Anne Hailes: Escapism with Frank Delaney, the most eloquent man in the world

The late Irish journalist, broadcaster and author Frank Delaney

I HAVE used a lot of my lockdown time reading and watching films on my invaluable little iPad, thank goodness for this technology and for the likes of WhatsApp – it has been a blessing to see family faces as we talk – while the incoming news on Facebook is also vitally important.

With the exception of Normal People, bottom of my time-filler list has been television, and radio isn’t far behind. Now I have rediscovered books and despite the relaxation of social isolating I will still continue to read and turn my back on cheap, often violent television programmes. So, with my new regime, books are top of my list once again – like Burned by Sam McBride, the inside story of the ‘Cash for Ash Scandal and Northern Ireland’s Secretive New Elite’.

I had read about this tremendous book and it was on my back burner, so to speak. So, having time on my hands, I swiped the pages with incredulity.

Was this real or was Sam devising a blockbusting film script? Sadly the dishonesty, the deceit, the cheating and the incompetence are all there in black and white and, as the judges say on TV, the results are in and verified.

A detailed, complex story well told and easy to read. I recommend it. Sam puts a list of who’s who at the back and this is useful to keep tabs on some of the ignoble characters at Stormont.

The most eloquent man in the world

I wish I could tell Frank Delaney what I think of him. I can’t because sadly this man I called friend died in Connecticut in February 2017 at the age of 74.

Born in Tipperary, destined for a job in the bank, thank goodness he soon caught himself on and turned instead to a successful career as a broadcaster with RTÉ and the BBC, a prolific writer, a raconteur and a wit with a voice like honey.

He was also a kind man with a great insight into people and their lives and this has shown in his writing throughout his lifetime. I knew of his Legends Of The Celts, Betjeman Country and A Walk in the Dark Ages and, notably, Ireland.

Many will remember him as the presenter of Omnibus the BBC's weekly arts series, and of Poetry Please; he created the weekly Bookshelf programme for BBC Radio Four, interviewing over 1,400 authors.

His acclaimed 1987 BBC series The Celts examined the origins, growth and influence of Celtic culture in Great Britain and throughout Europe. It was broadcast in 40 countries and spawned a popular companion best-selling book.

I say all this as a preamble to the novel I have just finished. In Pearl, Nicholas awaits the arrival of his friend Antony at the Savoy Grill but Antony is late for their lunch – in fact, he doesn’t turn up at all. Nicholas orders a glass of Champagne. A successful architect, he enjoys his pleasures but he’s soon chilled when a package is delivered to the table; inside the box a silver knife – a brand new Stanley knife and a note: For You.

So begins an adventure

We meet a brilliant black international footballer known as the Black Pearl, we experience modern and horrific football hooliganism, enter the world of neo-Nazi terrible and traumatic events.

Frank has woven a thriller that is hard to put down. His attention of detail is remarkable – powerful descriptive writing – as he visits the village of Oradour-sur-Glane where in the First World War 642 of the locals, men, women and children were massacred by a German Waffen-SS company.

Although it’s Nicholas who is walking through the ruins, it’s obvious that the author also visited his village and was deeply moved by the events of 1944. His research is detailed and he certainly has a way with words.

I recall at the height of the Troubles, this man from the deep south with an accent to match, had to make his way from uneasy north Belfast back to Ormeau Avenue so he waved down an empty ‘out of service’ bus and talked the driver into bringing him into Belfast; not only did the driver oblige, he left Frank right to the front door of the BBC.

That was typical, he was a hard man to say ‘no’ to. He beguiled his way to opportunity and as a result he was one of the most successful broadcasters and writers to come out of Ireland at that time.

He left the UK in 2002 for America where he continued his career. One network broadcaster called him: “The most eloquent man in the world. We kept asking him back to talk about books, Ireland and even soccer because no-one could make more of a ceremony out of a sentence.”

His passion was James Joyce – so much so that on Joyce’s 125th birthday Frank walked through the New York streets, complete with a soap box, to Madison Square Park and stood atop it and read aloud from Ulysses! And he had a most appreciative audience.

Now I’ve discovered his fiction writings I will enjoy reading them during these unpredictable times when a little escapism is required – and why not with the most eloquent man in the world?

The highlight of last week was receiving a copy of The Diary of a Young Naturalist, the writings of 15-year-old Dara McAnulty, and next week I will be recalling the day I walked with this extraordinary young man in the Forest Park at Castle Archdale on the shores of Lough Erne.

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