As I struggle to digest news of the death of Colin Irwin, an outstanding journalist but more importantly a man it was impossible to dislike, images of that kind, intelligent, impish and slightly quizzical face of his stream into my mind.
"The other folk Colin". That's how I sometimes described him. But Colin Irwin was by far the senior partner in this double act. He was an excellent writer, prolific and thoughtful but always elegant and often witty in his prose.
His work was familiar to me, from his spell as the Melody Maker's folk bloke, long before we met.
Like me he started on local newspapers - the Reading Evening Post, I believe, in his case - and went to write with authority and style for the better nationals, fRoots and other newspapers and magazines. He also wrote books and plays. Some of the books were about such lofty figures as Dylan and Cohen: I recall two others, one about Irish music and one which he and I discussed during its making because of its references to my club Sunderland AFC, about football chants and songs.
I admired and looked up to him. When, after years of lapping up his writing, I finally met him, it was as if we were lifelong buddies. We'd see each other at the occasional festival, at the BBC folk awards and on that rare and probably no longer existent treat, the junket for folk journalists.
He recounted tales of folkie hell-raising from early in the revival, long booze-fuelled nights at the itinerant musicians' favourite London haunt, the Columbia Hotel in Bayswater. We exchanged anecdotes about the people we wrote about and the people we wrote for.
And it was me who led him into choppy waters when The Daily Telegraph (in)famously published an obituary on the fiddler supreme, Dave Swarbrick, then seriously ill but very much alive.
The story has been told often enough and is described in more detail here. In brief, I had been sent by that paper to Macedonia to report on the war in neighbouring Kosovo. Soon after I arrived in Skopje, the Telegraph obits department rang to say Swarb was at death's door and could I produce an obit. Reporting duties came first so I suggested Colin Irwin, who duly filed a brilliant piece (which Swarb told me he had very much enjoyed once he had overcome the shock of being sent to an early grave).
It's not unusual for newspapers to prepare such articles ahead of the subject's actual departure. It is more unusual for them to appear prematurely, "breaking God's embargo" as one senior colleague put it. But over the ensuing weekend, someone in the office mistakenly believed Swarb had passed away and the obit appeared. So we were both innocent in the affair; we were also both constantly reminded of our roles in it.
Typical of both now-departed souls, Colin Irwin and Swarb consented without a murmur when I wanted to use the before-its-time obit as a prize quiz question at Salut Live, the winner receiving tickets for the Cropredy festival kindly donated by Fairport Convention.
Colin's sudden death has left me feeling empty and I have no more words of my own to offer. Rest easy, pal.
This how Colin Irwin's son reported his dad's death on Facebook:
This is Kevin, Colin's son. Dad passed away suddenly last night. We think it was a heart attack, but not sure yet. He was a wonderful, loving, crazy, creative, brilliant man. A truly great, great, great husband, father and grandfather. He had an incredible life. The stories are endless. He was the best.
And this is how music has reacted:
A shock. I’ve known Colin for most of my musical life. A fine journalist, on Melody Maker, fRoots and much more, and writer of books, with his heart deep in folk music, a lovely, modest and kind person (and, showing his care for humanity, a lay funeral celebrant - he was the celebrant at Bill Caddick’s funeral).
Very sad news about the leading UK folk journalist of the later 20th century, and an utterly lovely bloke.
What a shock and a tragic loss. He was always very kind to us Ryburn crowd with reviews and support and indeed kind to the Old Swan Band. His knowledge of the folk scene was spectacular.
So so sad to hear this.May he rest in peace
Oh no! So very sad to hear this. Colin was a gem. X
I am so sad. We were two Colins writing about folk, him more prolifically , eloquently and effectively than me. I loved his occasional company and his warmth. Then there were his references to Sunderland in that great book about football chants . I share the family’s deep sense of loss
And this is Wikipedia's summary of his life: