I’m indebted to the many readers of the International Herald Tribune who spotted my obituary and emailed to convey their condolences. Just to put the record straight, I am not and have never been:

(a) 73
(b) a reporter
(c) an editor, or
(d) dead.

I do, however, claim a certain amount of sly wit.

In fact, the hack memorialised in the Trib is James M. Naughton who was

“a prank-loving White House and national correspondent for the New York Times during the Nixon, Ford and Carter administrations and later a senior editor at The Philadelphia Inquirer for almost two decades.”

My namesake also maintained that an occasional prank was essential to the spirit of journalism,

“and he enthusiastically abided by that belief, earning a reputation for twitting colleagues and candidates alike. He once turned up at a presidential press conference wearing the head of a chicken costume; another time, in Philadelphia, he had two motorcycles roar round his newsroom to liven things up. Good for morale, he said.”

A man after my own heart.

Premature obits have a long and honourable history in journalism. The classic case is Mark Twain’s celebrated riposte to his: “reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated”. One of my earliest mentors was the wonderful Claud Cockburn, who was very kind to me when I was an undergraduate in Ireland. In his respectable years he had worked for The Times and at one stage was sent to China to cover some obscure conflict in which he was reportedly killed, The paper duly published a brief obit, which he then read with glee and cabled the Editor saying “HAVE READ OBITUARY STOP KINDLY ADJUST SALARY ACCORDINGLY”.

In the summer of 1968 my girlfriend (later my first wife) and I stayed with him and his wife Patricia in Brook Lodge, their ramshackle but splendid house outside Youghal in Co. Cork. As we were leaving, Claud asked me what I proposed to do with my life. I replied that I was thinking of becoming a journalist. “Well then”, he said, solemnly, “you must remember that there is one golden rule for success in journalism: libel someone famous early in your career “.