'An innate ability to see only triumph in adversity' - a toast to late PR veteran John 'JD' Duncan

John Duncan - a corporate PR stalwart and veteran of NatWest, American Express, Inchcape and Dewe Rogerson - died earlier this month after contracting COVID-19. His friend, the journalist Ian Griffiths, looks back with fondness at his time with 'JD'.

This is the story I did not want to write. There are no words. How can I capture the life of John “JD” Duncan in black and white when that life was lived in vibrant colour?

A younger generation may not be familiar with JD. And now it is too late. He was taken from us by coronavirus two weeks ago. It is a brutal irony that COVID-19 is the antithesis of JD. Isolation, social distancing, no restaurants, no cricket. I don’t think so.

JD was a man who positively lived for interaction. And his interactors lived for him. He was easy to like, a natural narrator with a twinkling sense of humour.

He had an innate ability to see only triumph in the face of adversity.

JD was plucked from NatWest’s branch in Brighton to become the bank’s media relations manager in 1974. But I only first met JD in 1987. I was not long into my job as The Independent’s City editor. JD was a little longer in his job heading up Inchcape’s PR team; he was corporate affairs director at the international services and marketing group from 1986 to 1995. The irresistible force had met the immovable object - the paradox from paradise.

He was the bank manager turned PR man. I was the chartered accountant turned journalist. A professional relationship swiftly became a firm friendship.

Our professional relationship persisted based on respect and honesty. Our friendship flourished nurtured by wine and cricket. JD could do a remarkable impression of John Arlott, the legendary cricket commentator, who became a regular but virtual guest at our table. “The wine waiter comes in now from the Carvery End with what will be the last bottle before lunch,” JD would intone with mellifluous accuracy.

These were the glory days, when lunches were long, expense accounts lavish, yet standards still high. But these were also the days of the Friday night drop.

In some quarters news had become a commodity. A scoop here traded for a favour elsewhere. That was not JD’s way. He knew that, by definition, a news story was short-lived. What he promoted was the importance of an understanding of the business that underpinned the story and of the people who ran that business.

One of JD’s first jobs at Inchcape was to rid the company of all the frivolous trappings of self-interested hospitality. Corporate boxes at sports grounds and entertainment venues around the country were ditched. Only the rather spacious facility in one of the old dressing rooms at the Oval survived.

Inchcape’s guest of honour for the Oval Test Match against Australia in 1989 was John (now Sir John) Major. During a lengthy rain break JD came down with Sir John where Australia’s dazzling open batsman Mark Taylor was being interviewed by a colleague of mine.

“Hello Mark,” said JD. “May I introduce our Foreign Secretary?” Taylor did not respond. Instead he looked Sir John up and down and frowned. You could hear from the expression on his face what he was thinking. “He doesn’t look foreign and he isn’t a woman.” Thankfully Taylor was as diplomatic as he was brilliant.

“G’day, mate!” Crisis averted.

I will miss your friendship. I will miss your wisdom. But I will never miss that catch at first slip.

Ian Griffiths is a veteran journalist with former roles including Guardian financial correspondent and City editor of the Independent

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