Among the most shocking aspects of this moving book are the chapter headings - 'Lebanon, November 1986 to April 1988', for instance - which remind one that this was not the ordeal of weeks or months, but of five irreplaceable years in a young man's life. His captors were themselves imprisoned by ignorance, junk culture, repressed sexuality and hysterical approximations to religious feeling. McCarthy's lack of bitterness only increases the reader's sense of indignation.
If a man can be said to be lucky in such a situation, then McCarthy was lucky that his fellow hostage was Brian Keenan. Readers of Keenan's An Evil Cradling will already have a picture of the relationship between the stubborn Irishman and the English public schoolboy: Keenan's angry pride against McCarthy's phlegmatic and practical approach. McCarthy cannot equal Keenan's profound meditations on the nature of their experiences and, wisely, does not try. What he does extremely well is to explain the feelings of the larger group of hostages, including the Americans Tom Sutherland, Terry Anderson and Frank Reed; with great sensitivity, he opens out the difficulties between the Americans touched on by Keenan. His own role was to be the joker, the man whose humour lubricated the inevitable frictions in their tiny cell. But he was more than a clown; he cared deeply if any one of them withheld his love (a word he uses frequently). Tom Sutherland was prone to passages of despair when he would not communicate. 'Sometimes . . . I'd look across to Tom and feel great sorrow to see that fine man lying on the floor in a bleak underground room, with a rough blanket over his legs and cockroaches crawling over him as he slept.'
McCarthy worried that when he was eventually released he would find that Jill Morrell and his other friends had outgrown him. But in his cell he did hear of her dogged work on his behalf, and whatever the Friends of John McCarthy may or may not have achieved diplomatically, they succeeded in giving hope and inspiration to their man. Jill Morrell's contributions to the book give a detailed account of stunts, parties, concerts and persistent Yorkshire nagging at the Foreign Office. Someone called Ivor Roberts epitomised the most supercilious aspect of officialdom; others, such as Andrew Green, later the ambassador to Syria, were more sympathetic and polite.
The book is, alas, too long and needed the kindness of a much firmer editor. The last section is one of the best: it is a fair reward for the anguished reader to be able to share in the homecoming celebrations, though after five years in the belly of the beast there must have been a better way of returning to English soil than with a cross-examination by Douglas Hogg. Even this final indignity is borne with stoic humour.
When Terry Anderson was released, McCarthy and Morrell watched a video of his press conference. Anderson was asked what he made of McCarthy. 'John,' he said, taking a deep breath, 'I think John was the best of us.' Jill Morrell turned to him and saw that he was weeping. She asked why. He replied: 'I just didn't know, I just didn't know if I'd done all right.'
He certainly did all right. This book is fit to stand beside An Evil Cradling as an account of suffering transcended; and anyone who has read Keenan's book will know that there cannot be much higher praise.