Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Duncan's natural gift for friendship

Like all of his many friends, I am going to really miss Duncan. He was always pleased to meet and chat, always keen to make new friends, always had something new and interesting to talk about, always ready to listen and discuss, always up for some fun.

When I left London in 2000, Duncan continued to meet up with friends that I had introduced him to. Friends who had become his friends.

Every so often I would get an excited phone call from my local, the Dartmouth Arms near Tufnell Park, where Duncan, Monty, Martyn and Kristiina would be watching a football match on TV and having a few pints. I loved the fact that they were all still seeing each other long after I had moved away. And I loved that fact that they had thought to call me at that moment and say hello.

I first met Duncan in about 1996 when he was a Reuters correspondent in Budapest. I was working on the TV show Reuters Reports and Duncan was one of the first Reuters text correspondents who really understood how to make good television. With help from his Hungarian producer friend Kriszta Fenyo, Duncan filed some great stories from Budapest - including one which caused a diplomatic incident.

The caretaker of one of Hungary's most important and historic castles (a venue for high-level European summits and other state occasions) had been making a little extra cash by renting out the opulent state rooms to an Italian producer of erotic films. Promising that the Reuters footage would never be shown in Hungary, Duncan and his crew were allowed to film the filming of the Italian's latest pornographic masterpiece as naked actors writhed around on the silk sofas beneath crystal chandeliers. The Reuters TV report included a memorable piece-to-camera from our man in Budapest - a rather shocked looking Duncan Shiels - with his eye-witness account of the scene.

By the time Reuters TV had fed the story around the world, forgetting the all-important caveat "No access Hungary", we were all in trouble......

A year or so later, on my last day at Reuters, I was leaving 200 Grays Inn Road for the last time when who did I see walking in but Duncan for his first day's work at Reuters in London. We recognized each other as we entered the rotating glass doors, me going out and Duncan coming in, and immediately swapped phone numbers so we could keep in touch.

Despite London's sheer size, distance never seemed to be an issue with Duncan. He would cycle long distances across town to see his friends. And cycle home again - sometimes a little wobbly - after a night out in a restaurant or pub.

Duncan became a regular guest at my Dad's house in Gloucestershire, where I would assemble a disparate group of friends for weekends of swimming, country walks, large meals, trips to the pub and tennis. Duncan was always the life and soul of the party, eager to make new friends and have fun but also keen to talk about real issues including, of course, football (especially when it concerned his beloved Nottingham Forest).

It was here that we first witnessed Duncan's extraordinary tennis serve -- a lighting-fast left-armed wind up that dispatched a tennis ball which arced very slowly across the net. It seemed an extraordinary amount of energy for so little sting but he never veered from this self-taught stroke and if you weren't ready to receive it, he got mighty annoyed.

In fact the only place I ever saw Duncan lose his temper (apart from pub quiz nights at the Dartmouth Arms in London, but that's another story) was on the tennis court. He was driven by a will to win which didn't account for opponents who didn't take the game as seriously as he did.

That is the Duncan I will remember - fun-loving, smart, friendly, competitive, intellectually curious, a man with the wide smile and a friendly, open face. A man who liked to joke whilst challenging you at the same time.
I wasn't really prepared when I saw him at University College Hospital, the day before they transferred him to Princess Alice Hospice. He was so thin and looked so tired. He could only hold his head up for short periods. He shyly admitted to being in pain and when the nurse came in to give him more drugs he made a point of introducing us to each other. His natural gift for friendship and the pleasure he received from connecting people never left him, even in those final days.

We talked about all the fun times we had spent together, the friends we had made and our serendipitous meeting at Reuters …. everything but his illness. He was very excited about his book coming out and he even talked about maybe moving back to London. He had had a call from the Frankfurt Book Fair that morning saying a publisher was interested in translating the book into Dutch. Five language versions so far.

He told me his friends had been brilliant, calling in from all over the world.

As I left, both of us knowing we wouldn't see each other again, he gave me his best smile and that piercing Duncan look that said "We're good friends, you and me."

I was happy to be Duncan's friend. I'm going to miss him.

-- Dan Thomas (thomas_dan@msn.com)


Blogger Dan Thomas said...

An upcoming trip to Budapest has got me thinking about Duncan once again and I was happy to re read this and other tributes more than 10 years later. I still miss Duncan. Thanks for keeping this site going and thanks to Martyn Bignold to sending me the link. I was thinking I might try and visit Duncan's tree in Budapest while I am there 2-5 October. Grateful for any suggestions as to where it is. Dan Thomas, New York 30 Sept 2017 thomas_dan@msn.com
+1 917 225 1913

1:42 AM  

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