Friday 30 November 2007

Alan Johnston & Jon Snow at the RSA

I meant to post this Wednesday but work pressures intervened….

I found myself this lunchtime at the lovely RSA building just off the Strand, sitting in a muralled 250-year-old room with a small group of mostly older, eccentric academics facing a desk behind which Jon Snow, the hugely respectable Channel 4 newsreader, faced back, killing a few minutes until the subject of the “In Conversation with” event, former BBC Gaza correspondent Alan Johnston, managed to extricate himself from a taxi caught in traffic to reach us.

The RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures & Commerce) “works to remove the barriers to social progress” by driving “ideas, innovation and social change” through lectures and the like. When I entered its lovely house and said I’d come for the Alan Johnston lecture, I was bemused to be asked if I were one of the speakers. Not just because, statistically, I should think it safe to assume that most of the people coming for the event would not be one of the speakers, but also because it’s been a long while since I’ve been mistaken for either Jon Snow or Alan Johnston, particularly when wearing a skirt. I did wonder if I should offer to have a go, giving Alan a rest from repeating the story of his kidnap, but I know I would disappoint his audience.

Despite these shortcomings, I was shown to the Great Room, with its surrounding James Barry murals called The Progress of Human Knowledge and Culture, where the small group gathering included many forthright grey-haired professor types, including a dignified bearded man in cycle gear with what looked like a miner’s lamp strapped to his forehead, who got up from his front row seat to help himself to a handful of the wrapped mints in a bowl on the desk reserved for Jon Snow and Alan Johnston. I guessed that must be a privilege reserved for RSA fellows.

When Jon Snow came in and sat beside the depleted mint bowl, Jonathan Carr-West of the RSA explained the plan to begin In Conversation with Alan Johnston without Alan Johnston, when I doubt we’d mind waiting. Apparently Snow had agreed at short notice to chair this event; I wondered who had dropped out, but he seemed ideally suited, particularly as an impressive past foreign correspondent himself and patron of Prisoners Abroad. Carr-West earned a chuckle and a surprised look from Snow when he suggested that Snow kill time by giving us an early peak at the evening news.

Snow explained that, when Alan joined us, it would be their first meeting, though he could confirm that Alan was as modest and straightforward as he appeared, and described him as a “high quality hack as we all aspire to be”. He noted that this conversation would be taking place the day after the Middle East peace talks in Annapolis which, he said, basically altogether excluded Gaza, where the situation would grow consistently worse every year of our lives. He said he hoped but doubted the talks would help, and it seemed odd that Bush, a man of many holidays, had suddenly taken an interest in the topic so late in his presidency, compared to Clinton who worked so hard to help.

He mentioned that Norman Kember was in the audience and hoped he and Alan would talk about their shared experiences. Snow did not explain but Kember, a retired professor of biophysics, was one of four peace activists kidnapped in Iraq in 2005 and held for three months before a British special forces-led initiative freed them—all but the American, who sadly had been executed. Controversy ensued as the military did not believe Kember explicitly thanked his rescuers and said they’d had to devote valuable resources to freeing him when he’d ignored advice not to go to Baghdad in the first place.

At this point, Alan Johnston rather humbly entered the room bedecked with blue--blazer, shirt and jeans—with nearly a twinkle in his eye, and took his seat beside Snow to great applause. He immediately launched into that enthusiastic and fluid style of speaking, apologising profusely for being (only slightly) tardy and out of breath as he’d had to abandon the taxi and run here from the Tube station, and he said this was the first time in about five years that he’d been late for anything. With that knowledge and the suggestion when I arrived that I was his doppelganger, I must be the Bizarro Alan.

Snow took over to let Alan get his breath back, saying that the last time he’d seen Alan was in a photo he was holding whilst standing with myriad colleagues in protest at Alan’s kidnap earlier this year. Alan described how, on a rare occasion when his moody guard let him see the television, he caught a glimpse of the coverage of those worldwide protests and had seen in the faces of many of those taking part a look that they thought Alan was gone for good, which had been harrowing.

He referred to the fact that, at the time of his kidnap, he had only days left before his contract in Gaza finished and he had already booked his flight, so one of the hardest days of his captivity was the day he knew he should be in a departure lounge catching that flight with an empty seat.

Alan confirmed Snow’s comment that he wasn’t a religious man, telling the Bishop’s son that he had never prayed before being kidnapped so he felt it would be wrong to do so during his captivity, although there was one night when he briefly considered that it might not do any harm, but he’d seen so much suffering amongst innocent people that he felt that if there were a God, He didn’t get that involved in our daily lives or that—in such situations--perhaps He would not need to be asked.

