Lives Remembered

Neil Lambe: Goodbye my dear gentle, funny, shy, friend

I was late. We were meeting for lunch in a new bistro Neil had read good reviews of. It was 10 years or so into our friendship, and long before either of us had a mobile phone.

I don’t know why I was late, but I know it was long enough to arrive red-faced.

“Oh don’t worry about it, Marius,” said Neil, putting down his book and very deliberately stubbing out his cigarette: “I never expect you to be on time.”

I’ve been recalling many little moments from our deep and profound friendship since learning of Neil's death aged just 53 on January 24.

Ours was a friendship of special occasions, built around great conversations about the books and music and cultural trails we enjoyed together, always underscored by French food and fine wine.

Neil would set the agenda - “I think you would enjoy reading this”; “Would you like to go to the Ulster Hall – Barry Douglas is playing”; “There’s a new restaurant on the Dublin Road, all the BBC types are talking about it”.

Over the years we went to Dublin in June to follow in the footsteps of Leopold Bloom; we explored the dreaming spires of Oxford; Neil dragged me to a Rufus Wainwright concert; we ate gelato whilst listening to the roar of the Trevi fountain.

Neil knew how to be a friend: to accept another person warts and all. He never improved my time keeping, but like my many other faults, it was accepted.

He was always buying presents – a book, or a scarf, or a theatre ticket. Last year he sent me a parcel of ties: “I have too many I never wear," he wrote.

He was an excellent listener, always able to accompany, to support and just occasionally to challenge.

Neil was totally a family person and although professionally very successful when working in London, he always craved north Belfast and home.

He also cherished his team in the civil service and he delighted in his work drafting legislation.

He would explain in enormous and sometimes baffling detail the complexities of the acts he was working on.

Once I suggested that he might like to progress up the career ladder. He closed his eyes firmly and told me he couldn’t think of anything more awful than having to manage someone else.

No, he explained, he was quite content untangling knotty legal issues and dealing with foibles of whoever was currently “his minister”.

Whilst not personally ambitious, Neil nonetheless had a very passionate belief in the power and significance of law to transform society.

He was very absorbed in the work he did for gender recognition laws and perhaps his proudest moment was to see his legislation for civil partnerships enacted here in Northern Ireland ahead of the rest of the UK.

I have a very clear recollection of meeting Neil one spring day in 1984 in the school library when we were students at St Malachy's College. I had been sent to recruit a team of fundraisers for the college’s Trocaire campaign, and, by the time I asked Neil, I guess a few others had already declined.

When I approached and gave my pitch, he shrugged his shoulders, smiled with the insouciance of the Cheshire Cat, and said: “Why not?”

Goodbye dear friend, dear, gentle, funny, shy, friend.

I thank God for you, and your amazing talents and gifts.

Marius Carney

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