Notebook

Cormac was a TV natural

Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor: a wonderful natural raconteur’s tongue (Photo by Cate Gillon/Getty Images)

I only met Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor half a dozen times. As a TV journalist, I found him the perfect interviewee. When necessary – and that meant usually – he could speak in pithy soundbites. But when the occasion demanded, he could switch gear and cut loose that wonderful natural raconteur’s tongue. He was the third leg of the best broadcasting triumvirate I’ve worked with, the others being papal biographer Austen Ivereigh and events commentator Alastair Bruce. Telly is an ephemeral experience, but the way those three combined on the evening of the election of Pope Francis stays with me.

News of Cardinal Cormac’s death put me in mind of his cousin, the Dominican Jerome Murphy-O’Connor. I interviewed “Fr Jerry” in Jerusalem when I was posted there for a few months in the late 1990s. Like Cormac, he was a larger than life figure who exuded professorial calm. For decades he welcomed visitors to the École Biblique, just beyond the Old City’s walls, making a frequently hostile city that little bit kinder.

He was the firm friend of a TV journalist I hold in greater esteem than all others. They no longer make the mould that created the former BBC Middle East correspondent Keith Graves. The Independent’s Robert Fisk once called him “a wolf in wolf’s clothing”. I’m not entirely sure what Fisk meant by that, but you begin to get the picture. Keith, who retired about 10 years ago, was fearless in pursuit of a story and was not above acts of pugilism in pursuit of them. Watching Keith and Jerry present a television series for Sky called In the Footsteps of Jesus, it was hard to tell them apart: both bespectacled, bearded and big enough to be nightclub bouncers.

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I heard a story about Fr Jerry’s early years in Ireland. It was said that he was close to marrying a young woman who, like him, was considering religious life. She became a nun and he a priest, but they corresponded regularly for decades.

A similar dilemma, I remember from an interview on BBC Radio 4, faced the writer Frank Cottrell-Boyce. The woman who would become his wife was thinking about taking vows. Instead she chose a different vocation and the couple went on to have seven children.

Cottrell-Boyce’s appearance on Desert Island Discs is still available on the BBC iPlayer and is well worth a listen. In particular, his observations about growing up on Merseyside in the 1960s are of note. Mass at the local church meant that, at least once a week, people were transported from the greyness of their everyday surroundings.

I thought about his words on a family visit to an urban farm this week. It was a warm day and, I suppose, every other adult had a visible tattoo. It’s easy to be snobbish about body art. I would offer my children substantial cash bribes to dissuade them from going under the ink needle. But, as my wife speculated recently, there may be a link between the increasing take up of tattoos and the falling incidence of Christian worship. As Cottrell-Boyce pointed out, people crave beauty in their lives. If they are not drinking in religious art and architecture in church, they will sup elsewhere.

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As a former royal correspondent, I recently pondered in this column the question of whether the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge might have another child and, if they did, to what extent that might act pour encourager les autres. Well, the couple have confirmed that number three is on the way. From their perspective, I wonder if Wills and Kate wanted to avoid the problem posed by an heir and a spare. The two-child Windsorian family unit has not been a roaring success. Princess Margaret strove to find a role, as have the princes Andrew and Harry. Princess Charlotte and the new baby may similarly struggle, but at least it will be a struggle they share.

And from our perspective as subjects, what signal does it send when the nation’s future head of state chooses to buck the trend for shrinking families?

For hard-line republicans, it is a meaningless question based on a false premise. For the majority – and the royals still enjoy the support of three-quarters of us – the response will be mixed. Some will see it as confirmation of the view that only the very poor or the very rich can afford to have anything larger than a nuclear family.

Others, and I am one of them, rejoice in the Cambridges’ good fortune and see within it evidence of a royal marriage, unlike that of William’s parents, that is working. A couple for whom a large and growing family is a visible sign of mutual affection and obligation.

Follow Colin Brazier on Twitter: @ColinBrazierSky