Gerry used unique brand of anarchy to counter real chaos on the streets

BBC Foyle producer Colm Arbuckle (in black) shares a joke with Radio Foyle presenters Frank Galligan and Gerry Anderson.
BBC Foyle producer Colm Arbuckle (in black) shares a joke with Radio Foyle presenters Frank Galligan and Gerry Anderson.

In this article, Frank Galligan, for many years a colleague of Gerry Anderson’s at BBC Radio Foyle, pays tribute to his late friend.

In Percy Bysshe Shelley’s 1821 essay, “A Defence of Poetry”, he made the famous claim that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world”.

I have written previously about those whom I have long considered our equivalent, unheralded, unsung ‘legislators’ - Northern Ireland teachers.

In Catholic and Protestant schools, they ‘held the line’ for over thirty years, not just educating their charges, but helping to rear many of them.

Albert Reynolds and Gerry Anderson died on the same day last week. The southern media headlines were subsequently dominated by the death of the former Taoiseach.

Up North, Gerry’s passing shared the print, radio and TV space with the much ‘acknowledged’ Longford peacemaker. I was struck by the fact that a Derry broadcaster too managed to hold the line, using his own unique brand of anarchy as a effective counter to the real chaos on the streets outside. However, this unique contribution has never been properly acknowledged.

Having just parked near Clarendon Street on the morning of Gerry’s funeral, a couple in a car nearby beckoned me...they were looking for directions to St Eugene’s Cathedral.

We turned the corner and I pointed out the spire. The woman was crying (since she left home in Lurgan earlier, her husband informed me) and during the subsequent conversation, called her beloved Gerry a “social worker” on radio.

It was an acute observation, considering it one of his callings before he became a legendary broadcaster, and in his brief but telling homily, Father Paul Farren brilliantly captured the enigma of a man whose death occasioned - not just a salutary nod of grief for a celebrity passing - but an outpouring of genuine love and affection.

Father Farren recalled the words of the extraordinary Lutheran pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was jailed by the Nazis and, in 1945, became the fourth member of his family to be executed for their courage in being members of a small Protestant opposition to Hitler.

He quoted Bonhoeffer’s poem, “Who Am I?”, which includes the lines:

“Who am I? This or the Other?

Am I one person today and tomorrow another?

Am I both at once?”

He then posed the question: “Who was Gerry Anderson, saying: “We gather to give thanks to God for Gerry’s life and for all the joy and gifts and entertainment that so many people received through Gerry, especially those into whose lives he brought light and joy when light could be dim and joy hard to find,” adding that, despite his fame as a broadcaster and personality, Gerry was an “immensely private man...”

In many ways, everybody knows Gerry and, in other ways, only his wife Christine and her family know Gerry.

Christine’s father, Victor Stewart, was a dear friend of mine, a superb storyteller and raconteur, with whom I spent many happy sojourns in The Magnet Bar.

Ironically, although I worked with Gerry, and was a neighbour in Culmore, it was through Victor that I really got to know him. He was comfortable with his family around him and, although he was the master of wit and surreal bonhomie on the wireless, he, like me, just listened when his father­in­law was in full flow.

Victor was from the same neck in the woods as myself in Donegal, and Gerry loved – not only the yarns and tall tales – but Victor’s alternative ‘outtake’ on the world, and particularly his irreverence.

As a cub presenter, I was in complete awe of Gerry’s own on­ the-edge irreverance.

One station manager had issued an ultimatum to Gerry about his insistence on regularly playing a fifteen minute dirge by a balladeer from Galway, and when he heard it being played one morning, he came tearing down the stairs to stop the subversion. I was privileged to witness producer Stephen Price eject the said manager from studio!

Long before I joined Radio Foyle, I listened with fascination to Gerry as he milked sacred cows, annoyed golfers and holier­than­thous, and berated his long-suffering colleague Sean Coyle on air.

God, but he hated snobbery, and when he became aware the certain members of the Derry middle class had started origami evenings, he reminded them that the reverse of ‘origami’ is ‘I am a giro!’. Ouch!

When someone dared boast of their bonsai trees in a salubrious part of the city, Gerry quickly reminded them of the reverse of that word, too...’I a snob!’ .

The acclaimed Enniskillen butcher Pat Doherty opened the BBC studios for many years. Once, Gerry’s guest (some obscure and possibly dreadful singer) didn’t turn up, but, as Pat was in studio, Gerry persuaded the affable Pat to discuss his prizewinning sausages, Fermanagh black bacon and crocodile burgers!

It was superb entertainment, at the end of which, Gerry asked Pat to sing. “Ah, Gerry”, protested Pat, “sure I’m no chanter!”. ‘Ah, go on, insisted Anderson, “you’re bound to have a few oul songs in your repertoire - sorry, in your abattoir!” Priceless.

Almost twenty years ago, when he returned from London after a short but harrowing time on BBC Radio 4, we met up in The Magnet and it was obvious that the constant criticism had affected him deeply. He recalled waking up in dread, morning after morning, waiting for the Tory papers to lambast him once again.

Michael Green, Controller of Radio 4, had tried to radicalise what was considered sacred in the Shires. When he changed ‘Gardeners’ Question Time’ and – horror of horrors – sent cricket to Long Wave radio, Gerry took the backlash, culminating in the ridiculous ‘Sunday Telegraph’ slamming him in editorials. Indeed, one had the headline: “Anderson Country Must Go”.

Michael Green subsequently stated that “this past year has shown us that presenting this kind of programme five days a week is too heavy a burden for any one person.”

That was PR speak at its most disingenuous....Gerry was used as a guinea ­pig although he was much too gracious to say so himself.

In The Magnet, Victor lightened our conversation by taking a puff from his pipe and laughing: “You’re always safer annoying your own crowd.”

As Gerry’s coffin left the Cathedral on Sunday – where he had been baptised and served as an altar boy – the fiddler played “The Homes of Donegal”. His mother was from Inishowen and he loved the county dearly.

Albert Reynolds was born ten miles from the original Strokestown in Roscommon...Gerry would have appreciated that coincidence. To, perhaps, paraphrase Father Farren, Christine and her family’s grief will be theirs alone, while others will mourn differently for Gerry, but I’ll leave you with some words of solace from the aforementioned Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

“There is nothing that can replace the absence of someone dear to us, and one should not even attempt to do so. One must simply hold out and endure it.

“At first that sounds very hard, but at the same time it is also a great comfort. For to the extent the emptiness truly remains unfilled, one remains connected to the other person through it.

“It is wrong to say that God fills the emptiness. God in no way fills it but much more leaves it precisely unfilled and thus helps us preserve ­­- even in pain ­­- the authentic relationship.

“Further more, the more beautiful and full the remembrances, the more difficult the separation. But gratitude transforms the torment of memory into silent joy.

One bears what was lovely in the past not as a thorn but as a precious gift deep within, a hidden treasure of which one can always be certain.”

Amen to that.