Peter Popham: Reporting war can possess you

Notebook

Share
Related Topics

As the Libyan war grinds on to its denouement, spare a thought for the war correspondents who have brought us every bloody twist of the story so far.

No other form of journalism sucks one in so totally as reporting a war. You are on the front page, or contending for it, day after day. You work from dawn until you drop, there is nothing else to do, nowhere to go, nothing to think about but what is and is not happening out there, how to get as close to it as possible without risking your life, how to make sense of it...then you bash out your stuff and bung it over, and if at the end of that there is a beer or something stronger to hand, all the better.

The Libyan war has been hairier to report than most because the good guys, despite Nato's backing, seemed so amateurish and chaotic, as this newspaper's Kim Sengupta was one of the first to report.

I remember scenes as chaotic as those in the early days of the American invasion of Afghanistan in November 2001. The Taliban had vanished from Kabul but foreign ground troops had yet to arrive, and in the meantime the Northern Alliance forces were battling it out with Talibnan remnants a few kilometres south of the capital. We correspondents were free to wander around the battlefield at will – one reason why, at that point, journalist casualties outnumbered those of foreign soldiers.

For all the horror and suffering, reporting a war is one of the most exciting jobs in the world. But a career? As Janine di Giovanni's harrowing new memoir Ghosts by Daylight brings out, you cannot do this job year after year without being scarred, even if, like her, you tell yourself that you have survived intact.

For sanity's sake I feel it is something to be got through, something to be got out of the system, because as long as you are in that world it possesses you completely. I have just been reading Winston Churchill's My Early Life in which he describes how, as a young and impecunious cavalry officer based in Bangalore, he succeeded in blagging his way to the North-West Frontier – as lively, not to mention terrifying, then as now – where he combined death-defying soldiering with filing war reports for the London papers. He went on to repeat the same trick in Sudan, where he both took part in and reported the last cavalry charge in history, and South Africa – by which time the top generals were so livid with him for mixing up his two roles that they refused to have anything to do with him.

Of course, if you want to pull off a stunt like that it helps to be the cousin of the Duke of Marlborough. But Churchill knew what he was doing: within weeks of returning from the Boer War frontline he had won election to parliament. He never looked back.

Our attitude to gypsies says a lot about us

It is right that the dispute over Dale Farm's travellers should have been internationalised, with the UN offering the community its support, because mainstream society's new-found intolerance of its nomads is one of the ugliest developments in Europe of the past few years.

For five decades after World War Two gypsies and other travelling communties were a non-problem. But as I discovered on a recent visit to Hungary, that was because the communist governments of Eastern Europe merely swept them under the carpet. In their obsession with social tidiness, everyone with his home and his job under the wing of the state, caravans and the rambling lifestyle had no hope of survival: the gypsies were dragooned into bleak housing estates and put to work in factories and on building sites, and the problem was “solved.”

Except of course it wasn't: all the simmering anti-gypsy prejudice survived, and when communism collapsed, they were the first to be sacked. They became a permanent drag on the fragile post-communist economies, no longer obliged to work, bitterly resented by ordinary Hungarians for their milking of the welfare system.

Hungary is now trying to solve the problem by bringing jobs and training into the gypsy communities. I wish them well, but this can't be the only solution. Many travellers, in Britain more than many places, still like to travel, however inconvenient this may seem for the rest of us. A civilised country would find ways to allow them to do that with a bit of dignity.

Farewell gastropubs, long live gastropubs

So the gastropub is on the way out, we are told: the Good Food Guide has banished the term from its latest edition, and even some of the pioneering landlords are repudiating the title. This is, one hopes, only a tactical retreat, not a rout, because the best of the gastropubs did, and still do, something very valuable.

George Orwell's fantasy pub, the Moon under Water, served liver sausage sandwiches, mussels, cheese, pickles, and meat and two veg at lunchtime upstairs. Besides being a fantasy, that was 60 years ago: we were ready for places as informal as a proper pub but where the food was neither a bore nor an embarrasment.

The Eagle and the Lansdowne in Primrose Hill, to mention two leading London examples, provided that. The other joy of the gastropub was that, like all proper pubs, each one was quite different. So what went wrong? Capitalism, in a word: certain bright boys saw in the concept the making of chains and franchises, those curses of everyday British life.

The term quickly and rightly became a swear word. But the good ones will endure.

React Now

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

Opilio Recruitment: UX & Design Specialist

£40k - 45k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: A fantastic opportunity ...

Opilio Recruitment: Publishing Application Support Analyst

£30k - 35k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: We’re currently re...

Opilio Recruitment: Digital Marketing Manager

£35k - 45k per year + benefits: Opilio Recruitment: A fantastic opportunity ...

Opilio Recruitment: Sales Manager

£60k - 80k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: A fantastic opportunity ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Our political system is fragmented, with disillusioned voters looking to the margins for satisfaction  

Politics of hope needed to avert flight to margins

Liam Fox
David Cameron delivers his speech on immigration at the JCB World Headquarters in Rocester, Staffordshire  

Cameron's speech was an attempt to kill immigration as an election issue

Andrew Grice
Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game