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Lionel Walsh - The kindest cat

Some events are a blur, when they are remembered 40 years on, and many faces fade and disappear behind the mists of time. A few people - Lionel Walsh was one - etch themselves deeply into one’s memory. Our paths crossed relatively briefly in the mid to late 1970s, but I remember Lionel vividly and warmly for his principled stand on my behalf when it mattered, for his sense of fun when it didn’t, and for his infectious joy in a snappy phrase. He took others more seriously than he took himself.

In Spring 1975, Lionel (economics correspondent), and I (oil correspondent), travelled together from London - he for general news and I for RES - to report in Algeria on a meeting of OPEC oil ministers. Acting as ministerial sherpas, they were to lay the groundwork for OPEC’s first ever heads of states conference. A key issue for the oil exporter club was how to defend the real value of their oil revenues - boosted by the big jump in oil prices in 1973 - against galloping world inflation and dollar depreciation. The higher cost of goods bought from the West, partly due to OPEC’s oil price hikes, were eating away at oil exporters’ real incomes. Did all this mean that raising oil prices was self-defeating? The complex issues could be set out in a long Reuter daylead, but it was a lot harder to explain the conflicting forces at play in the audio reports of 30 seconds that the Reuter Radio service wanted us to file.

Lionel and I - cooperating more closely than our often warring editorial masters might have deemed healthy - struggled and juggled to formulate the message OPEC wanted to send out. “While the prices of western goods and services keep on rising, OPEC says it will to have to keep raising oil prices.” Accurate, but lacking impact. A beatific smile spread across Lionel’s face: “This is OPEC’s message to consumers: you freeze your prices and we’ll freeze ours.” We both used it with glee.

A year or so later, Lionel came to my London home for supper. As we talked while enjoying some wine and too much good food, we discovered that we both liked squash. Midnight was approaching. “Fancy a game?” I asked half in jest. “I’ve got a spare racket and a member’s key to the club.” Fifteen minutes later, we giggled and thrashed a little ball round a squash court into the early hours of the following day. I doubt Lionel ever lost his joy in mildly mad mischief.

In late 1978, RES London wanted me to act as RES Paris correspondent to bridge a three-month personnel gap. I made a flying visit to the Paris office to rent a suitable apartment for my wife and two very young daughters. After 24 hours of getting nowhere and just hours before my return flight, I was ready to refuse the posting. I had a coffee with Lionel, then Paris bureau chief.  Were there really no rental agencies or ads for Paris flats, as I was being told? Outraged, Lionel marched off to do battle on my behalf. I found my flat and took up the post. Much later, I realised I was a pawn in a turf war with Paris contesting London’s right to determine local RES staffing. Lionel must have known it would do him no favours with his local management, but standing up for a colleague mattered to him more. In his journalism and personally, Lionel never shrank back from writing or speaking truth to power. ■