Robert Fisk: Thank you, readers, for these gems

Why, I find myself asking when I read them, can't we journalists write like this?

Share
Related Topics

Once a week, my mail package arrives from The Independent foreign desk in London. It contains anything up to 250 letters and parcels, and wherever I am – in the hot smog of Cairo, amid the Atlantis towers of Dubai or on my own flower-smothered balcony in Beirut – I never cease to be amazed. Some letters are just plain asinine. Others are packed with the kind of psychobabble that makes me writhe with fury. Most are eloquent to the point of literature, analysing human folly, family history and war with a grace and philosophical wisdom that leave me breathless. Why oh why, I find myself asking when I read them, can't we journalists write like this?

So this week's column is dedicated to our readers. The most ridiculous letter first. It arrives each year from a public relations company in London, seeking my thoughts on some item of news that has absolutely nothing to do with the Middle East. It is always correctly addressed to "Robert Fisk, c/o Foreign Desk, The Independent, etc". But it always begins with the imperishable words: "Dear Mr Desk..." Sorry, no reply.

Then there are the universities seeking lectures from me. The latest (I will keep this academy mercifully anonymous) invites me to speak on the Middle East and "to challenge the mainstream hegemonic and ethnocentric discourse about radicalism ... in order to gain a better understanding of the multidimensionality of the problem". Jesus, Joseph and Mary!!! This is enough to make you join the Taliban. I phoned back to tell the culprits that I will consider the invitation – if they write again without using this anthropological claptrap, as insulting to the writer as it is to the recipient.

But now to the gems. First, here comes Kathie Somervil-Ayrton from Marienbad (as in Last Year in...). She recalls an article I wrote about the funeral of a Norwegian friend in a heavily Teutonic church in Oslo, and the brief mention I made of the graves of wartime RAF crews outside the entrance. I quote Ms Somervil-Ayrton's words exactly: "In one of the ... war graves you mention ... lies my Uncle Cyril Berger, lost on the coast of Norway until, I understand, his aircraft and the bodies of the crew were found much later. He was the youngest of my Grandmother's six children – tall, blond, debonair, looking more like a young blond Viking than of Russian Jewish descent – as most of us are in the family but that is another story. I inherited from my Mother (who, like Grandmama, never got over his death) my Grandmother's Victorian mourning book – black enamel with pearls and in the middle, in a very small gold frame – his photo in his leather flyer's cap, goggles on forehead, immensely grinning, thumbs up – there must have been (another) photo somewhere – all gone now – with so much else from both sides in Russia – all thrown out with the rubbish when Grandmama died – no one wanted to know, much less remember...

"I remember him well – he came over (from New York) to be trained as an airman ... and I was allowed to go with my father to meet him at the station ... but now I am the last to remember him – so vividly – and as I am 78 – when I die there will be no one left – this is, of course, in the nature of things. But when, at 19, one dies for one's country and what that country stands for – it should not pass unnoticed if possible."

Then there arrives another letter from Ms Somervil-Ayrton, remembering how I once sat next to the late Mstislav Rostropovich en route to Beirut with what he called his "wife" – his sacred cello – on the seat beside him. Did I know, asks Ms S-A, the airline story about Piatigorsky, "who had the reputation Rostropovich has now"? I fumble for my massive, 2,239-page edition of the Norwegian K B Sandved's The World of Music, a weighty heart attack of a book wherein, on page 1622, I find "Gregor Piatigorsky, Russian-American cellist, born 1903". He began life by playing at his local cinema, but at 14 was engaged by the Imperial Opera in Moscow. At the revolution, smugglers got him out of Russia, leaving him stripped and penniless in Poland but he became first cellist in the Berlin Philharmonic and toured the US in 1929 where Samuel Chotzinoff wrote that in his hands "the cello loses its limitations, his playing is as light and brilliant as if he were playing a violin".

Now back to Ms S-A who writes how Piatigorsky "was shopping around for an airline that would carry his cello free of charge – as he was sick of all the hassle and expense ... he managed to find one – 'Of course, Mr. Piatigorsky – of course' – and went on the appointed day to pick up his tickets. To his surprise, they proudly presented one for himself and one in the name of Miss Cello Piatigorsky. I think he had to pay anyway...".

And now comes James Brannan of Strasbourg who read my article on the man who shot Nelson at Trafalgar (a Frenchman who was the friend of a Paris artificer who ... I won't go on). Well, according to Mr Brannan, "This exploit was claimed by an ancestor of mine, Henry Renouf of Jersey ... it is just a family legend and most probably fiction." Mr Brannan draws my attention, however, to another Jerseyman, John Pollard, a midshipman on board the Victory at Trafalgar in 1805 who was credited with shooting the man who shot Nelson. Mr Brannan later worked at the International Court of Justice in the Hague where "I was once reprimanded for advertising a party in aid of the victims in Chechnya. I have a letter saying that I breached the staff regulations for expressing views on a conflict! A few months later, Putin was received at the court with great pomp...".

Hypocrisy grips our readers, so I will end with two verses from a poem sent me by James McIntyre of Strasbourg, called "Rendition": "I know an English word, 'rendition'/I know I never use it wrong!/It means 'the reading of a poem'/Or 'the singing of a song'... Our agents representing us/Are what we need, the very thing,/Conduct themselves as we'd expect/They 'render' terrorists – to 'sing'."

Speechless, I am.

Robert Fisk's 'The Age of the Warrior: Selected Writings', a selection of his Saturday columns in 'The Independent', is published by Fourth Estate

React Now

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

Cover Supervisor

£75 - £90 per day + negotiable: Randstad Education Group: Are you a cover supe...

Marketing Manager - Leicestershire - £35,000

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (CIM, B2B, MS Offi...

Marketing Executive (B2B and B2C) - Rugby, Warwickshire

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful organisation wit...

SEN Coordinator + Teacher (SENCO)

£1 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Job Purpose To work closely with the he...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Piper Ryan Randall leads a pro-Scottish independence rally in the suburbs of Edinburgh  

i Editor's Letter: Britain survives, but change is afoot

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
Some believe that David Cameron is to blame for allowing Alex Salmond a referendum  

Scottish referendum: So how about the English now being given a chance to split from England?

Mark Steel
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam