Staring death in the face: Liam Clarke’s final story

Liam Clarke seen here in the BBC film, just a short time before he died last December
Liam Clarke seen here in the BBC film, just a short time before he died last December

As a dogged investigative journalist during the Troubles, Liam Clarke’s professional life thrust him into the most personal corners of other people’s lives.

Last December, while living with terminal cancer, the widely respected reporter and author agreed to allow a filmmaker to follow his own most personal and final aspect of his life as he journeyed towards death.

Liam Clarke and Kathryn Johnston in their Ballymena home

Liam Clarke and Kathryn Johnston in their Ballymena home

Around two weeks into filming for the project, the Belfast Telegraph political editor – who in the weeks before his death had broken major political stories, including the resignation of Peter Robinson as first minister – died suddenly just two days after Christmas.

But Mr Clarke’s widow, Kathryn Johnston, asked filmmaker Aaron Black to continue making the documentary.

His 30-minute film, which will be shown on BBC One Northern Ireland on Monday night, charts conversations with the veteran journalist prior to his death, as well as his wake, private Buddhist ceremony beside his coffin and the scattering of his ashes in Donegal.

Speaking to the filmmaker as he discussed his stomach cancer, Mr Clarke said bluntly of death: “It’s pointless hiding from it.”

The former Sunday Times Northern Ireland editor – who for several years wrote a popular column for the News Letter – converted to Zen Buddhism at the age of 50.

In the film, he said that he believed his Buddhism had “mellowed” him, but added: “As a journalist, I have to fight against that because you can’t be too soft as a journalist.”

And, speaking of his craft, he added: “I don’t really go along with this idea that there are several truths and everyone has a truth. Something happens, and I think it’s the job of the press to tell you what happens.”

When asked if his illness had affected his writing, Mr Clarke said that his energy levels were not quite what they had been and added: “It’s probably made me a more compassionate person ... it makes me think less that I should pursue a fight or a vendetta with somebody...though I can’t say that I never snap at anyone.”

The film includes a meeting with his oncologist who delivers the news that the cancer has spread to his lung. The doctor told him: “I don’t know quite what to make of it – it is getting bigger.”

Reflecting on a disease which is still widely dreaded, despite vast advances in how cancer can be treated, Mr Clarke told the filmmaker: “I think it’s worse for the relatives than the sufferer. The relationship to the person changes, they maybe think they’re walking on eggshells and they shouldn’t be saying things.

“I think it’s difficult for relatives and they can get sort of pushed into the role of carer later on if it lingers on too long.”

Mr Clarke spent his last night – Boxing Day evening – at home surrounded by his three children.

His wife recalled: “On Boxing day he felt just terribly weak and sick and said his stomach felt heavy. He just said he would put up with it. He was as cold as ice – really as cold as ice.

“And then at about 10 to two [am] he called – [daughter] Alice and I were sitting talking in the kitchen.

“He called for us and we went up and by the time we got up there it was too late; he was lying dead.”

She added: “Certainly in the last month or so he’d been saying he’d never been happier in his life – which is a strange thing to have said, but he kept emphasising it.”

One of Mr Clarke’s two sons, Daniel, recounted in the film: “He told us one by one how much he loved us and what he would want us to know if he dropped dead in the morning –that was his term – so it’s a real comfort that we had that time.

“A lot of people don’t get that time to hear that.”

Although the film, which explores how we approach death, is necessarily sombre and poignant, there are also moments of humour.

When Mr Clarke’s body had just arrived home in the coffin and his immediate family were gathered around, his wife looked into the coffin and said: “He’s far too tidy.

“Seriously, I want him looking like himself. He would have wanted it too ... his hair was always sticking up.”

Filmmaker Aaron Black said that making the film had been “unexpectedly life affirming”.

• True North: Liam Clarke – A Matter of Life & Death will be broadcast on Monday at 10.45pm on BBC One NI