The first audience member to ask a question was a young woman Alan greeted with a smile of delighted recognition, as it transpired she’d once worked with him. She said, on the glorious day we woke to the news of his freedom, she just knew the first thing he’d do was cut his hair despite surely competing priorities, and indeed he appeared at the big press conference that followed with a shaven head (referring to it as helping to remove that “just kidnapped look”). She asked whether, in the immediate chaos that followed his release and being taken to meet the Hamas leader, he just longed for some time to himself. He replied that, as a journalist, he was aware of the circus that could be expected and knew his time would not be his own, although he might have preferred to do things other than, for instance, have breakfast with the Hamas cabinet. He found when he returned to Scotland that his parents’ house and lawn were full of “our colleagues”, and he’d had to stress to those journalists, “I’m the same, I’m the same, I’m the same!” As for the haircut, it was a priority although he was not a vain man, and someone had unkindly said he’d looked like Krusty the Clown from The Simpsons on his release.

Norman Kember spoke next, referring to his own police-issue haircut on his release, as the stylist had been a Superintendent, and he asked whether Alan had worried that his kidnappers might force him to convert to Islam, as had happened to the Fox reporters briefly held hostage in 2006. Alan first thanked Kember for the book he’d sent, which I initially pictured to be some inspirational poetry to help him recover from his ordeal, but then realised that Kember has recently published a book on his experience. Alan answered that he was aware that his kidnappers knew it would be humiliating to force him to convert to Islam, but for some reason, the most they did was make him watch an hour-long programme in English (upon learning that his Arabic was too weak to follow the previously proffered propaganda) about why he should convert.

A man near me asked a long question referring to Gaza politics and Hamas, which had been instrumental to his release but was considered by many to be a terrorist organisation, having carried out numerous suicide bombings and attacks against civilians. Alan acknowledged his gratitude for their part in securing his freedom, but said he completely understood why some people wouldn’t want them to be seated at a table of peace talks. However, he said, Hamas could not just be wished away, and it could be likened to someone deciding not to hold talks with the IRA (or presumably Sinn Fein). When Snow pressed him for opinions on the current situation there, Alan pointed out that he’d been out of the loop on Gaza for about nine months, which was interesting as I’d been wondering why, in a new London-based role and in this age of journalists interviewing other journalists, he had not been commenting in news reports about the Annapolis talks.

Jon Snow asked about the “psychiatric” effects of the kidnapping, and Alan said the Beeb had looked after him wonderfully, sending out a psychologist to assess him when he was released, and the two had spoken a few times since and both agreed after a recent health check that Alan’s fine right now. He explained the mental exercises he had applied to keep himself sane, such as visualising a list on the right side of the wall of the dark things that might take hold of him, and a list on the left of the wall of the good things for which he could be thankful, such as having a radio, and he tried to lean towards the left side. He said he had so much time to do nothing but think that he found himself remembering details such as the name of the guy at the back of his woodworking class in Port Elizabeth when he was 12 who was good at dovetail joints.

He'd tackled many great issues in his mind and at one point felt he had worked out a solution to the Darfur conflict in Sudan, but sadly didn’t recall it later. He said he wrote a lot of rubbish poetry and prose whilst there and entertained thoughts of writing the great British novel, but as he had no writing instruments, he struggled as he’d have to remember the first 18 lines of text whilst composing the 19th, so it became a depressing exercise in memory. Alan said that for now, he felt together and okay and didn’t have another appointment with the psychologist, which the crowd received with smiles and a sense of silent applause.

He said, as his mother had put it, it had been a “funny old year”, as he’d been banged up alone for the first half and was spending the second half as a “quasi-D-list celebrity” who was recognised in Tesco's, though he made it clear he was always grateful for everyone’s support.

Someone asked about his relationship with his captors whom they suggested Alan had referred to as world class lunatics, which made Alan duck and say not to tell them he’d said that. Alan spoke of seeing the loathing in the eyes of his main guard, who would fly into unprovoked rages, but because Alan had no control or influence on the situation, he would thank the guard for any kindness—be it delivering his meals or a rare gift of coffee—and try always to be pleasant. He mentioned that, on the 100th day of his captivity, he asked the guard what he thought Alan’s name might be and the guard didn’t know. He described the odd experience of trying to engage in conversation as the guard “rifled through his militiaware” in a wardrobe in the room where Alan was kept. Alan said he’d been asked before whether he thought the rare treats including a glimpse of television to see his parents’ appeal were an attempt to manipulate him, but he didn’t think those individuals were sophisticated enough to organise their thoughts that way. In answer to another question, Alan referred to former Beirut hostage John McCarthy having said that suffering in that way made you more empathetic.

