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David William Watts
8th October 1943 - 10th April 2016
On Friday 14th October, 2016, at 11am a service of thanksgiving for the life of David William Watts was held at St Bride's Church, Fleet Street.
The Revd Canon Dr Alison Joyce delivered the bidding:-
We are here to honour the memory, and to celebrate the life, of David Watts; a man who was not only one of the most distinguished, dedicated, and courageous foreign correspondents of our time, but also a loving and much-loved family man, colleague and friend.
As we celebrate his life today, we give thanks for his lifelong contribution as a skilled and incisive foreign-correspondent and editor; for the wisdom and insight, courage and dedication that he brought to his work. We remember a man whose innate humanity and compassion enabled him to report on brutality without becoming brutalized himself. And we remember his readiness to support and encourage young journalists in their work.
We give thanks for a loving and much loved husband, father, and family man; a man with a remarkable gift for friendship, making friends wherever he was. We remember a man with a lifelong passion for aircraft, and anything that travelled fast; a man who loved jazz; a man who loved life.
As we celebrate David's life today, we give thanks that the world was the richer for his presence within it, and our lives the richer for having known him.
In 1965, I left my job on the Cambridge Daily News, where I’d been a junior general reporter, for a new life in Darlington, County Durham. Not to put too fine a point on it, I was on the run.
I’d been going out with a young woman from the Cambridgeshire county set whose mother was becoming more and more insistent that we should get engaged. Luckily at that very moment, I read in World’s Press News that Darlington’s evening paper, The Northern Despatch, had a vacancy for a ‘reporter-stroke-drama critic’.
On my first day at the Despatch, I thought ‘What have I done?’ It was the sister evening paper of the morning Northern Echo, which was already nationally known thanks to its whizzkid young editor, Harold Evans.
The Despatch by contrast seemed to be a home for oddballs and misfits.
We were ruled over by a news editor named Dick Tarelli who every midday – the critical time for any evening paper – disappeared to the town’s Conservative Club to get sloshed.
The Despatch and Echo shared the same newsroom: by day, when we were there, it looked shabby and uninspiring but every evening, when the Echo staff came in, it seemed to light up excitingly like a theatre-stage.
Among my ill-assorted, weird new colleagues, however, I found one who was immediately sympathique - a curly haired, softly spoken fellow of my age who wore tight trousers and long winklepicker shoes and was then known as ‘Dave’ Watts.
On my previous two papers, I’d never made any real friends. My colleagues tended to dislike me for all sorts reasons, many of them no doubt quite valid.
With Dave Watts, everything about me seemed forgivable – even the fact that I came from the south.
A few days after we met, he invited me to go with him to a dance on the racecourse at Sedgefield – later to be Tony Blair’s constituency. His friend Guy Simpson – from the rival Middlesborough Evening Gazette – was helping to promote that night’s performers, The Truth, described as ‘the northeast’s best band after the Animals.
At the dance, I met a very nice girl and when it ended, David drove the two of us back to her house and parked a discreet distance away while we said a somewhat extended goodnight.
For the first time in two years as a journalist, I started to have fun. That’s why I remember the old Northern Despatch with such fondness – and why I’ll always remember David.
You all know how quiet and low-key David was – and also the subversive sense of humour that could bubble up at any moment.
On the Northern Despatch, it was mainly aimed at the hysterical regime of our news editor. Apart from beer, Dick Tarelli’s obsession was the daily gossip column called ‘Under the Town Clock’.
We were all meant to contribute what he called ‘Clock Notes’ but somehow the brunt always fell on David. He’d tell us how Tarelli had phoned that morning while he was still in bed, with an anguished cry of ‘Oh, Dave – there’s no CLOCK!’
As well as covering the unexciting news in the environs of Darlington, David was the Northern Despatch’s motoring correspondent and I was its drama critic. Though its news coverage barely extended outside its town limits, I started reviewing plays at theatres miles away – in places like Sunderland and even Richmond in Yorkshire.
Often David would drive me there in whatever car he happened to be road-testing. Once I remember we went to see a performance of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus at the Empire theatre, Sunderland in an enormous BMW. We might have been mistaken for boy millionaires until we stopped at a wayside chippie on the journey home.
Our most memorable jaunt came after I’d left the Despatch to work in the Northern Echo’s Newcastle-on-Tyne office. In December of 1965, the Beatles appeared at Newcastle City Hall on what turned out to be their last-ever UK tour. David and I managed to talk our way into their dressing-room and spent a good half –hour with them before being thrown out by Neil Aspinall, their roadie.
Our paths diverged when I joined The Sunday Times and David spent some eventful years travelling across America and Canada.
Then, as we know, he joined The Times, becoming correspondent in South-East Asia and Japan, covering historic events like the fall of the Marcos regime in the Philippines.
My novel, Everyone’s Gone to the Moon, was partly set on a paper modelled on the Northern Despatch, with David fictionalised as a reporter named Mike Finnis. Whenever the pretentious hero – modelled on myself – uses an exotic word like ‘sympathique’, Mike ‘makes a goggle eyed face as if the word is a solid object lodged in his windpipe.’
Then a few years ago, he and I and our mutual Darlington buddy, Guy Simpson were unexpectedly brought together again. Harry Evans published an autobiography in which he alluded to us rather patronisingly because of our passion for rock music as ‘The Music Juniors’.
The playwright Sean O’Casey once called the great P.G. Wodehouse ‘English Literature’s Performing Flea’, meaning it to be lethal putdown. But Wodehouse loved it and even used it as the title of his collected letters
In the same way, David, Guy and I started meeting for dinner regularly as the The Music Juniors. Half a century on, we found we got on just as well as in those long-ago days in Darlington.
