Sunday 30 December 2012
I first met Doug Hamilton in 1997, when we covered a Bosnia peace conference together outside Bonn. I was a young former trainee. He was already a veteran with a formidable reputation. As we struggled to craft a story from a cloud of diplomatic fuzz and our deadline drew nearer, Doug suddenly announced: “Time to walk up and down and smoke a cigar.” He promptly left the press room and did exactly that, then returned to knock out a polished lead that made sense of the day’s pronouncements.
That was Doug. Unorthodox, humorous, incredibly good at his job - and always with a touch of class. His death will no doubt prompt people to single out stories of his that they particularly enjoyed. But when I think of him now, I don’t think of stories: I think of the broad mischievous grin spread across his tanned face.
Years later, with impeccable timing, Reuters created a reporting hub in the Balkans just as peace was breaking out. Doug was appointed a special correspondent in Belgrade, where I was bureau chief. Nominally, this meant I was his boss. But I knew that no one was ever really Doug’s boss and certain allowances were made to reflect his status. These included letting him keep a parrot in his office - even though the bird’s cheeping meant calls from a major global news organisation sometimes sounded like they came from a rural hedgerow.
We got along extremely well. To use the patois of our homeland, we liked a good blether. We would eat lunch in the restaurant along the corridor from the office, discussing life’s injustices and absurdities, many of which we felt could be blamed squarely on Reuters management. Doug was the perfect dining companion - intelligent, engaging, passionate and funny. He was also a terrific colleague, a mentor who improved every piece he edited and would quietly advise against filing a story that just wasn’t good enough.
He did, of course, have a large ego. More than once he had to move because another Reuters big gun was sent onto his turf and the bureau was not big enough for both of them. But his ego was matched by his ability. His withering emails to managers were more eloquent than most correspondents’ finest stories. Not just every word but every syllable seemed perfectly weighted. He said his time in radio had taught him how to write. I think it had more to do with sheer talent.
He had his black moods, too, which reminded me of a famous fictional character also from the Kingdom of Fife. I may even have prevailed on Doug to read one or two of Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus novels. If he did, I’m sure he didn’t much care for them. He devoured serious literature and non-fiction. Almost every one of his sentences oozed with the richness of language and knowledge he had absorbed.
He seemed to detest mediocrity more than almost anything else. Rightly, he felt it afflicted far too much of the output of a company that did not make full use of his talents. His literary pastiches (an Olympic synchronised swimming report in the style of Henry James springs to mind) and outspoken attacks on imperialism, spin and hypocrisy were not easily accommodated inside the Reuters framework. I always thought he would have made a fabulous newspaper columnist and roving correspondent. It was Reuters’ great good fortune that he never pursued that option.
I last saw Doug in 2006 in Belgrade, where he had taken over as bureau chief and I had returned to help cover the funeral of Slobodan Milosevic. I wrote the main stories from the bureau while Doug reported in from Milosevic’s home town. When he returned, he looked over my final story. This time he didn’t walk up and down and smoke a cigar. He just sat at the computer and quickly wrote a polished new version that interwove his experience of covering the Balkans over a decade and a half with the atmosphere of the funeral. Then we went in search of a good dinner.
When I flew into Belgrade that time, he didn’t send a driver to the airport. He came to collect me personally. I can see him now, looking like a Cold War spy, wearing a long black leather coat, leaning against a pillar. With that grin spread across his face. ■