hard to believe the words “by Bruce Johnston in Rome” will never again
appear in The Daily Telegraph and his loveable, shambolic figure will
never again be seen in the streets of the city he adored.
years, Bruce kept Telegraph readers informed and amused about
everything from mediaeval frescos to modern Vatican intrigues.
walk with him was always an education as he pointed out a disregarded
architectural masterpiece or a simple restaurant that served the best
spaghetti alla amatriciana in town.
He died earlier this month,
at the young age of 55, in a convalescent hospital outside Rome just as
he appeared to be making a remarkable recovery from a devastating heart
His death deprived British journalism of the finest
interpreter of Italy and Italians of recent years. It robbed his family
and friends of an extraordinarily generous-spirited and life-enhancing
“He added flavour to the life of everyone who knew him,” said Sophie Arie, a young colleague.
was an American by birth – though you would never know it – a Scotsman
by blood, but an Italian by temperament and adoption. He left New York
aged 16 to live with relations in Scotland. He trained as a lawyer in
Edinburgh before moving to London with his then wife.He arrived in Rome
in 1983, drawn there by the richness of its art and culture.
in Italy he barely ever left, making his living as a freelance
journalist of extraordinary vitality and versatility.He joined The
Daily Telegraph in April 1991. Bruce wrote with an enthusiasm that made
it seem that every day was his first on the job.
He covered Mafia trials, political intrigue and the art world with equal verve and thoroughness.
for all his learning, he loved a scoop. The spin doctor Lance Price’s
diaries recently told of the panic at 10 Downing Street when they
learned that Bruce was planning a story revealing that Tony Blair had
told the Archbishop of Siena that he felt himself “more of a Catholic”.
Bruce’s source was impeccable. He had heard it from the archbishop
The episode typified his diligence and the breadth of
his contacts. “He was thoroughly professional,” remembered one
colleague. “When the rest of us closed our notebooks he would carry on
asking questions, searching for the little nugget that would illuminate
the story better.”
Anna Branbergen, a Dutch colleague who
frequently worked with him, said: “He could appreciate things that
other people didn’t notice. He was always looking around the corner.”
many ways Bruce cut a very un- Italian figure. In the land of the bella
figura he threw on whatever clothes were to hand and travelled with a
huge bundle of newspapers under his arm.
But he was loved for his
knowledge and friendliness. His friends ranged Former Sun showbiz
reporter and Woking News and Mail chief sub from street traders to
politicians, princes and princesses. It was impossible to eat with him
in one of his preferred small, family-owned trattorias without him
striking up a long conversation with a waiter or the occupants of the
Bruce’s last big story was the death of Pope John Paul II and the election of his successor.
before the white smoke appeared he had predicted that Cardinal
Ratzinger would win. His front page story caused some shaking of heads
among his colleagues. But Bruce, once again, was right.
after his stories are distant memories Bruce Johnston will be
remembered for his warmth and good nature. New arrivals from competing
newspapers were touched at his willingness to help them find their feet.
his mother fell ill in Cheltenham he brought her to Rome where he
looked after her until her death. According to the British ambassador
in Rome, Sir Ivor Roberts, he “never had a bad or angry word to about
The belief that he was recovering sharpens the tragedy.
A week before he died a friend left Bruce a message saying that his
final deadline was some time away yet. But now it has come and Rome and
journalism will not be the same without him.