Francis Beckett

There was  a sad reason for my visit to Glasgow (see article below.) I was attending the funeral of my old friend and comrade Harry Conroy, former general secretary of the National Union of Journalists as well as a formidable journalist and author.

I was close to tears a lot of the day. 

Not because I was thinking of his contribution to the NUJ, though that was enormous and I've described it in a Guardian obituary here. Not because he was a fine self-taught writer who'd risen from deprivation in the tough Glasgow suburb of Pollok, though that's true too - his biography of James Callaghan, written for my Prime Ministers of the Twentieth Century series, was a masterpeiece of compression (details here.)

No: I wept for the loss, at only 67, of a man out of his time; a man whose virtues were already seen as a little quaint in the sixties, and look very odd now: loyalty, courage, kindness, rebelliousness, a socialist love for equality between people, an instinct to put others before himself. 

His beloved wife Margaret wrote in the funeral programme: "From the day we met, May 10 1961, until the day he died on our 45th wedding anniversary, April 24 2010, I never knew Harry to refuse a single soul his help, comfort and kindness." No friend of Harry's doubted that she wrote the literal truth.  I remember countless acts of kindness to me and others.  I remember too that when NUJ Scottish Organiser Mike Smith became seriously ill, it was Harry who went to him every day, and who helped Mike's partner to care for him until Mike died.

I wept for the loss of a man who treated everyone the same, and was never in awe of anyone. It didn’t matter if you were Rupert Murdoch or the office cleaner, Harry treated you with the same respect and courtesy. And he put you right with the same fearlessness if he thought you were wrong. 

I wept for a man who knew exactly who he was and what he believed, and who never felt the smallest need to apologise for any of it, however unfashionable it might be.  I wept for one of the noisiest men I've known, and for a man whose dreadful diet became a legend.  I have sat in countless restaurants watching Harry trying to persuade the waiter to bring him a steak and chips with a fried egg on the top.

Once, when I weaned him off London's steak houses and persuaded him to come with me to a small French restaurant (the Brasserie du Coin in Lambs Conduit Street, now alas no more), he was frustrated that neither fried egg nor chips would be served with his steak, and didn't want the saute potatos he was offered instead. The proprietor, in a moment of inspiration, told him that saute potatos were just round chips.  So that was all right, and we  became regulars at the Brasserie on the night before NUJ executive meetings.

I wept for the last of the fierce old-fashioned Catholics. Today most Catholics are genteelly apologetic about what their church used to stand for, but not Harry.  The heavenly reward, the infallibility of the Pope, he believed it all, with all his heart. Catholicism was the faith of his fathers, and socialism the faith he learned from the privations of his fathers. He could never abandon either of them.

I shall miss our disputes about religion dreadfully (I was brought up in the Catholic Church, but am now an atheist.) I shall miss the fact that he prayed for me - and he did it only partly to irritate me.  I am sure his prayers had no power to do me good, but the fact that Harry wanted to pray for me – that does me good still.

His last email to me, in November last year, said: “Remember you are still a lapsed Catholic, and when the doorkeeper at the gates of heaven gets hold of you he will remind you that Harry as usual was right.” It told me a little of his personal trouibles and added: "I put my trust in God as my Irish Catholic mother used to tell me and so far God has looked after me. There are a lot of people out there worse off than me."

Most of all, I wept for a man who would have wept for me, if I'd died first.  He was very emotional, and wept easily.  He did not like it; it did not square with the image he liked to present, of a tough Glaswegian negotiator with a poker face. But it made him the human being he was.