BOOK REVIEW / Yellow ribbons for England's best-loved freak: Sue Gaisford is drained and exhilarated by the story of John McCarthy and Jill Morrell: Some other rainbow - John McCarthy & Jill Morrell: Bantam, pounds 14.99

MOROCCO was playing World Cup football one night in the summer of 1986 when a huge banner was unfurled near the scoreboard, where it was bound to appear on television. It read 'John McCarthy Beirut: Tinker Taylor says TTRA'. The cryptic message referred to an old joke about roll-your-own cigarettes: it meant Time To Roll Another, but very few people could have guessed that. It was put there in the hope that McCarthy just might be near a screen, that his captors would be likely to watch football, particularly when Arab countries were playing, and that he would know he was not forgotten. It was the first round of a long, exhausting and magnificent fight to get him out.

Though he didn't see it, the thinking was right. McCarthy was sometimes allowed to watch football - for a while he thought Lineker was the Arabic word for goal. More than that, when news of the campaign filtered through to him, it did give him a colossal boost. Also, the fact that such a message referred to a daft joke underlined the strength he was to gain from never losing his sense of humour, however appalling his circumstances.

If you dare mention luck in this context, he was lucky to have Brian Keenan with him. Keenan had been snatched on 11 April and McCarthy, in Beirut with a television news company, had gone to the university to get a picture of him, little guessing that his own freedom had less than a week to run. Looking at the hairy wild-eyed fellow in the photograph, he had decided he 'would be best avoided on a dark night or in a small room'. One dark night two months later, Keenan appeared in McCarthy's small room, eliciting the immortal greeting, 'Fuck me, it's Ben Gunn'.

It is extremely touching to read about their friendship. Relentless teasing and taunting never obscured the real love between them, which the American hostages found baffling at first. Keenan was often angrier and bolder than McCarthy, who shied from the violence that escape attempts might have necessitated, and who now fears that his public school education had taught him that it's often easier to adjust to rules than to change them. The only weapon the hostages had was suicide by hunger strike, but McCarthy was the one who stopped the others taking that option. In the case of Tom Sutherland, the old school was really useful. Persuading him to keep going by reminding him of his family, he realised it was the kind of awful emotional blackmail he knew so well: 'You're a disgrace to the house, to the school, to your parents and most of all to yourself' - but it worked.

They had some books - rather an odd selection. An instructive manual on breast-feeding, a novel about a photographer killed in Beirut and the last, gory volume of From Here to Eternity, which made him suspect the Islamic Jihad Library Service of forcing them ever deeper into depression. But The Wooden Horse, about an escape from Colditz and, to his surprise, Jane Eyre, were more inspiring. From a James Bond story they learnt how to play chemin de fer - according to Keenan, he is still owed a 10-year-old Mercedes as a result - and from an old copy of Newsweek they learnt about the Salman Rushdie fatwa. Chained to the wall in a tiny underground cell, fed almost exclusively on jam sandwiches and deprived of all comforts, they were probably the only people to envy him his conditions of 'imprisonment' in England.

Meanwhile, back in London, the Rushdie affair was one of many setbacks for Jill Morrell. The stubborn refusal of the Foreign Office to do anything at all to look for the hostages is appalling to read about. Nobody wanted the kind of deal that would encourage more kidnaps, but every other government seemed to be able to do something, while even the ideas suggested by the British ambassador in Beirut had been vetoed by Mrs Thatcher. Jill Morrell leads us through the tortured reasoning behind it all, making it clear exactly how she came to the reluctant decision that publicity was necessary.

The Friends of John McCarthy was an organisation born of desperation that grew and grew because so many people longed to help. A director of Bartle Bogle Hegarty offered the services of his advertising agency free and came up with the wonderful Close Your Eyes and Think of England campaign; many famous people came and performed at the benefit 'An Evening Without John McCarthy' - and nearly 2,000 supporters attended it. Jill's Auntie Shirley lobbied her MP so fiercely that her postman thought she was running for Parliament. By the time he came home, she says, he was everybody's son, everybody's brother, everybody's lover.

This publicity was to backfire. The last part of the book comes after the happy ending, when the pair of them had to try to adjust. Each admits to feeling guilty, she for making him so uncomfortably famous, he for being free while others were still imprisoned. He was trying to learn again to do the simplest things, like focusing on a horizon, making tea or even walking on rough ground, but to everyone else, he was a folk hero, as he puts it, 'the best-loved freak in the land'. Complete strangers would cry over him or want to touch him and the press hounded him. He was constantly nervous, often terrified. Jill, her all-consuming crusade suddenly over, found it almost as confusing having to look after him. Time meant such different things to them both: for her there had never been enough to get everything done, for him there had been far too much. Suddenly, there was just as much as they wanted, if they were just allowed to take it.

They are better now. Writing this book, taking it in turns to write each long section (until the very end where, symbolically, they almost overlap) has clearly helped them to understand their own attitudes and experiences as well as each other's. It is an astonishing achievement: while often wildly funny, it is also humbling, draining, exhausting and ultimately exhilarating to read.

The really remarkable thing is that they combine meticulous honesty with such gentle understanding and lack of rancour. Almost the only thing they will probably never forgive, in a story with more than its share of disappointments and betrayals, is the death of John's mother, not knowing if her son would ever come back. Yet even as he reeled from the shock of hearing it, he remembered her saying: 'Felix, we should have called you Felix, it would have been so right for you; it means happy and you are happy.' If ever anybody deserved to be happy, these two do.

(Photograph omitted)

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury


Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas


Arts and Entertainment


Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7


Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary


Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige


Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
    Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

    Confessions of a former PR man

    The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

    Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

    Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
    London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

    The mother of all goodbyes

    Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
    Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

    Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

    The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
    Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions