Pictures maketh the man. But do they? I look around my Beirut apartment and am frightened at the choice of paintings and lithographs and photographs on my walls. There are American soldiers leading Iraqis into captivity in 1991. There is a startling poster of Iraqi refugees in 2003, drawn for a lecture I gave in Galway by a young Irishman who had never been to Iraq. The fear in a little girl's eyes stares back at me from this blood-red poster. There is even a painting of an Irish ghost train by Ted Turton, puffing contentedly – carriages all lit up – over a moonlit railway bridge of which only the piers still exist.
I guess we correspondents grab the things which grip us in long and dangerous lives. In the hall by my office is a lovely copy of a watercolour by the Lebanese artist Farrouk – Rocks and Pine Trees 1935, Lebanon – which may have been my attempt to soften the walls, to evoke the fragrance of mountain valleys amid all the harsher things which adorn my apartment. There is also a bright oil painting of Lebanese cedars by a long-standing Finnish friend, the slowly fading valleys of blue mists behind the trees perfectly rendered. But I am drawn to other pictures.
There are three precious lithographs of the débarquement des premières troupes françaises à Beyrouth and there are indeed the French soldiers coming ashore from their sailing ships, republican blue uniforms and red kepis, to save the Christians in Lebanon during the civil war of 1860. One illustration shows the French army camping at the forêt des pins which remains today the location of the French ambassador's residence. Another illustration – clearly cut from a French magazine of 1860 – shows more French soldiers rowing into Beirut harbour, a magnificent Crusader castle behind them. And yes, the Lebanese tore the entire castle down 100 years ago to use as a stone quarry.
Then there's a photograph of the old Beirut police headquarters at the end of the 1975-90 civil war, a pseudo Gothic building in ruins which prime minister Rafiq Hariri pulled down and then told me this was a mistake. I keep it there to remind me of how he promised to rebuild it. He never did, of course. More movingly, there's an oil painting by a Jewish reader of The Independent. Old Jim Hirst asked me for a photograph of the Beirut ruins when the war was over and painted this bleak, stark reminder of the disasters of conflict, a house sheared neatly in half, still standing on an old city wall.
Jim and I had sparred many times over my reporting of the Middle East, but I eventually met him in London and helped him to edit a book of his life – he was torpedoed in the English Channel while serving on a merchant ship in 1940 – which was sadly never published. His description of growing up poor in London's East End was an eye-opener for me. Eventually, he wrote to say he was dying of cancer and would like to see a photograph of his painting hanging on my wall.
As I gravitate towards my front door, I find that years ago, I framed a postcard which I had bought in Paris. There was a holiday message on the back: "I hope that you will look after your beautiful sister in my absence." It was sent to a Madame Burtoy in the Marne but its writer's signature is illegible. The card was posted in Vienna and received in France on 5 July 1914. But the photograph on this holiday card is of the Archduke Ferdinand. "Leaving the Town Hall five minutes before the attack," it is printed on the card and there is the Archduke, plumed hat and medals, on the arm of his wife, a sunny day in Sarajevo, 28 June 1914, only five minutes left for both of them to live, a group of fawning Muslim notables saluting their departure. I tell my friends it is a warning. You never know what happens when you walk out the front door.
What happened to the card's sender? And what happened to Madame Burtoy's home when the Marne was so swiftly overwhelmed in the aftermath of the archduke's assassination? Beside it, however, hangs a darker painting, given to me by the German Institute in Beirut after I delivered a lecture to their members eight years ago. Printed on silk, it shows a sunny landscape of red-roofed farm cottages, blue mountains behind – like my painting of the cedar trees – and was painted by Wolfgang Correns, a quiet countryside, Germany 1935, the same year that Farrouk painted his innocent pine trees in Lebanon. Correns was married to Eva Wedekind, daughter of a famous German poet, and Hitler had been in power for two years. Who lived in those houses?
Correns spent the Second World War in Berlin and was there at the end – he died in 1958 – but his 22-year-old son bravely deserted from the Wehrmacht, refusing to fight for Hitler, and hid in the basement of his grandfather's home in Berlin until the Soviet Army hoisted their banner over the Brandenberg Gate. Shortly after the fall of Berlin, he emerged from his hiding place and was in the garden of his grandfather's home when he was shot dead by Russian troops. His name was Robert.
What do they mean, all these pictures? The French landing in Beirut in 1860 in the first civil war, Jim's oil painting of the ruined house from the latest civil war – the same Jim whose ship was sunk five years before Robert Correns was shot; the Archduke, 21 years before Wolfgang Correns painted his idyllic German countryside and Farrouk painted Lebanon, pompously saluting with his white gloved hand as the world was about to be destroyed? I rather suspect that paintings and photographs build up their own hidden relationships as they hang on our walls, that perhaps this is why we collect them – on a whimsy, perhaps, which acquires meaning the longer they are there. I ask myself what they are trying to convey as they hang there at night, the ocean roaring outside my windows. Pictures, I suspect, speak to each other. I try to read their message.