Wigtown Book Festival: Fergal Keane

Journalist and war correspondent on subjectivity, Ireland and Rwanda

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Wigtown Book Festival: Fergal Keane

Fergal Keane has just written Road of Bones: The Siege of Kohima, about a little-remembered battle which halted the Japanese in their progress towards invading India in 1944. But he did not talk about this book, although he talked of many things, starting with his role as a reporter of the Dale Farm impasse, the controversial site near Basildon, Essex purchased and occupied by Travellers. He made the point that all stories are local stories, and that what is being played out is the story of the semi-nomadic peoples of the world. Where and how do they fit in to a modern technological world?

He also talked about his childhood and his love of reading, which gave him a longing to travel and leave the closed nationalistic and religious Ireland of his childhood. This led on to a discussion of his TV series 'The Story of Ireland’. The old pieties are gone, he declared, and he is pretty optimistic about the current Ireland which has thrown out some of its old myths, along with its identification with victimhood. He believes that Ireland is constructing a strong and honest idea of its nationhood which continues as it goes through economic travails. Perhaps, because of the scandals with the Catholic Church and the revelations of political greed and short-sightedness, the old political cronyism may be on its way out. The Troubles in Northern Ireland have also been faced and political flexibility has helped bring about a resolution.

Plenty of things that did not fit comfortably with the old construct of Gaelic Catholic Ireland are being acknowledged such as the role that the Irish played in building and maintaining the British Empire. He mentioned Sir John Pope Hennessy who was that rare thing - an Irish, catholic, Home Rule tory; such characters are now allowed to be heroes too. The Scots in the audience were interested in how he thought that the Scots would deal with their growing desire for independent nationhood. He replied that although Scotland has, like Ireland, a sectarian element, it has a largely homogeneous population, who are also pragmatic. These last should stand it in good stead whichever choice they make.

Keane told the audience that he had an unhappy childhood, with his father’s alcoholism playing a large part in that. He felt uncomfortable in his own skin and believes that he, like many war reporters, are attracted to war zones because of this. For a while, he also drank too much, but for the last thirteen years has not touched the stuff. In 1996 his own son was born, and he wrote Letter to Daniel, a moving account of his job at that point in time, but which many critically dismissed as 'heart on your sleeve journalism’, criticism he rebuffs by stating that war correspondents have always described events subjectively. He explains that the war in Rwanda permanently changed his view of mankind, and did skew his perspective - that the enormity of the evil in which one side just wanted to destroy the other entirely was so hard to take. By 2006, reporting from Lebanon, he was worn out and a nervous wreck, convinced he was going to die. Now, he takes life easier, and feels he is a happier and calmer man, still reporting, but not from war zones. He champions journalism of engagement, where the reporter uses all his senses to describe what is happening, mentioning William Hurt and Charles Wheeler as journalists he is inspired by. He abhors the ‘ecstasy of righteousness’ which affects so much journalism. Amen to that.

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