked very openly of what we felt for each other. We did after I posted this. And we did those two weeks. And I am thankful to this day we did, for no one should die without knowing how very very much they were loved.

——–

One of the nicest things about getting older is reconnecting with things from one’s younger days: memories swirling as the trigger (a song, a smell, the feel of some material) rushes you backwards and forwards through time; remembering who you were, who you imagined you would be; contemplating who you are and who you hope to be.

I had an aunt and uncle, my windows on the world. They were glamorous and well travelled: both worked in TV. We would stay with them for a few days every year, their house a treasure trove of ideas, music, imagery. They were everything I wished to be. Where my parents filled us with strong tea laced with vast quantities of sugar, they offered coffee, no sugar. Not instant coffee. Real coffee. From beans ground in front of us kids, who until then had been wildly oblivious to the idea that coffee ‘came’ from anywhere apart from a jar. They had cheeses that bore no relationship to the disgusting bright orange sweaty chunks of stuff that passed for cheese in our house. They served bread that came in large chunks torn from loaves that came whole, not pre-sliced, and that had (shock!) both texture and taste – so unlike our own dear ‘pan loaf’ in its plastic wrapper, as wilted and pale and badly nourished as a Scots kid in winter in the 70s. Their shelves were filled with books, with authors whose names clearly signified otherness. Well worn Penguin paperbacks sat side by side with exotic looking books about art, music, books not even written in English. I was a kid shyly ecstatic in a sweet shop of ideas, of possibilities.

I slept on a camp bed in my uncle’s study, surrounded by things and ideas that kept me up night after night, quietly uncovering a world I could never have imagined. My uncle made documentary films, work that took him from Soviet Russia to apartheid South Africa to Chile. If downstairs was the world of beauty, of pleasure, of delight, his study upstairs was the world of of life’s cruelty and pain and suffering. In scraps of scripts for his films, in piles of newspaper clippings and photographs, letters written in unfamiliar forms, the realities of so many of the world’s population came alive to me for the first time. At first as I secretly explored this world I was horrified; suddenly my gray world of sweaty cheese and wilted white ‘bread’ was a haven when contrasted the townships of Soweto, the Samizdat cellars of Moscow, the football stadiums of Chile. But as I explored further, another story emerged. A story of resistance, of the power of beauty to help us face those horrors, of the incredible strengths that lurk within all of us.I don’t know if my aunt and uncle knew what was happening to their naive provincial niece. They did however help me navigate this strange and scary journey with their willingness to answer questions, to talk. For the first time I learnt that asking questions was alright. For the first time I learnt that thinking, having ideas, defending them, was not just an irritating habit but a requirement for life, for passing into adulthood, and in some instances, for survival itself.

I also learnt in those early years that whilst a beautiful mind and spirit may not always triumph (the stories of Victor Jara and Steve Biko come to mind), knowing that they do exist makes it possible to at least look into the face of pain and see the possibility of hope. And nothing and no-one represented that to the young me more than the voice discovered downstairs in the haven that was my aunt and uncle’s record collection. Miriam Makeba. Mama Africa.

I wasn’t much older than my eldest son is now when this happened. And today I look at him, and wonder when and how he will make his journey. He knows full well that coffee comes from beans, he’s ground them often enough for me. He smells fresh baked bread every morning, lives surrounded by books and ideas and music. And yet, like me, he still has to take this other journey, to Conrad’s ‘heart of darkness’ yes but hopefully beyond too.

My aunt died some years ago, but my uncle lives still in that house. I think it’s time my son spent a few nights in his great uncle’s study.

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