David Cemlyn-Jones, Reuters reluctant hero
Saturday 23 September 2023
I first met David Cemlyn-Jones (photo), who died in July, when I took up a posting in 1974 as Reuters correspondent in Lisbon to cover the Portuguese Revolution. The first provisional government had just collapsed and the obscure new prime minister was said to be a crypto-communist - or perhaps not. David, manning the office temporarily, told me he had to hurry for the night train back home to Madrid, and would leave the interpretive wrap-up to me.
From this first encounter, I gained the impression this was not a journalist seeking out top world stories to make his name. Yet the top stories found him, and he acquitted himself entirely honourably. Soon he was back with me in Lisbon with the Revolution still seething. Then he moved on to Rio de Janeiro, where he swam with piranhas in the Amazon.
At the outbreak of the Falklands (Malvinas) war in 1982, Reuters withdrew British staff for their safety, leaving Irishman David and Frenchman François Raitberger to report from Argentina. When Argentinians took him to task on the street for speaking English, he would protest that as an Irishman, bushy red beard and all, he had no love for the English. Whereupon he was celebrated as a kindred spirit.
From there he moved to Mexico City, where early one morning he found himself in the Reuters office on the tenth floor of a skyscraper which started groaning and swaying violently. David had another top story on his hands - how it feels in a violent earthquake. He stumbled cautiously down the tottering stairway, and as he headed for the front door, the janitor pulled him back. At that moment a cascade of glass windows came smashing down just outside.
As he confided later, David was spending the night in the office because after a long evening of drinking he was wary of heading home for a scolding by his wife Ana, a small, beautiful and fiery Basque. During this posting, he also survived a shooting at El Salvador’s airport and violence in Haiti, ending his Reuters career more calmly in Nairobi as chief sub-editor, Africa Desk.
David was self-deprecating, yet a great socialiser. One day in Lisbon, my Portuguese cleaner appeared with an encrusted bottle of port with 1815 handwritten on the label. It came from the cellar of a wealthy Portuguese family whose home she was helping to close before they fled the Revolution to Brazil. The only way to test the veracity of the vintage was crack open the bottle and down the contents. At the end, we were still not sure if it really was 1815. Hardly, you might say, but as Portugal was a backwater lost in time before the Revolution, you never quite knew.
I have fond memories of David and Ana relaxing with my wife and me on our balcony in Lisbon as our two-year-old daughters ran gleefully back and forth. In our last phone call, he told me he was prematurely ageing. But according to Ana, in retirement in Spain he was still playing golf, swimming and frequenting a male Sociedad where men gathered to cook, drink and talk. He died at 81. As Ana put it, he had a natural gift for living. ■