Peter Popham: Reporting war can possess you

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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.

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