The man in the white suit

Martin Booth praises a civilised, compassionate observer of the bestiality of war; In Harm's Way: Reflections of a War Zone Thug by Martin Bell Hamish Hamilton, pounds 15.99

From the Crimea onwards, the war correspondent has observed the realities of battle, reporting them in their entirety. For him, blood is not red and spilled but black, sticky and soaking into sun-warmed concrete; bullets do not whine or zip but come silently and kill messily, with jagged flesh and screams of pain.

So it is for Martin Bell, who has been at - and often in front of - the barricades of Vietnam, the Middle East, Central America, the Gulf and now Bosnia. As a BBC television reporter, he has dug fox-holes with the Desert Rats, invaded Iraq with the Irish Hussars, suffered from current BBC jargon (under the rule of "bimediality", he had to provide a contribution from war-torn Vitez for Radio 4's Farming Today on agriculture in Bosnia: there was none) and, most famously, stopped a bullet on camera in Sarajevo in 1992. It is apt his book is called In Harm's Way, for Bell deliberately steps in harm's direction. It is what he is paid to do, on our behalf. Yet he is far from being "a war zone thug'': his story is that of a civilised and passionate man cast into situations fraught with danger and livid with mankind's bestialities.

Although the book touches on National Service and journalistic stints in earlier wars, it concentrates mainly upon the Bosnian conflict, which Bell has reported almost from the start. More than any of the other 11 wars he has covered, Bosnia has been "a shocking and defining experience" which has fundamentally changed Bell's outlook on the world. The sheer brutality of ethnic hatreds, the settling of old scores by genocide and the impotence of peacekeepers has deeply dismayed him as well as fellow battle-hardened observers. He comments upon these realities not with the detachment of one who has seen it all before, but as one who is attached to the anguish of those caught up in the maelstrom. He also criticises the morality of politicians and the motivation of fighters and UN personnel alike. The war in Bosnia is, he plainly states, an indictment of all mankind.

Yet Bell also writes anecdotally and lovingly of people he has encountered in Bosnia; of the man who herded 11 goats and a BBC crew, and who was shot by a sniper while digging his smallholding; of fellow correspondents such as CNN's Christiane Amanpour who "didn't want her bones jumped"; of the mother in a subterranean bunker in Sarajevo who said her little girl asked, on hearing a gun fire, if this shell was the one to kill them.

Bell's humanity and personality come across with far greater strength here than in his fleeting, charismatic on-camera performances. Despite a life of intense if terrible excitement, he is still one of us, an ordinary man caught up in the annals of politics. In Bosnia, he drives Kevlar-plated Land Rovers called Miss Piggy and Kermit. A superstitious gambler, he carries a lucky silver dollar into battle in the pocket of his lucky white suit. Quite how this suit stays so pristine in the grime of war is one of his best-kept secrets: even when he was shot, it seemed to be spared a smearing of blood. Despite the danger, he only wears his flak jacket on camera, to satisfy BBC bosses: he otherwise removes it to avoid, as he puts it, the status of indemnity.

In his Prologue, Bell writes that this is his first and probably only book, adding it was hard work because he had to spell and punctuate correctly. Television correspondents, after all, speak their lines. Such is his modesty. One must hope he will take heart and write another. His sanity, clarity of vision and humanity are rare, especially coming from the savage world he inhabits and records for others.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

    Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
    A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

    A new Russian revolution

    Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
    Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
    Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

    Standing my ground

    If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
    Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

    Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

    The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
    The man who dared to go on holiday

    The man who dared to go on holiday

    New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

    For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
    The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

    The Guest List 2014

    Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
    Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

    Jokes on Hollywood

    With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on