Planting trees and drinking Armagnac in Arabia
Monday 17 February 2020
As a trainee journalist, I was very lucky to have landed in François Duriaud’s patch of Reuters’ vast, global cherry orchard. When I was posted to the Middle East headquarters in 1983, I was a sapling journalist, perhaps not the hardiest of my year of trainee intake. But François had room in his patch even for saplings requiring much nurturing. My path to becoming a Reuters “qualified journalist” might not have been as smooth without François’ enormous patience. I would also have missed the induction François gave me into l’art de vivre, especially les arts de la table, and specifically les plaisirs oenologiques, another field in which I required cultivation. The Gulf region is mainly dry, in both senses of the word. But for this stripling hack, Arabia was not so - not chez Duriaud.
François’ first words to me were about how the bureau had been looking forward to my arrival and was excited to have me there. He spoke with a straight face and a smile. I had no reason to doubt the genuineness of his words. Back in London, I am not sure many other seasoned, school-of-hard-knocks journalists would have said the same thing.
A man of many ideas, François suggested early in my stay that I write a story on stock markets in the Gulf region in an era when those markets were themselves mere saplings. At the time, I could not have recognised a share certificate from a SAT Score Report. With François’ guidance, I wrote the article. The piece was printed in newspapers around the world, including the International Herald Tribune and The Guardian. I say this without boastfulness. I could not have put it together without François’ inspiration and Stephen Fidler’s guidance. The success of that one article greatly raised my status, by which I mean, a few of my senior colleagues thought there might be hope for me yet. They put me to good use doing daily currency and other routine reports. The sapling started to sprout leaves.
Being in the company of the sharp, seasoned journalists Reuters selected for its regional editing centre in Bahrain was my good fortune. But the gap between their experience and skills on the one hand, and mine on the other, played on my propensity towards anxiety and I could feel jumpy at times. François’ presence, however, was always strangely calming. Even when I committed the misdemeanour of stupidity and François had to invite me to his office for a chat, I did not panic. His criticism was always constructive and fair. I resolved to do better. I learned from my mistakes without getting into a snit. Snits were implicitly frowned upon - worse than having to issue a correction of an article - especially if you were invited to his home for dinner, a very frequent and always enjoyable affair.
The home of François and Alak was one of the most wonderful I have encountered. Yes, it was a nice house, decorated tastefully. But what I remember most vividly was an atmosphere of calm, fun and a lovely electricity. François was very proud of Alak. You could tell, not through braggadocio, though boastfulness was appropriate under the circumstances, but by the extra bit of sparkle that appeared in François’ eyes whenever her name was mentioned. The same was true of Alak and her eyes, whenever François’ name was spoken, and when he was in the room.
Speaking of the pleasures of the table - we are after all discussing a Frenchman - François introduced me to “Armagnac”, a word I had never heard before. Despite enduring long workdays and a bad back, at the end of dinner, François always encouraged us to stay for another drink. I never heard him say a bad word about anyone. But François would not pass up a chance to listen to bits of gossip, provided they were not mean, or not too mean. I am prone to the odd indiscretion and may have spilled a bean or two while imbibing my nightcap. It was the least I could do. Thanks to François, I got to know a fair amount about digestifs, as well as aperitifs while I was in Bahrain.
Towards the end of my year in Bahrain, François asked me what I would like to do next. I said Beirut. Of course, for a journalist, a posting to a war zone is not a sign that the boss wants to get rid of you. It is a promotion and an opportunity. My status among fellow trainees rose.
Elsewhere in the world, the visit of the big boss to a regional outpost is a time for tidying up the office, plotting personal agendas, perhaps taking a holiday. François’ visits to Beirut were no such thing. They were special occasions. No one cowered in the back office where we kept a VDU and a sofa for when it was too dangerous for the late-shift staff to go home. The only thing François absolutely insisted upon was that we leave the office in time to have dinner with him and the crew.
Time passed. The sapling me eventually grew up. I am not sure I developed into the sort of cherry tree François deserved. I am not even sure whether I am any species of cherry, or what sort of fruit I am. Let others keep their opinions to themselves, because we are speaking now of François Duriaud. In the orchard of François’ magnanimous life, he had room for all kinds of trees, cherry or non-cherry. He understood that flaws, while not exactly useful in the newsroom, were some of the things that made us human beings.
The only thing we know with certainty about the afterlife is that once the body ceases to function, the memories of us survive in the hearts and minds of those we leave behind. Reflecting on François’ passing makes me sad. But remembering François fills me with quiet, tender joy, and pride, to have landed in his orchard, and to be able to call him my mentor and friend. What a fine orchard keeper, journalist, dispenser of Armagnac wisdom, host, bon vivant, mentor, manager, person and friend François Duriaud proved to be. François had an aura. Correction: has an aura. As I write these words, surrounding me are the warm, vibrant shades and colours of his presence, the aura of François Duriaud. ■