Jane Austen made those long nights in Tripoli bearable

World View: There's more to being a reporter than knowing your way around: you need to pass the time

Share
Related Topics

The boredom of travel is frequently understated by travel writers. They dwell on the exhilarating time spent on the Nile and the Grand Canal or seeing the wonders of Istanbul and Damascus rather than the hours of tedium in airport lounges and hotels bedrooms.

What is true for tourists is true for foreign correspondents. For many years, if somebody had given me a word association test and said "Tripoli" or "Colonel Gaddafi", I would have responded "Emma" or "Mrs Bennet". This was the result of visits to Libya in the 1980s and 1990s when I, along with many other journalists, had been called by the Libyan People's Bureau in London and told that a half-forgotten request to interview "Brother Leader" had at last been granted.

The first time this happened to me, I was staying in a tiny room the size of a coffin in the Libya Palace Hotel in Tripoli without much sign that the promised meeting with the colonel was going to happen any time soon, though I could not leave the hotel for long in case the promised call from his underlings finally came through. Other correspondents in a similar position muttered and complained, but I lay on my bed happily engulfed by the world of Jane Austen and the decorous gentry of early-19th-century England and was confident that I had packed enough of her novels to keep me going until I went home.

The choice of books for travel is not easily made. It is important not to get overexcited and bring too many worthy books one has intended reading for years but somehow never got round to. I remember an American correspondent – I think it was Curtis Wilkie of The Boston Globe – telling me in Beirut, in about 1983, that he suspected one of his arms had grown longer than the other because for years he had been carrying in his case A la recherche du temps perdu. He explained that he was always on the verge of getting stuck into it, but somehow the moment for the big Proust read never came.

Different books suit different countries. For instance, the world evoked by Shakespeare's history plays was very similar to life in Iraq under Saddam Hussein, which swirled with intrigue, treachery, violence and war. Even after the fall of Saddam in 2003, a correspondent told me that she had just been to see on stage in London all three parts of Henry VI because the Wars of the Roses in late medieval England was so very like contemporary Iraq.

Saddam at bay after defeat in 1991 reminded me of Satan's defiance when confined to hell in Paradise Lost. I still have a ragged paperback copy of the poem with details of the world's biggest mosque that Saddam was trying to build at the old Muthanna airport in Baghdad scrawled on its last pages. An engineering professor I knew was involved in constructing the mosque; he phoned me in my hotel room when I was reading the poem and unexpectedly revealed, as I hastily jotted down what he was saying, why Iraq did not have the materials to build this megalomaniac project.

Some books are worth carrying because they are so different from what one is writing about. Covering warfare in northern Iraq after the US invasion, I used to sit in my hotel room in Arbil reading Anthony Trollope, because the intrigues over preferment in the Anglican church in the 19th century felt benign and calming compared to the sectarian and ethnic butchery all around me.

Travel books are often disappointing because the author simply does not know enough about the country where he or she is travelling. Access by wandering travellers to many countries in the Middle East, West Asia and large parts of Africa has become more difficult over the past 40 years. I felt envy when I first read Robert Byron's The Road to Oxiana as he travels largely unhindered from Beirut to Jerusalem and on to Baghdad, Tehran and Afghanistan.

Whereas travel books are often overrated, guidebooks are generally underpraised. Standards of accuracy are high and their authors do not obtrude like the swankier, if often mock-modest, professional travel writers. Sadly, the internet's up-to-the-minute information on hotels and restaurants means such guides are not the money-spinners the best of them used to be.

In Libya, you were stymied if you did not bring books. "It used to be easier to bring a weapon through Tripoli airport than a book," one Libyan told me last year. "They took books off you and held them there for three or four months." In Beirut and Kabul, the situation was much better since each had one very good bookshop. Baghdad has its famous book market in al-Mutanabbi Street, where the book dealers laid their books on the ground. As sanctions ruined the Iraqi intelligentsia in the 1990s, it was deeply touching to see them sell libraries built up since they were students.

A good professional reason for carrying a suitcase of books on journalistic travels is simply that there is no other way of swiftly acquiring knowledge of a country. It is an absurd waste of time to start on interviews with local leaders without having much idea about makes them tick.

Reading books should also make journalists modest about any claim to write the first draft of history. For instance, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, former British ambassador in Kabul, writes in his recently published memoir, Ever the Diplomat: Confessions of a Foreign Office Mandarin, that the worst mistake made by the Foreign Office over the past 30 years, aside from the invasion of Iraq, was "its enthusiastic endorsement of Britain's half-baked effort to occupy Helmand in 2006".

The cost so far is 400 British soldiers and thousands of Afghans dead and £20bn spent, but how many British journalists have described this disastrous venture for what it is?

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: IT Engineer

£21000 - £23600 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join...

Recruitment Genius: Purchase Ledger & Arrears Supervisor

£22000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you are an experienced super...

Recruitment Genius: Graphic Web Designer

£23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to expansion, this leading ...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to expansion, this leading ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Now’s the time to bring back Top Of The Pops

David Lister
Amanda Knox will learn today if her conviction for murdering British student Mereditch Kercher has been upheld  

Amanda Knox: A retrial, two films and endless speculation - will the fascination with Meredith Kercher's murder ever end?

Peter Popham
The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss