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These Days I am Mostly Reading...
The most socially acceptable way to be insatiably curious about other people’s lives.
Largely by chance, I’ve been getting to know a series of fascinating media figures. Here’s a bit about them.
Hitch 22, by Christopher Hitchens - started this one last night so only two or three chapters in. I disagreed with the late Mr. Hitchens on most things, but what a mind, what a character, and what nerve! I miss him a bit. I miss the outrageous stridency of his views. The memoir is filling the gap somewhat.
Are You Somebody?, by Nuala O’ Faolain - I wept into a plate of sub-standard noodles as I finished this book yesterday. Having recently watched Marian Finucane’s documentary on Nuala (twice), I was delighted to get this hugely successful book as a birthday present. It’s moving, brave, and a shocking insight into 20th Century Irish life.
The Kindness of Strangers, by Kate Adie - Wow. This book has been sitting on my coffee table for over a year, having been lent to me by a friend. Kate Adie is not only one of the foremost foreign correspondents of the last few decades (with good reason), she is also charming, sensitive, and very funny. I lol’d…frequently. Worth reading for the careful observations of many of the key conflicts of the last forty years, but also for a wonderful view of the officious, boozy, chaotic culture of the BBC.
“I keep telling myself to calm down, to take less of an interest in things and not to get so excited, but I still care a lot about liberty, freedom of speech and expression, and fairness in journalism. ”—
— Kate Adie, former chief news correspondent for BBC News
(No matter what happens with changes in journalism, I hope this aspect of it never changes.)
'We don't do beaches'
There’s a new tour company there’s taking niche tourism to a new level with educational trips to some former and current hot spots, such as Bosnia and Serbia, Libya, North Korea, Turkey and Greece.
It’s called “Political Tours” and you get experienced journalists - like Kate Adie of the BBC and Nicholas Wood of The New York Times - or historians, bringing you around and showing you where something happened and why. I guess perhaps it’s a good example of taking a walk through a news story and seeing firsthand what you would normally see from a distance away on your television set, newspaper or web report.
So is it called a holiday if you are visiting the sites of massacres and the homes of victims? That’s a good question that’s explored in a travel feature in the Financial Times:
I’m not so sure that we are not vultures, but, then, I am also not sure that the beady eye of the vulture is any worse than the blind eye of the tourist. Travel may broaden the mind, but so homogenised is the international tourist experience, so perfectly do the high-end hotels and galleries replicate one another, that often all I learn is that I can be as bored in a museum in Istanbul as I can in London. This, however, is different. But is it right?
The Economist also has an article that takes in a few other tour companies and what they are doing, while the BBC takes a good look at “genocide tourism”, also called “dark tourism”, in the wake of England’s footballers visiting the former Auschwitz-Birkenau Nazi death camps before the start of Euro 2012:
People want to be challenged. It may be voyeuristic and macabre but people want to feel those big emotions which they don’t often come across. They want to ask that very basic question about being human - ‘how could we do this?’
(Personally, I travelled to Cambodia’s “killing fields” when I was fresh out of high school and found the experience very powerful.)
Oh, that? It's just another tank.
Aged 7, I did something most boys (and grown up men) would be extremely jealous of – I got to go in a tank. I even got to wear the helmet and flak jacket.
I thought it was completely normal, such was the product of my army brat upbringing and annual visits of tanks and helicopters to my annual school fayre. But the reasons for such musings have sprung from one event; my dad retiring. After 31 long years of service in the Armed Forces – most notably demonstrated by the fact he’s grown an extremely impressive moustache, I’ve started to think about the childhood that I thought was so ordinary, and has become apparent is decidedly the opposite. But how can I explain it to you?
Being a typical small female child infatuated with everything pink and Barbie-related, I was obviously thrilled when the infamous Barbie Campervan turned up on Christmas Day in the late 1990s. I became less thrilled (as did my mother) when we realised how many bits it was in. 2 hours later we found ourselves at a family friend’s house some FIFTY MILES AWAY, getting mum’s friend’s husband (are you following?) to piece together this damned toy and why? Because my dad was away in Bosnia, again. Mum and I laugh now about the fact that she was reduced to tears not over the fact her husband was in some far-off warzone on Christmas Day, but over lurid pink pieces of plastic she couldn’t fashion together quick enough for her over-eager daughter. Sorry Mum.
I grew up on the biggest army base in Europe (at the time the biggest in the world), in a bubble sporadically filled with wire fences, tanks and ‘green goddesses’. I now frequently endure jibes about being ‘German’ on nights out as my driver’s license says I was born in Germany, delivered to the world some 22 years ago at Rinteln hospital, 3 weeks early - because my doctor “had to go on an army skiing exercise.” These were also still the days when you had to check underneath your car as a Brit living in Germany in case someone had strapped a bomb to it. But, that we did without batting an eyelid. I suppose the thing that strikes me the most surreal now is how accepting we were that Dad would just disappear for 3 months, sometimes more, at one time – frequently gone for birthdays and Christmases, and would then reappear and pick right back up from where he’d left off. When I was 13 we moved back to Germany to another massive army base – this time with lots of fellow friendly EU member troops (and the Americans) and the added bonus of a shop that sold all of the American sweets and food my mother specifically didn’t want me to eat. We also had to have horrendous ID cards – so as far as I’m concerned the whole ID card in the UK idea? Been there, done that. Rheindahlen has now been completely wound down, and when I think about it, eerily empty, I feel a bit sad – abandoned housing estates, shopping complexes, restaurants, office blocks, churches, swimming pools and bowling alleys left to sit there. I don’t miss the 10 hour drive we had to do to get me back to school, crossing the channel and 5 countries in one go, but there’s something special about saying you can just pop to Holland for breakfast on a Saturday morning.
Dad’s beginning to talk about his side of the experience now, for the first time that I can remember. Having been out in Northern Ireland at the height of real danger in the 80s, just weeks after proposing to my Mum, he tells stories of car-chases and IRA bombings…and automatically driving at a man holding a speed-gun when he got back to the UK because he’d assumed they were trying to kill him. I’ve also been told never to do that. There are some things I think he’ll never tell me, after all with Northern Ireland, both Gulf Wars, Kosovo and three trips to Afghanistan (at least), there’s a lot to tell, and I’m not naive about the horrors involved.
What I am particularly glad about is him getting over his hatred of journalists – it makes having a daughter who is one a bit awkward frankly. Tainted by a bad experience with Kate Adie’s camera crew out in Bosnia, and having to rescue them from a mine-infested road, has understandably left him a bit jaded about our lot.
After at least three generations of military Miles family members, the buck stops here. It’s been an interesting ride, and with mementos like my NATO flag, photos of healing bullet wounds and a vintage musket, not one that I would swap for anything. With everyone currently breathing a sigh of relief that no Miles can be called to a foreign land full of dangers in the near future, I’m not telling them yet that I want to be a war correspondent. After all, I’d just get the ‘stay away from mines’ talk from Dad….