Belfast Telegraph

Lindy McDowell: We'll miss Billy Simpson

Lindy McDowell remembers friend and colleague Billy Simpson, who has died at the age of 84

Billy Simpson was one of the most gifted writers around
Billy Simpson was one of the most gifted writers around

By Lindy McDowell

Billy Simpson, who died on Friday at the age of 84, was an outstanding journalist and a brilliant writer whose wit and wry humour, not least in his weekly column, endeared him to legions of Belfast Telegraph readers down the years.

But he would not forgive me for beginning this tribute like that. Billy wasn't a man who suffered compliments gladly.

So he'd have some self-deprecating and dismissive joke to crack were I also to tell you that he was the loveliest, the funniest of men and that the hearts of those of us honoured to have been his friends just ache at his loss.

Billy's humour stemmed from poking fun at the absurdity of life - and occasionally himself. A kindly, compassionate man, he laughed with other people, not at them.

That's not to say he wouldn't occasionally get the odd wee acidic dig in too - but his targets were the pompous, the self-important, those who unlike himself took themselves very seriously indeed.

He came originally from Portrush, the youngest and only son of a large working class family. He adored his eight older sisters and they, he would happily confess, spoilt him rotten.

He left Kelly Memorial School at the age of 14 to begin work as a painter and decorator. But his burning ambition was to be a journalist so he juggled the day job with night classes in shorthand and typing at his local tech.

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He began his journalistic career on the Newtownards Spectator working alongside Billy Graham who says of his lifelong friend: "The words that spring to my mind immediately are friendship and laughter. It was impossible not to have your spirits lifted when Billy was around.

"He was also one of the best journalists and writers of his generation, breaking and covering many of the Belfast Telegraph's biggest stories. He lifted us out of the darkness during the Troubles with his brilliant Monday column that ran for 28 years. He made us laugh with his series of books on the Ulster speech and character. He enriched all of our lives and mine more than I can say."

From the Spectator, Billy progressed to the old Northern Whig (for younger readers that was a newspaper before it became a bar), then, when that folded, the Press Association before finding his natural home in the Belfast Telegraph.

The love of Billy's life was undeniably Daphne who was to feature in regular and affectionate reference in his columns.

The young Daphne McAnuff was from a very different background; the only child of middle class parents. When they married, Billy recalled, her widowed father Clifford was unhappy that he'd now be left on his own.

"Come and live with us," Billy generously suggested. Clifford, who was then 70 and concerned about his health, agreed, adding mournfully: "Sure it'll only be a couple of years anyway before I'm gone." Thirty years later Clifford was still going strong. He lived to be 101.

Billy and Daph, as he called her, had a joyous marriage. Her death a couple of years ago was, as his great friend John Caruth puts it, a blow to his being.

Like most of us in the business Billy's early training involved the round of courts and councils, the hard news stories. As Billy Graham says, he went on to break many big stories for this paper down the years.

But feature writing was his real forte. His genius was how in simple words he could move you to tears or to laughter. Mostly laughter, though. He was a master of observational humour.

In hellish times his wry take on life, invariably illustrated by his close friend, the great artist Rowel Friers, was a bit of welcome escapism.

I first met Billy myself in the in-house Belfast Telegraph bar. Unlikely as it might seem today, back then the Tele had a social club housed two floors up from Editorial. It opened in late afternoon and had what you could call an enthusiastically regular clientele.

I'd just joined the paper and, hoping to ingratiate myself with my future colleagues, had gone to the bar to get in a very big round indeed.

Billy, who was watching as I attempted to balance this lot on a tray, leapt to his feet.

"My dear," he cried gallantly (I thought), "This is much too heavy for you to carry. Here let me help you."

And with that he proceeded to pick up the glasses and jokingly knock back the drink.

His own tipple was whiskey and milk.

He drank the milk he told me because he had an ulcer. What gave you the ulcer, I asked. "The whiskey."

He was just the best raconteur, sucking on that trademark pipe of his as he entertained us all.

And he was up for any marking. He once did a feature on what was then a lion park at Benvarden in Co Antrim.

Photographer Bobby Ingram had suggested that it might make for a more exciting picture if Billy were to step outside the car and pose against the backdrop of lions prowling some distance away.

Billy did as told. The lions began to advance...

He recounted later how he'd turned to scamper back into the car.

"But Ingram had locked the doors and as the lions were eyeing me up for dinner there he was snapping away like a hopeful for the Press Photographer of the Year award."

On another occasion he was asked to do a piece on hairpieces. Billy was unbothered by his own baldness but agreed not just to write a piece about the then popularity of toupees but to model one as illustration.

It was horrendous. Ludicrous looking. And Billy's report was scathing. The wig maker won't be very happy with that, we all agreed.

A few days later the picture was back in the paper - in an ad placed by the same gentleman and with a caption reading: "As worn by Billy Simpson from the Belfast Telegraph."

Billy thought it hilarious - the cheek of the boy.

I could go on all day here. But I fancy I sense him sitting at my shoulder.

"For dear's sake woman, give over will you..."

If there is a place upstairs, Billy will be there now surrounded by that big family of his, surrounded by love, reunited with his adored Daph, hammering out a quick paragraph or two on a keyboard.

And laughing.

Love and laughter. What better way to sum up a life lived well?

Our dear friend Billy, we'll miss you sorely.

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