I remember it as if it happened yesterday but it was in fact over 25 years ago. At the time David Keeling was the press officer at the British High Commission in Lagos. I was The Times correspondent and perhaps I should add it was my first job. This meant David was both a friend but also a minder. On this occasion I was in trouble with the Nigerian government. Worse still, I was probably in the wrong.
“Could you manage a cup of coffee with Merv tomorrow?” David made it sound like an invitation. Merv was Sir Mervyn Brown, the British High Commissioner. Charles Igoh, the Nigerian President’s press secretary, had complained about me and Merv wanted to sort things out.
I suppose my look betrayed my emotions or perhaps the colour drained from my face. Either way, David sensed my concern. “Would you like me to be there?” he asked and, before I replied, added, “I will be.”
I arrived at the High Commission promptly at eleven. David was in the reception. “Gauri [his wife] is expecting you for lunch,” he said. “She’s making that pud you like. Better you than me; I can’t stand it.” It was his gentle way of assuring me the world was not about to end.
Merv’s room was enormous. The walk from the door to the table seemed to last forever. As I crossed the carpet the British High Commissioner simply stood and waited. I could almost hear my heart pounding, it felt so loud.
David, of course, had realised this would happen. So as soon as we sat down he took over. Merv ordered coffee and that was David’s cue. He chatted, teased, offered cigarettes, encouraged me to accept, then joked about that before going on to relate a few more anecdotes. Half an hour later Merv had forgotten why he wanted to meet me. Instead David encouraged him to invite me to dinner, accepted on my behalf and then firmly guided me out of the door.
“There,” he said, as we approached my car. “That wasn’t so bad.”
Years later — back in London — David added a finishing touch. “Old Chief Igoh wanted to deport you. Merv felt he ought to write to your editor. I was certain a cup of High Commission coffee would do the trick!”
This was the first lesson David taught me. There are always better ways of making your point than doing so in anger. But hidden in that was a second. Never hesitate to come to a friend’s rescue. After all, what else are chums for? And whenever I tried to thank him he would brush it off and promptly change the subject. I feel sure there’s a lesson there too.
Roughly twenty years later, this time in Dehra Dun where David settled after retirement from the British foreign office, I came to stay in his very English cottage. David was at the platform when the train pulled in. He was leaning against a pillar, dressed in shorts and engrossed in a paperback.
“I wasn’t sure you’d find the way home,” he said when I asked why he’d come to the station. But we headed towards the President Hotel. There, waiting, was someone he had specially invited to lunch — Charlie Kandhari, my old Doon School geography master. David had arranged the perfect re-union.
Over the next three days I discovered David had a talent for collecting fascinating people. Not the well-cultivated bunch I closely stick to in Delhi but different, intelligent and, ultimately, interesting people. And with each of them he had a special relationship. For one he was a mentor, for another a companion, for a third a referee — but foremost he was a friend. In the evening over drinks, as the conversation would unfold, he would sit back and let it wash around him. Only if it threatened to flag would he add a remark or prod someone to tell a story. He was the spark that kept the flame alight.
Of all the lessons David taught me it’s his humour, his dry subtle wit, I most wish I could emulate. I labour my jokes. You can see them coming for a mile. David’s humour was very different. Unannounced, it stole upon you. When you least expected it a slight turn of phrase, a gentle twist to the ending, would have you in stitches.
I’d love to tell a joke the way David did. Alas, I never will. I’d love to shield a friend from a High Commissioner’s wrath. But I doubt I’ll have the courage. I’d love to sit down to dinner with a table full of fresh and challengingly different people. Unfortunately, I’m far too conventional.
David died last Saturday but he only took away his corporeal presence. The spirit of the man stayed behind with his friends. When next I sip a pink gin and savour the romance of the moment, I’ll know David is around me.
And if on that occasion I raise a silent toast, I bet a voice from above will reply, “Bottoms up, Old Chap!”