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Book Review – From Our Foreign Correspondent: A Celebration of Fifty Years of the BBC Radio Program

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Broadcasters like to remind us these days of how lucky we are to live in an age of 24-hour news. Instant access to global events, they say, means we are better informed about our planet than ever before, with front-row seats at the theatre of history. Perhaps. But after Britney Spears’ marital break-up is reported for the fourth time in an hour, or yet another tragic day unfolds in the Middle East, the brave new world of 24/7 news coverage starts to wear thin. A diet of bland offerings has left us with an appetite for more meat on the bones, more spice in the sauce.

Which is probably why From Our Own Correspondent continues to be one of the most popular programmes on BBC radio. For 50 years, international correspondents have been filing reports to FOOC (as it’s affectionately known), offering a closer look behind the headlines or a glimpse into the way of life in another part of the world. It’s this enduring formula which is celebrated in a selection of reports that give readers a flavour of FOOC.

Many of the contributors’ names will be well-known to BBC viewers and listeners. John Simpson is in here, as well as Martin Bell, Charles Wheeler and Bridget Kendal. Others may be less familiar, but all clearly relish the chance to break free from the constraints of day-to-day journalism.

The programme encourages its contributors to show a more relaxed face, and to let some of their personal emotions filter into their dispatches. In a report from Iran, for example, Natalia Antelava confesses to mixed feelings after witnessing the public hanging of a serial child killer: “Part of me was appalled by this shameless exhibition of death, by the sheer excitement it was causing. But it was something else that I felt most uncomfortable with. And that was my own feelings of approval.”

Reporting from Darfur, Hilary Andersson lets rip at the United Nations’ mealy-mouthed response to the massacre of Sudan’s black Africans. "Surely if genocide, the ultimate crime against humanity, matters, we should at least have the courage to define where it is happening and quickly, and then act, or admit we live in a world that tolerates it.”

Meanwhile, Diana Goodman’s maternal feelings bubble to the surface during a visit to a Russian orphanage, where children, most of them perfectly healthy, are treated like mental retards. “Each night now before I go to sleep I think of the pinched and lonely little faces of the children at the Internat as they lie staring into the darkness in their narrow beds.”

Parental emotions are at the heart of what has become the programme’s most popular report. Fergal Keane’s dispatch takes the form of a letter to his new-born son, Daniel. Keane reflects on the cruelty to children that he’s witnessed as a reporter, and the fierce protectiveness he now feels towards Daniel.

Some of the reports have a “first draft of history” feel to them, having been written within hours of momentous events, such as the end of the Prague Spring, Khruschev’s denunciation of Stalin and the Tsunami. Jacky Rowland’s dispatch from Belgrade following the overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic is an exhilarating piece, all the more so because she had been ordered out of Yugoslavia only days before. Daniel Lak, meanwhile, has his expectations of a tranquil tour of duty in Nepal rudely shattered when the heir to throne goes on a killing spree at the royal palace.

The reports also provide sobering reminders of how dangerous the life of a foreign correspondent can be. Richard Williams narrowly escapes death in the Congo, Ben Brown is equally lucky after an encounter with a gang of land-grabbing thugs in Zimbabwe, and Dominic Hughes spends a fearful night lost in the Australian outback. But it’s Frank Gardner’s despatch that highlights most graphically the hazards of international reporting. The day after filing his piece on the worsening security situation in Saudi Arabia, Gardner was seriously wounded in a gunfire attack, and now reports from a wheelchair.

But FOOC isn’t all doom and gloom. There are quirky reports that shine a light on surprising facets of life in places we thought we knew well. There’s the English comedy show, hardly known in Britain, that’s become compulsive viewing in Germany where it’s transmitted every New Year’s Eve. Then there’s “Mr Computer”, a technician in Kabul who’s somehow managed to preserve an archive containing 30 years of broadcasts from Afghan radio. And in Montana Rob Watson finds the entire state seems to have gone all out for trout. “ ‘Welcome to the town of Ennis’, the road sign said. ‘Population 660, trout 11,000,000’ ”.

It must have been hard for the book’s editor, Tony Grant, to winnow down thousands of reports from the past 50 years to just over 100, and he admits that the final choice came down to his own personal favourites. Most areas of the world are covered, with some, such as Iran and China, featured several times. It’s disappointing to see no contributions from Canada, Scandinavia or Central America, especially since some of what was included could easily have been discarded. In Frances Harrison’s report, we learn less about the Bengali mystics known as Bauls than about their notion that she is Princess Diana’s sister. And it’s difficult to see why Barnaby Mason’s rambling report on plain speaking in the diplomatic world made it into the book at all. While some contributions are overdone, others are frustratingly short, notably James Robbins’ tantalising despatch from North Korea. But these are minor gripes. Overall, the quality of writing is high and there's a good mixture of the serious, the sublime and the silly.

Some of the most enjoyable contributions are from the Americas. Elliott Gotkine finds the Bolivian navy harbouring hopes that their landlocked country will some day regain a coastline lost to Chile in the 19th century. In the meantime, the only opportunity for naval gazing in Bolivia is on the waters of Lake Titicaca.

Before heading home, Gavin Esler’s final report reflects on his time in the US. While critical of Americans who show no curiosity about the outside world, he's generous in his praise for their candour and hospitality. In a Wyoming diner, his producer, in a clipped English accent, asks the waitress what she recommends for someone who does not eat red meat. "Why honey, I recommend you leave Wyoming." The diner is filled with laughter, and within minutes the two visitors are making new friends.

Esler’s dispatch is FOOC at its finest: an experienced reporter sharing stories with an enraptured audience. It’s one of many in this fine selection that will appeal to a wide range of readers, be they armchair travellers, history buffs or news junkies. Even better, there’s not a single mention of Britney Spears.

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  • http://philobiblon.co.uk Natalie Bennett

    This article has been selected for syndication to Advance.net, which is affiliated with newspapers around the United States. Nice work!