Latterly, I was working on a biography of Paul McCartney. David helped me find a wonderful researcher in Tokyo to look into the events when McCartney was locked up there for nine days on drugs charges in 1980. And the prologue had to be when the two of us got into the Beatles’ dressing-room in Newcastle in 1965 – the only time, in fact, I’d ever interviewed McCartney face-to-face.
Then last year David sent his apologies that he couldn’t be at our next dinner because of what, in his low-key way, he called ‘some health problems’ He asked us to keep his seat for him and said he hoped to take it again soon. That wasn’t to be, alas.
But the remaining Music Juniors will still keep his seat for him And always raise a glass to a distinguished journalist. And an irreplaceable friend.
The journalist: thrusting, loud-mouthed, hard-drinking – a man who will stop at nothing for a good story and for whom the scoop is a bigger prize than the comfort of his family. This is the Hollywood image. This was not David.
David was, above all, a kind man. He did not rant or shout. He didn’t push himself forward. He was courteous, painstaking, conscientious, sober in dress, sober in his manner and, luckily, sober in the office. This is why I always hoped, when calling in from some unlikely city abroad with a rather unlikely story, that it would be David who would answer the phone. He listened. He knew immediately whether I had a good story or a dud. He told me what the interest was at home, what the editor wanted. He was, in every way, the ideal desk editor to produce the best from those in the field.
And he was kind. He always had a friendly word. He would make a mischievous joke, tell us when we had done well and let us down gently when he knew there wasn’t much interest in what we were offering. He could be forceful and speak his mind. Would we have respected him if he hadn’t? He put in long hours and never left until he was sure that everyone was clear how the news would be treated.
David was also a superb journalist. He could smell a good story across the continents. He proved, in many years as a foreign correspondent, that he knew how to do the job. During his stints in Tokyo, Singapore and the Far East, he gave the paper, day in, day out, those insights into the nations and societies he was covering: the mindset, the background explanations and the aspirations.
Often it was lively; sometimes it was dangerous. David covered the aftermath of the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia, where, at one point, he got lost in the jungle. It was three weeks before he was able to make contact with The Times, which was finally able to assure Shizuko that he was alive. He covered the fall of the Marcos regime in the Philippines. He was also sent to East Timor during the uprising against Indonesian military rule, and saw the military crackdown in 1979. Twenty years later, after independence, he witnessed the backlash from the Indonesian military and the desperate attempts to protect refugees inside the UN compound. He was one of the few western journalists to report the massacres of Timorese hiding in churches and their panicked attempts to board Australian planes. He spent several terrifying nights under fire, and travelled with the exhausted women and children who were packed into lorries and driven to safety.
And when he filed the stories, he told it through their eyes. There was no boasting of the dangers he had been in, no attempt to make himself the story – as happens all too often nowadays.
David had wanted to become a fighter pilot. He learnt to fly. But, sadly for him and thankfully for The Times, he failed the eye test. Maybe that’s why, for the rest of his life, he wore those big black heavy glasses. They looked intimidating – until you saw the friendly eyes behind them.
But if he couldn’t fly off to adventures overseas, he was determined to get there one way or another. He bluffed his way abroad the Canadian Pacific Railway, procuring a job as a waiter by claiming that he had once worked at the Savoy hotel in London. I hope at least he never spilled the soup – or the beans. He came home and then took off on the trans-Siberian railway to Japan – the beginning of a long association with Japan. He took a job as a teacher. He started an English-language newspaper in Kobe. He learnt Japanese. All by the age of 27.
He came home again after a while. Not the easy way, of course, on a plane, but overland by buses and trains through Pakistan and Iran. After a bit, the money ran out. David tried to sell his blood, but was told it was too thin. He made it back somehow – perhaps a little weary and anaemic, but got a job on The Times in 1972. And the rest, as they say, is history – certainly part of the paper’s history.
I knew David for more than 40 years. And after retirement, he helped out occasionally on the foreign desk – and sometimes, as a retiree, I would find myself pitching a story to David, another retiree. And he would listen, and tell me if there was any interest or my story was a dud… some things never change.
David wrote an acclaimed book on aviation in Bahrain. And he edited a magazine, Asian Affairs. His interest in world affairs never left him. Nor did his friendship with all his old colleagues. He used to come to the yearly December outing of the old Times’ lags to Messiah at the Albert Hall. He would meet up with former foreign correspondents in Japan – where the old stories would become more hilarious with each retelling.
In all his achievements, he had always the love and support of Shizuko. Like the wives of all journalists, she had to put up with odd hours, phone calls at all hours of the day – and night, in the case of Tokyo – and the incessant demands of a newspaper. But she was always there for him – never more so than during his bravely borne last illness. She deserves our thanks – and David our grateful and everlasting memory.
William Horsley read Corinthians 15: 50-58
50 Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; neither doth corruption inherit incorruption.
51 Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed,
52 In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.
53 For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality.
54 So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory.
55 O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?
56 The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law.
57 But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
58 Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye stedfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord.
Nicholas Baigent read Selections from David's writings
The choir & organist of St Bride's performed the following anthems and songs:-
O Taste and See - Vaughan Williams
Remember not, Lord, our offences - Purcell
Ave verum corpus - Mozart
O Magnum Mysterium - Poulenc
I am a Thousand Winds - Sen no Kaze ni natte
I got plenty of nuttin' - Oscar Peterson
Dear Lord And Father Of Mankind
There Is A Green Hill Far Away
He Who Would Valiant Be