Wednesday, February 23, 2022

Goodbye to the Most Dearest of Friends

I cried myself to sleep last night.

As I was winding down, checking the Internet before shutting my eyes shortly before midnight, I logged onto Facebook. It was from a post by his daughter Tash that I learned of the passing of my larger than life best friend of 40-plus years, Dave Banks, a legendary journalist in his native England as well as New York City and Australia. After a short hospital stay combating pneumonia, Dave died peacefully in his sleep at home Tuesday, nine days after his 74th birthday.

It was a miracle several times over he lived that long, a gift all of his friends, and he had many, cherished. No need to relate all the illnesses that would have toppled a weaker man over the last quarter century. Better to recall a life lived large with lots of humor and friendships. 

In the composite manner of journalists the world over, he was at one time a prodigious drinker. A large man, over 6’4” and more than 280 pounds, or 20 stones if my assessment is correct, Dave never revealed to me an equally prodigious appetite. Indeed, to Gilda and me he was a dainty eater, very neat and cultured, a baker, soup maker, gardener of flowers and vegetables and even a chicken farmer in the cottage he and Gemma, his wife of 46 years, moved into in the quaint northern English village of Crookham, after he retired from the rush of London-based journalism.  

Crookham is just miles from the Scottish border, an area where Dave spent part of his youth. He became part of the local pub scene, usually the Red Lion Inn in nearby Milfield, where he shared many a pint with an assortment of characters he lovingly and amusingly populated in his self-started Internet chronicle of Northumberland country life, Voice of the North. 

Dave was not a high brow journalist. He had an intense understanding of what interests the common man and woman and how a newspaper could transmit to them the essential information they needed to evaluate politicians and happenings that affected them.

He displayed his talent on three continents. He held editors titles at Britain’s Daily Mirror, the New York Post, then back to England for The Sun. He returned to New York as editor of The Daily News before embarking on a five year stint in Australia at The Australian and the Sydney Daily Telegraph. Back in England he led the Mirror. 

Dave branched out into electronic media in the 1990s. He hosted talk radio formats on LBC and Talk Radio UK. For a short time he also hosted a half hour cable show from inside a pub. Gilda and I appeared as guests for one telecast, providing an American take on the legality of shooting a home intruder.  

We met Dave and the diminutive Gemma (maybe 5’3,” 115 pounds) when our son Dan was about 12 months old. Their daughter Natasha, (Tash or Tasha as she usually is called), was about six weeks younger. Though our back yards abutted, we were oblivious to each other until a neighbor, reasoning that two journalists might have something in common, introduced us at her daughter’s third birthday party. The party was a real bore, but the friendship she originated has lasted for more than 40 years across three continents.

Dave was one of Rupert Murdoch’s imports, brought to the States to spunk up The Post with tabloid tastes that now seem ordinary but back in 1979-80 were viewed as racy and sensational. Sitting in his living room drinking wine that first day after the party was over, I remember Gilda bemoaning the vulgarity of Post headlines. I commented that the one I liked best for its temerity and rakishness was, “Ted Campaigns Near Mary Jo’s Grave.” Still, I cautioned Gilda that we shouldn’t criticize The Post until we found out in more detail what Dave did for the paper. Without missing a beat Dave informed us that though he did not write my favorite headline, it was his job to compose, or approve, the headlines for the first six pages of each day’s paper!

What followed was a decades-long discussion of the merits of popular vs. elitist journalism and a friendship, a love, between two couples that has survived the Banks’ meanderings back to England, several years in Australia, a return to London, another stay in White Plains to help run The Daily News, a final return to London for a multi-media career in print, radio and cable television.

My mind is racing with stories about Dave’s exploits, both practical jokes and tabloid journalism exclusives. Dave’s claim to fame, or infamy, includes running pictures of a pregnant Princess Diana at the beach, for which his British paper, The Sun, had to apologize and did so by running the offending pictures again, and his authorizing the placement of a camera that captured photos of Princess Diana working out inside a London gym, a deed that led other news outlets to stake out his home with round-the-clock cameras. Gemma was not a happy camper after that turn of the camera lens.

As he was being rushed by ambulance to hospital in March 2002, Dave’s mobile phone rang. Inside the ambulance Gemma answered her husband’s phone. The BBC wanted to get his reaction to the death of The Queen Mother. Gemma calmly related it was not a good time for Dave to talk.

It was one of the few times Dave’s thoughts and opinions were silenced. Even when we toured Israel together Dave could not escape being part of the news. The telephone hacking scandal involving Murdoch’s News of the World newspaper had broken. As a former top editor inside Murdoch’s empire Dave was a much-wanted source. While Gemma joined Gilda and me atop Masada, Dave stayed back in our hotel so he could opine on the airwaves back home.

It seemed at times Dave’s knowledge was boundless. English history. Gardening tips. British politics. American politics. Baseball trivia. 

Together we toured parts of southeastern England, Scotland, London, Israel, and, of course, New York. Our last trip together was in September 2019 to southern Scotland. Dave and I would fence with repartees that challenged each of us to outwit the other. Puns were our foils. Gilda and Gemma ignored us, content to converse on more adult topics. 

Even with today’s communications technology it is not easy maintaining a friendship, a warm friendship, across oceans. Somehow we did. Each conversation by phone or FaceTime, started as if we had been interrupted just minutes before. We last talked right before New Year’s. 

Across an ocean the loss is no less painful.

When you, your friends and family are in their eighth decade or more, death becomes a commonplace, not unexpected though surely not casually tolerated, part of life. It’s an unwelcome intrusion. It drives home our vulnerability. Our finality. 

In the past year death has visited friends and family three times. I’d like to say, “Enough already!,” but I know tears will flow again, probably not as fluidly as they did last night, but flow they will. 

Gilda, Murray, Dave and Gemma on the road to Scotland.

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