Telling Derek Wilson he had missed the story was going to be a delicate exercise. He had been working on his autobiography for the ten years I had known him; he was a hardened former BBC war correspondent who had been everywhere and done everything; and he was twice my age. To a large extent he was my mentor and an avuncular figure.
"I'm going to flatter you," he had said, handing me the completed draft. I was the first person to read it.
I decided to break it to him over the main course, after the first litre of Frascati. "I think that instead of writing about yourself, you should write about Ennio," I said as gently as possible. "The real story here is Ennio's life: the illiterate monastery slave who became a famous war photographer. It's a Dick Whittington-style tale with a dark, depressing twist."
At first, Derek took it well. "Dick Whittington..." I saw him write in his notepad.
Then he took it badly. Who was I to pass judgment on his news sense, he no doubt thought? He didn't say as much, but I felt him bristle with pride and indignation whenever the subject was mentioned. He was determined to write a traditional set of memoirs based on the diaries he kept over decades. It was to be his swan song, all of it fact.
He did indeed have a story to tell. The late BBC heavyweight Brian Barron, a close friend, listed his achievements in the obituary he wrote for The Times. "For 20 years Derek Wilson was a frontline reporter who covered the disintegration of Aden, the Vietnam War and the Argentine junta," Barron wrote. After spending his national service "debriefing suspected communist spies and former Nazi officials in occupied Germany", Wilson joined Reuters, then AFP. The French agency posted him first to Aden, then to Saigon. "He came into his own in 1975 when South Vietnam collapsed to an armoured column from Hanoi," recalled Barron. "By then he was the SouthEast Asia correspondent of the BBC World Service and, like the handful of BBC journalists still in Saigon, he ignored instructions from the BBC Governors in London that everyone had to evacuate.
"His coverage was near-legendary, filing a mix of the straightforwardly dramatic and political analysis of America’s lost crusade. He saw the lead North Vietnamese tanks sweep into Saigon and smash through the gates of the presidential palace."
After Saigon came Buenos Aires and a six-year stint as the BBC Latin America corespondent. Derek was then posted to Madrid, where he chronicled Spain's post-Franco resurgence. It was all told a star-studded career, but upon retirement, in Rome, Derek was wracked with loneliness and guilt.
Ennio's suicide (a reference to which was mysteriously subbed out of the obituary) obsessed him to the day he died. For long periods you would find him in his rooftop apartment near Piazza Santa Maria Maggiore hunched over his diaries in a fruitless attempt to unearth a clue, an explanation for Ennio's decision. His favourite theory was based on class; one should not look to lift people above their natural station, he concluded. Ennio was a poor humble boy; it was wrong to seek to create a sophisticated photographer out of him.
But there was more to it than that. Journalists can get too close to their story. Derek could deconstruct world events and explain them to the man on the street, but he struggled to make sense of his own life.
He was in reality living an Italian version of Pygmalion with a sinister sexual backdrop. He had transformed Ennio, the shoeshine boy he met at a bus shelter in Rome, into a Pulitzer-prize nominated photo-reporter. But he did not fully understand that Ennio carried psychological baggage he could never overcome. Derek was gay but Ennio wasn't. It was only out of desperation that Ennio agreed to a gay relationship. When the two met Ennio was a male prostitute. But given half a chance he was chasing skirt like a stereotypical Italian. This contradiction was bound to ruin their relationship.
Around two years later, shortly before he died, Derek came around to my idea.
"If you think it's such a good story, you do it," he said, sending me both his own work and another autobiography - Ennio's.
Amazingly, at the age of 20, Ennio typed up the chilling story of his childhood using Reuters stationery while living here in Brussels. It was, Derek explained, a "lobotomy job". By putting down his tale of neglect and abandonment Ennio hoped never to have to think about it again. He showed it to no-one. Derek only read it many years later.
"I feel duty-bound to get the story read in any way," Derek told me after sending me his package.
"OK," I replied, "I'll give it a go."
Pictured above, Derek Wilson & Justin Stares, Rome 1994.
Pictured below, Derek & Ennio, Rome.