BOOK REVIEW / The swivel chair on history's front line: 'Fortunate Circumstances' - Trevor McDonald: Weidenfeld, 16.99 pounds

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The Independent Online
TREVOR McDonald is a man after my own heart. He smokes Havana cigars, wears designer shirts, plays cricket and hates violence. Fair play is a natural instinct for a man with such attributes. When, in the Philippines, he comes across a man with a large club beating a defenceless individual senseless, he drags the attacker away and gives him a short, sharp lecture.

Even as a cub reporter on Radio Trinidad, McDonald championed those with unorthodox views and became a fully paid up member of the 'publish and be damned' school. Damned he certainly was. Prime Minister Eric Williams banned him from his weekly press briefings, and the General Manager of Trinidad and Tobago Television was forced to vet the guest list - always crammed with unpopular and controversial figures - for his weekly discussion programme, Dialogue. While working for the BBC World Service at Bush House, he annoyed the MCC and everyone else who wanted South Africa in Test cricket.

Occasionally, his shrewd reporting landed him in really serious trouble. In Northern Ireland he received a message from the IRA: 'We don't like the way you report the Troubles here . . . If you ever come back to Derry, you'll never leave this place alive'. In South Africa he was accused of focusing on the 'sensational' aspects of apartheid, and banned from the country.

Fortunate Circumstances is not an autobiography, but a catalogue of 'major stories I have covered'. But what a catalogue. There is hardly anyone of importance that McDonald has not interviewed, scarcely a place that has escaped the valiant reporter and his 'ITN crew'. The accounts of well-travelled reporters can turn out to be a meandering package tour of exotic locations. But he avoids hackneyed descriptions of colourful natives; instead he gives us snapshots of world history in the making.

We are whisked from Northern Ireland to the United States, Pakistan, Germany, Libya, Zimbabwe, Nicaragua, South Korea, the Philippines and South Africa - always at key moments. The Reagan and Bush elections, the fall of the Berlin wall and the consequent changes in Eastern Europe, the release of Nelson Mendela and the return of hope amongst blacks in South Africa - they are all here, penned in a racy, amiable style. McDonald never knowingly undersells any event. He does not just describe what he saw and experienced - he wants to analyse and explain each incident.

When in Pakistan, for example, he not only meets and cultivates a friendship with President Zia ul-Haq, but develops a sophisticated understanding of the damage inflicted by American aid on the country. In Nicaragua, we are not just treated to an interview with President Daniel Ortega, but also given a historical perspective on how America has consistently undermined democracy in this 'revolutionary' country. Similarly, the revolution in the Philippines and the fall of President Marcos, and the fall from grace of President Chun Doo Huan of South Korea, are fleshed out with some perceptive analysis.

But McDonald is at his best when meeting the outsiders in international politics. His encounters with Jesse Jackson, Nelson Mandela and Yasser Arafat make riveting reading. And for sheer impact and lunacy, his chase across the desert to interview Colonel Gaddafi, and the hassles and frustrations in Baghdad to get 'that interview' with President Saddam Hussein cannot be beaten. The interview with Arafat nearly cost him his life; the rendezvous with Gaddafi compromised his sanity; and the confrontation with Saddam Hussein became a real test of his patience.

Not surprisingly, everyone McDonald meets is 'courteous to the extreme'. He gets beneath the skin of his subjects - more than simply opening up to him, they become his lifelong, cigar sharing, friends. With such gifts it is a pity that he is satisfied with being the 'sole anchor' of News at Ten. He ought to be still out there, reporting, filming and distilling history for the less fortunate rest of us.

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