When Snow asked whether the future would see Alan as the BBC’s Tokyo correspondent, Alan joked yes--or Paris—and stressed that the BBC had saved his bacon in Gaza so he wouldn’t jump ship to Sky or to Snow’s Channel 4. He agreed that he must be the BBC World Service’s best listener, as that had been his lifeline throughout his captivity and he’d even listened to their most obscure art programmes. He conceded that, having spent much of his life campaigning hard to get those positions in Afghanistan and Gaza, he now found that he really loved being in Britain and that, for the first time, he was not wishing to be somewhere like the Sudan. He added that there was only so much he could put his parents through and mentioned their concerns even when he left for a holiday in Spain. Now, he planned to work in London for a while and acknowledged that, after nine months of struggling on the Tube and dealing with traffic like today, he might change his mind, but at present, he was pleased to be in Britain, possibly because the kidnap had taken a lot out of him.

We were disappointed to be allotted only three more minutes in Alan’s company, and he hurriedly referred in answering another question to a message from former Beirut hostage Terry Waite that he’d heard when listening in captivity to the World Service, who said Alan’s mind and body would find ways of coping. Alan initially wasn’t confident but then thought of the parents he’d seen in hospitals dealing with their kids’ leukaemia, who surely would have thought months earlier that they’d never be able to cope in such a situation, but they just do, you have to get on with it, just keep on carrying on, and that was what he did. You find a way to cope, you find strength. When asked if he’d talked to himself in captivity, Alan said he’d tried to avoid doing anything that he might have judged to be a bit mad, and speaking aloud to himself fell into that category.

The lights dimmed as the event officially ended, but Alan remained at that desk as some of us filed up to have a word and ask him to sign our copies of Kidnapped and other Dispatches, his From Our Own Correspondent edited book published by Profile last week. An engrossing read in a nifty little book, everyone should get one; The Guardian recently printed an excerpt.

The person in front of me in the peaceful queue was someone that Alan had known but not met face-to-face before, and I felt guilty inadvertently making the chap feel he was holding us up, so I turned away to give them some privacy, only to find myself facing Norman Kember. I was naturally going to let him jump in and speak with Alan, but the man behind me started chatting to him so he was diverted when Alan became free. That man had just been telling his companion of the questions he’d wanted to ask but didn’t dare jump in as he wasn’t an RSA Fellow, an apparent protocol that never occurred to me. Indeed, most of the questioners had identified themselves as fellows, other than one who gave his name followed by “mere mortal” with such aplomb that no one seemed to bat an eyelid.

I asked Alan to sign my book, though the idea of snatching someone’s signature seems kind of silly when you think about it, and these days, I suppose I could scan it in and take out a mortgage in his name, particularly since the postman kindly brought me that unexpected package of CDRs with loads of families’ names and account details on them. However, it does make me look more warmly on the book and better remember the enjoyable experience. Alan was just as marvellous, gregarious and kind with everyone in the queue as he always seems to be. He spelled my unusual name right and made a charming comment when I placed the blame for its oddity on the fact that my parents had thought it up in the 60s (though to be fair to them, rather than wearing flowers and doing drugs, my parents were living in Okinawa where my father was based as a young Air Force officer fighting the Vietnam War. It’s shocking to think back and realise we in the States had conscription; imagine that with the equally unpopular military action in Iraq and Afghanistan, being told your civilian son/brother/husband had to go fight).

When I told Alan I hoped his life returned to something more peaceful as soon as he wanted it, he launched into his usual vibrant, welcome way of responding, clearly longing for things to quiet down but quickly adding cheerfully that, of course compared to the kidnap, this was no problem. He did say it was awful opening the papers and seeing himself so often, and always with the worst possible pictures, though I’ve yet to see a bad photo of him (and I disagreed with the Krusty the Clown allusion). He continued to speak kindly and enthusiastically to all those around him, his beautiful, sparkling personality having wowed us with his ability to bring humour to descriptions of even the darkest situations. Every answer he had given had us laughing despite the true horrors of his ordeal; he does seem to be so well-grounded and positive that the good humour is not just a front for a darker inability to cope. I hope that remains the case for him. A model of rectitude, if this lovely man ever gets bored of journalism, he should give classes on How To Be a Good Human. Though I’m sure he’d deny all knowledge…..

Having just caught my train upon reaching Charing Cross, I checked my compact to remove some street grit from my eye and noticed that the recent cold had left me with a bad case of nose leprosy. I realised with horror that everyone I’d seen all afternoon would have thought that not only was I a nose-picker, but a fairly unsuccessful one at that. Fortunately, I’m sure no one really looks at me; I’m a Londoner, after all. Then walking home from the station, I realised that I’d taken my camera with me but hadn’t thought or drummed up the courage to take a photo at the RSA; I go all shy and hate to be intrusive. Just then a fox rushed past me into a front garden in broad daylight, so I took a photo of him, although he refused to pose and was half-hiding behind a car by the time I got everything sorted. At least it gave other pedestrians and the people in that house a chance to think I was mad (and no doubt to note the apparent evidence that I was rubbish at picking my nose). All in all, an unusually fine day.

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