Lionel Walsh - The lights of Paris
Friday 11 October 2019
In December 1981, as chief correspondent in Moscow, I had a call from what was then Staff Department (the awful American management term "Human Resources" had not yet come) offering me the chief correspondent's post in Paris. "What is Lionel doing then?" I asked. "Oh, he is moving on," was the not very informative reply.
I had only briefly met Lionel at an editorial conference in Bonn some months earlier, but I knew that he was one of Reuters' most highly-respected correspondents.
So it seemed odd that he, with his deep knowledge of the French political scene, would be "moving on" just weeks before presidential and National Assembly elections set for the spring that looked likely to put the left in power for the first time in 20 years. So I called him to find out why he was leaving.
"That's right, I'm getting another posting, back to London" he said, with not a hint of bitterness or resentment - which he would have surely been entitled to feel on being turfed out of a job and a city he loved to be replaced by someone whose only experience of France was a week-long school trip 25 years before. Nor did he even imply that he was not was leaving Paris willingly (for details on that see Bernie Edinger's appreciation Lionel Walsh: One of the kindest people I have ever known). "You and your wife must come over here for a few days before I go to get a feel for the place. I'll arrange a hotel or something,” Lionel told me. In London, they agreed that this would be a good idea.
When my wife and I arrived in Paris late on a freezing Friday evening in mid-January, Lionel was waiting at the airport. "If it's OK," he said, "I thought you’d like to come and stay with us for the weekend. You can go to the hotel on Sunday."
It was quite a long drive to the very unfashionable suburb where he and his wife Veronika lived, in a very small apartment. I think that for us they moved out of their own bedroom into a box room, although they never said. His secretary, whom I inherited, later, told me he had chosen to live so far out - the journey into the office took him well over an hour, more in the evening - because he felt he could not justify having Reuters pay for more expensive accommodation nearer work.
Over that weekend, Veronika kept us wined and dined while briefing my wife about schools and life in Paris in general while Lionel filled me in on the bureau, its personalities (there were plenty of those), the way it operated and its news sources. "Paris is a great city, and it's a great time for you to come here, old boy," he said - he was eight years older than me. “The elections will be a great story to get you up and running." And still there was never a suggestion that he might be jealous or resentful of the fact that it would be me covering the story and not him.
But on Sunday night when he and Veronika took us back into Paris to the hotel, there was more than a trace of sadness in his voice as we drove along the right bank of the Seine and saw the Christmas lights - they like to leave them up late in France - glimmering along the Rue de Rivoli across the river. "Just look at that, isn't it magic?" he said with a sigh. "I think I'll be back."
He was, and quite quickly, and not for Reuters. But that's another story. ■