by Victor Price
Anyone’s death leaves us with a feeling of loss. When it’s the death of someone as vital as Jimmy, and it happens so quickly, mere loss becomes something more brutal: a deprivation, a void which we fear may never be filled. And his death did come with disconcerting speed. I last saw him on 1st August 2006, at a meeting of the Ulster History Circle. He was his usual vigorous and amusing self but, surprisingly from a man who never complained, admitted that he had a pain in his side. Five weeks later he was dead.
I had an unusual relationship with him; we would not see each other for years, then suddenly find ourselves meeting. That went on for nearly sixty years. We both went to school at Methodist College, Belfast, but as he was a form behind me we didn’t really get to know each other until my post-Senior year, when we found ourselves together acting in the school play. The year was 1947, and the play was The Merchant Of Venice. Jimmy, if I remember rightly, played the Prince of Morocco – my lack of certainty stems from the fact that he had an identical twin, Billy, who was also in the cast. To this day I can’t be sure who played what. But if he did play the prince then I can boast that I was the one who got the girl: I was Bassanio, I chose the right casket.
It was only many years later that I got an inkling of the mysterious bond that unites identical twins. Jimmy told me of how he’d been able to offer informal comfort and insight to Lord Mountbatten’s nephew, who had lost a twin when the IRA blew up his uncle’s boat; he was one of the few people who could fully understand what the young man was going through. Later, at Jimmy’s funeral, his brother Billy spoke movingly of the intense emotions (which both felt but neither needed to put into words) right at the end of Jimmy’s life. All Jimmy said was: “The news is bad. In fact the worst possible.” Then, after a pause: “I don’t have a time-scale as yet.”
When we left school Jimmy and I embarked on that eccentrically parallel career I mentioned. We both taught; we both joined the BBC in Belfast. I went on to Radio Hong Kong, and then to the BBC World Service in London’s Bush House. One day in my office I had a telephone call from Jimmy; he had been appointed to set up and direct Radio Hong Kong’s new television service, he said; could I please give him the low-down on the station? I did just that, and like to think that my words of wisdom may have helped him. He certainly went to the top with great speed, becoming Director of what was now RTHK, namely Radio and Television Hong Kong, within three years.
The job turned out to be a valuable preparation for what was to come. RTHK was, and is, a department of the government of Hong Kong. When Jimmy went there the news and current affairs coverage was a government responsibility and the bureaucrats, living as they did in the enormous shadow of China, were reluctant to relinquish it. But Jimmy won them over; he demonstrated to their satisfaction that he would use the new freedom responsibly, in the interests of objective, accurate and fair-minded reporting. So when the BBC eventually called him home from the Far East to become Controller Northern Ireland he was well prepared.
Of course in Hong Kong he had only the government to cope with; but in Belfast adversaries assailed him from every side. The press, the media, the politicians, public opinion (informed or not as the case might be) on both sides of the Irish Sea, sniped at him. There was even more insidious opposition from within the BBC itself; a small minority of broadcasters would have ground a political axe if they’d got away with it, and even the Board of Governors – whose official role is purely supervisory – sometimes hankered after wresting editorial control from the professionals. Jimmy’s position was an exposed one; BBC practice was for Controller Northern Ireland to have the final say on whether a programme was likely to be inflammatory or not – a necessary state of affairs but one that puts the incumbent under heavy pressure. Jimmy felt that pressure particularly strongly when a government minister – not the most intelligent of them, in my opinion – asked the BBC to ban the programme Real Lives. Now this was a serious exploration of why two Derry men, Gregory Campbell and Martin McGuinness, who in another context might well have found themselves on the same side politically, championing the working class, were in fact hereditary enemies. Jimmy had previewed the programme, and passed it as fit for broadcasting, so he found himself in the hot seat. The skill, and shrewdness, with which he handled the resultant crisis need no comment from me. Suffice it to say that he refused to be intimidated. He struck to his guns in spite of opposition from inside the Corporation as well as out, going so far as to offer his resignation, which he withdrew only when a ground swell of support, as well as the validity of his own reasoning, won the day. People realised that the programme was not destined to give terrorists the “oxygen of publicity,” to use Margaret Thatcher’s phrase. The battle was won, and there have been no others since.
[ NOTE: Jimmy’s record of the issue, lodged in the BBC Archives as part of “The Hawthorne Papers” is available HERE.]
I didn’t see much of Jimmy during this difficult time. I was involved with the Northern Ireland situation myself, but at a distance. As head of a script department in the World Service I was responsible for supplying material for translation to the various foreign language services, whose staffs, though nearly always of high intellectual calibre, do not necessarily have a deep knowledge of Britain. My job was as much educational as anything else. My meetings with Jimmy were infrequent, and usually took place on those occasions when the BBC management called senior executives from all over the country together to hear some important policy announcement or simply to strengthen our esprit de corps. Jimmy and I would find ourselves having a chat after the formal agenda was over – often, I’m happy to say, with a glass in our hands.
The best of our relationship remained for the last, after we had both taken retirement. I came back to live in Northern Ireland after thirty-five years away and found Jimmy established at the centre of things. For a man who was supposed to have retired, he was busier than most of us are while still working. What with the Prison Arts Foundation and the Ulster History Circle (the blue plaque organisation which he himself had started some years before and for which he did most of the donkey work), the Belfast Literary Society and the Lecale Historical Society, not to mention his own consultancy firm, James Hawthorne Associates, his hands were full. Mine were empty at the time, but ex-bureaucrats have itchy fingers and I was on the lookout for something to do. I got in touch with the Ulster History Circle and eventually became a member. That brought me into contact with Jimmy on a regular basis – and what a pleasure that turned out to be!
To begin with, he was a virtuoso at finding his way through the maze of local government organisations, quangos and charitable bodies which have to be negotiated if you’re to get anything done. He also knew all the people involved – to a long-term absentee like myself he seemed to know everybody in the province, and most people outside it as well. I have never met anyone who so commanded the data associated with his job. His appetite for work was gargantuan, and it increased after the death of his wife in 2002. At that time he clearly wanted to full every second of his life – but then he would have dome more or less that anyway: he had a passion for running things, and running them well.
If that implies that he was in any way a dull dog, then the impression is totally wrong. He was one of the most entertaining men I have ever met, and a fabulous raconteur. Our monthly History Circle meetings were always entertaining and sometimes hilarious; as the man who writes the minutes I can testify to that. Keeping a record of proceedings when you are helpless with laughter is no easy task.
Perhaps that is the best note to end on: Jimmy as a person rather than as the subject of an obituary. He was a wonderful, complex, lovable human being, one of those people whose presence in a room gives you an immediate lift. That’s how I shall remember him.
James Burns Hawthorne: Born 27 March 1930, died 7 September 2006