Peter Hellyer’s death this week has prompted widespread reflection and commemoration.
President Sheikh Mohamed said on Twitter on Monday evening that Hellyer had “served the UAE with devotion” and that he was “a model of dedication and generosity”.
The tributes flowed from far and wide, recognising him as a distinguished author, cultural historian, journalist, archaeologist, environmental champion and more. He was, as more than one person has pointed out this week, a genuine polymath.
He documented the country’s story in the many books he worked on and, piece by piece, he also wrote a form of that narrative through his fortnightly column for The National, beginning in 2008, when the newspaper launched. It was my good fortune to become his editor five years later in 2013.
Running a comment desk with a big roster of contributors is a great privilege. It is also a little like being the head of a large estate. Some parts demand constant attention, some need occasional tending, while others can be left to their own devices. Peter was a mix of all three.
He was so knowledgeable about life and society in the UAE that it would have been easy for me to wait for his column – to leave him to his own devices, so to speak – but he also wanted to engage, iterate and collaborate.
In the days of the old weekend, he told me he used to sit down and write his column on a Saturday. His deadline for submission was Sunday night, but we might speak on a weekend morning or exchange messages to discuss his topic.
He was sympathetic to the rhythms of the newsroom day, so he’d wait until the business of morning news conference had been concluded before checking in or he knew to wait for my call after the morning flurry had subsided.
One of the great joys of being a comment editor is to manage a roster of columnists and contributors spread across the globe who are able to turn their hand to any subject and who foster a wide range of interests. But there was also something special about Peter living and working up the road, and on occasions, we’d meet for coffee in the Al Mamoura district of Abu Dhabi, a triangulation station between his office and this organisation’s old newsroom.
While the entire framework of our column chats was grounded in the principle that I could choose what he was going to write, it was more often than not his decision. He was remarkably simpatico, but he married that with an absolute conviction that the piece I was shopping for was the one he had always intended to file.
Editors crave several things from their columnists: elegant writing, snappy arguments, thoughtful opinion and a distinctive voice are all high on that wish-list, but so too is something a little more prosaic – the ability to file on time, in order to meet the deadlines of the presses and the incessant beat of online news.
As the writer and editor Terry McDonell observed in his memoir, An Accidental Life, “editing is about ideas, but it is mechanical, too”. Peter’s pieces were what desk editors term clean copy and always arrived in good order, but crucially, they were also often the best column we ran on our pages that day.
Peter’s columns also travelled, to use the parlance of modern-day audience metrics, helping advance conversations around the country and, in some cases, lead to change. As our obituary noted, the piece he wrote about a history textbook used in schools led to the commissioning of a new textbook and, later, a TV documentary charting the nation’s story.
Columns are, of course, written in the here and now. They are time capsules or windows onto a date-stamped world.
The novelist LP Hartley’s famous opening line to The Go-Between – “the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there” – could easily apply to the opinion pages of last month or last year. Only context or some background detail could tell you why particular pieces ran at any given moment.
Perhaps the greatest tribute I can pay Peter is that so many of his pieces stand the test of time.
Rereading some of his work, as I have done in silent solace over recent days, is to find oneself looking back at a catalogue of commentary that works as well today as it did when it was filed. There was always something to learn from both him and his writing.
Five years after I became his editor, I was rotated to another job at The National, so the fortnightly check ins subsided and became infrequent coffees or a serendipitous meeting at a function – although Peter would often message me, particularly if he thought we were wrong on something we had covered.
The last time we had lunch, our meal was punctuated by a steady stream of the restaurant’s other patrons coming over to say hello, each one with a story to tell about the difference Peter had made to them.
He never stopped offering thoughts, encouragement and advice to anyone he met or who wanted to know more about the UAE. That was the Peter I remember. He was dedicated to his craft and to this country.