Man with four lungs

The Serbs have a particular way of describing someone who lives life to the full. They say: “He moves with four lungs.” Tom certainly moved with four lungs in Serbia, where he did a lot of his best work – but also had plenty of fun along the way. Milena, his wife, asked me to reflect Tom’s sense fun in my remarks.
“Journalists work in different ways,” Tom once wrote. “Some of the best are loners, risk takers….I admire their inner fortitude and bravery. “For me the joy of hackery is the camaraderie and sheer – well, slight ridiculousness of the whole game. And so I fall into the other… ‘Band of brothers’ school, where my happiest days are spent on capers invariably involving my main Balkan comrades.”

One of the comrades’ best capers was to open a bar in Kosovo. They called it Tricky Dick’s after Richard Holbrooke, the American envoy who’d negotiated with Slobodan Milosevic. It seemed like a good investment at the time. International monitors from the Kosovo Verification Mission were flooding the province.

“The ambitious cocktail list included The Verifier, a frothy blue concoction that brought many a UN monitor to his knees.” Unfortunately Tricky’s made the mistake of playing some Serbian turbo-folk music and the Kosovo Liberation Army tried to burn it down. Tom’s conclusion: “I guess you learn from your mistakes and maybe we should have heeded the old Albanian epithet ‘Kusgutet permutet’ – he who runs too fast steps in the doo-doo.”

Tom’s self-deprecating humour belied a rare talent for tough reporting and sensitive writing which came to the fore at the height of the Kosovo war in 1999. “Its awful, mind-numbing culmination is to be found in the supposedly holy city of Pec, where yesterday we lost count of the freshly dug graves in the Albanian cemetery after about 500,” he wrote in The Times.

He’d come a long way since leaving BBC local radio in search of adventures abroad. Tom worked for The Times in Brussels under George Brock until the Rwandan genocide of 1994 convinced him to become an aid worker with Medecins Sans Frontieres. One of his tasks was to persuade haulage bosses with 20 ton trucks to bring hundreds of tons of supplies from Nairobi to the refugee camps.

He was rightly much prouder of that… than he was of his first job in the Balkans as the European Commission’s spokesman for emergency reconstruction in Sarajevo. He soon tired of pontificating from his podium at the Holiday Inn. He decided to get back to reporting because he knew he’d enjoy it far more. And he did.

He always found something to smile about in the midst of Balkan chaos. In 1997 Albania went potty. The whole nation had plunged its meagre savings into pyramid schemes that came crashing down. Tom wrote: “The tanks rumbled up and down the Boulevar of Martyrs in Tirana and we hacks had a great time for a month while everybody else helicoptered the hell out of there.”

This was also the year Tom met a young student leader in Belgrade called Milena. SHE was demonstrating against Milosevic. He was covering the protest. When firing broke out, Tom ran towards the shots and found himself beside a proud blonde girl in a tweed sports jacket. Later, he was having a beer with a friend and saying he’d seen a girl he liked when he looked out of the window and there she was again in the middle of the road, with a crowd gathering around her.

Tom said it was as if the fates were calling to him. “I walk boldly across the space,” he wrote in a tragically unfinished memoir. “The clock stops briefly; the images all around are fuzzy, the bodies and crowd indistinct. I am talking to her, explaining that I’m a journalist and so, so interested in her story….” They were married a few weeks later.

“Long-term investment number 1: Slav wife,” he wrote. “Current status: near penniless genetic engineer. Daily running costs: Pack of Marlborough Lights. “My wifey, Milena, is not just beautiful. This genetics business is going to make millions, easily outstripping annual turnover at Tricky Dick’s, knocking aside the mortgage on 60 Lyal Road, Bow, like so much copper tossed to an Underground busker.”

When Tom came on to The Sunday Times foreign desk he was great company on the desk but he obviously preferred the freedom of being on the road. At the same time Tom could be disparaging about the mystique of foreign news reporting. “Those of us delivering the warped facts, the blood-tinged statistics, assume a status that is honestly ill-deserved.”

Well, I disagree, Tom. I think your status as a respected foreign correspondent was richly deserved. Here was a man of extraordinary courage and exceptional humanity, a superb writer and raconteur with an unfailingly sunny disposition towards his colleagues at work. He may just have been too modest to see how good he was.

When Tom told me he had only a short time to live, we sat together in the garden at St Joseph’s for a couple of hours. I wondered how he might like to be remembered and we settled on an idea that Tom really liked. Milena and I are going to set up a fund in his name that will give one young reporter a year the chance to be a foreign correspondent.

We’ll invite proposals for an assignment, we’ll pay for the one we think Tom would have liked best and if John thinks it’s good enough, we’ll publish the result in The Sunday Times. We’re going to call it the Tom Walker Trust. It’ll be our way of preserving Tom’s memory… and keeping his spirit alive in the exploits of other young people who move with four lungs.