Not Your Average Journalist

This post is republished from my professional blog, Read Play Edit. It ran in September 2012.

A friend of mine “introduced” me to Irish writer and broadcaster Fergal Keane in the late ’90s; his BBC Radio 4 broadcast of his emotional essay “Letter to Daniel” had recently caused an enormous stir the British Isles. (Forget the stiff upper lip; when a man waxes profound about his newborn, folks get a little worked up.)

Fergal Keane. Snagged from the BBC.

Keane was born to Irish parents in London, but grew up in Ireland. His father was the locally famous radio and stage actor Éamonn Keane; more importantly to our story (his father’s career and alcoholism having made him nearly a stranger to the family), his uncle (and surrogate father) was the playwright and author John B. Keane. (His play The Field is one you might be familiar with; it was made into a 1990 movie starring Richard Harris, who was nominated for an Oscar for his performance. You should have a look.)

A way with words apparently ran in the family. Young Fergal started his career as a newspaper journalist, then moved to broadcast journalism, first with Raidió Teilifís Éireann (RTÉ) and then the BBC, which sent him to South Africa, where he covered the end of apartheid. He made his name reporting the “hot” wars on the BBC and writing about them in the Independent, where he was a weekly columnist for years. If there was a war zone, Fergal Keane was there: Sierra Leone, Burma, Congo, Angola, Bosnia, Afghanistan, the genocide in Rwanda.

He also had a rep for getting too involved with his stories. “Keane has been scorched by criticism of his heart-on-sleeve broadcasting style and accused of believing he has a monopoly on the moral high ground,” the Telegraph’s Elizabeth Grice writes. “Some of his reports … have exposed his own feelings, it’s said, at the expense of professional detachment and a proper account of what is going on.”

Personally, I like that depth of involvement. I like that he cares. His writing is evocative, engaging, humane, and just gorgeous. He makes me cry. (But who wouldn’t cry about what happened in Rwanda in 1994?) Keane himself says, “The best correspondents for me are those who haven’t been afraid to be human.” Yes.

I’ve read two collections of his columns, Letter to Daniel and Letters Home, and his memoir, All of These People. I would recommend these, certainly. I don’t know if I can bear a whole book about Rwanda (Season of Blood) but I intend to try; Keane has said, “Rwanda was the defining experience of my adult life. … Nothing prepared me for what I saw in Rwanda.” He wrote some truly memorable columns in the aftermath of 9/11, including his first reaction on 13 September, “There is only one way to defeat such hatred.” That was eleven years ago today. And here is one about the IRA’s announcement, in late October 2001, that it would decommission its weapons. The line “A vast pasture of sacred cows has been dispatched to the abattoir” is classic Keane (read it a couple times to appreciate the craftsmanship).

Fergal Keane has given up chasing wars now—he’s won awards and accolades enough—and is doing more writing. Lucky us! Whether you’re a writer or a reader, I urge you to seek out his books.

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Wanderlust Bites!

In my real life (as opposed to my travel daydream life) I edit books for a living, and I recently edited a wonderful book about a family who spent the better part of a year traveling around the world. (With young children! And it’s not science fiction!)

It inflamed my wanderlust. My wanderlust is off the scale right now.

The stories in the pages of the manuscript made me want to go places I have never, ever had any real desire to see. (China? No. Whiny music. Too much fish in the food. And, you know, evil empire. Someplace in Africa? No. Too hot. Special medical requirements. And I like my creature comforts. But the author made these locales sound appealing, interesting, desirable.)

Just look at this! There are a lot of places/things I’d like to see someday … (Photo from Wikipedia. Baobab trees.)

Just look at this! There are a lot of places/things I’d like to see someday … (Photo from Wikipedia. Baobab trees.)

The travelogue about the young family really moved me.

And this one too: An American couple who lived (separately) in Amsterdam, met, married, and had their child there, return after a stretch of years for a visit to a place they’ve loved well. They spend their vacation living along one of the canals in a home owned by friends. Which is the best way, really, to experience what a place is really like. A hotel can be very sterile, but a private home or apartment drops you right into the life of the place. This New York Times article is a lovely commentary on Amsterdam, and it makes me want to go.

Now, dagnabbit. I’m ready.

Then just this morning a good friend sent me a tweet. “What was the name of that book (from, like, two years ago) set during the war? You loved it.”

Now, I’m good, but I read a lot of books. “Ummm,” I tweet back. “What war?”

“Balkans, orphan girl, hospital, doctor woman—”

“Oh, of course!” The tweets are flying fast now. “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra.” I loved that book. Loved it.

Turns out my friend had just spent two “magical” days “in DC in an Airbnb Georgetown flat hosted by the warmest, most interesting woman who lived through the Balkan war. If you and G ever get to DC, stay here! She is now an interpreter and expert in war-conflict resolution.” I read the comments in the link—the owner of the flat gets rave reviews.

Why the Marra? My friend wanted to “imagine her world.” Clearly this Airbnb host made quite an impression. And clearly this is a bedroom I need to sleep in, yes? I’m already wondering how soon we can start planning a visit to our nation’s capital. (We have a couple trips, short ones, already planned. Watch this space.)

In the meantime, I am trying to discern what it all means, the convocation of the manuscript, the article, the message from my friend, all in the space of a couple days. Since, you know, I can’t just quit work and take off every time I get bitten by the wanderlust bug!

Where Did You Go in 2015?

Some of you may still have a little bit of holiday vacation left … You may well be taking the tree down or getting ready to start work or school on Monday. But maybe, just maybe, you’ve got a little time to curl up with a good #longread and your travel dreams.

If so, I wanted to be sure you didn’t miss the New York Times’s recap of “The Most Popular Travel Destination Stories of 2015.” Here they are:

• Paris: A $1,000 Day in Paris for $100
A Paris concierge’s idea of the perfect day on the town—but our reporter organizes a similar day at a tenth of the price. And you know how I feel about Paris. Let’s go!

• Lake Michigan: A Tour of Lake Michigan, My Inland Sea
Striking topography, time-worn communities and the reassuring permanence of an unchanging lake. My mother grew up in Chicago and regularly swam the lake; I’ve had this trip in mind for a long time!

• Tucson, Arizona: In Tucson, an Unsung Architectural Oasis
One of the city’s better-kept secrets is how often you can find significant examples of mid-twentieth-century architecture. I’ve been to south Arizon a few times in recent years, but never Tucson—and I have friends there! Need to put this on my list.

• Rome, Italy: When in Rome, Learn to Cook Italian
If you go to Rome to dine, you’re getting only a taste of Italian culture. For a 
full immersion, you’ve got to make some pasta and traditional sauces yourself. A good friend of mine lives in Rome, and I often read Facebook posts (and see photos) about the cooking! OK, I’m game!

• Montana, Wyoming and Idaho: A Rookie’s Road Trip
A car-averse traveler finds freedom in the driver’s seat, covering 700 miles and three states over three days. I think Ann Patchett did this in a Winnebago and made it sound fun. This article does too.

• Yorkshire, England: Where Dracula Was Born, and It’s Not Transylvania
Bram Stoker found inspiration for his famous Gothic villain in an unlikely place—a sunny seaside Yorkshire village. It’s been more than a decade since I was anywhere in England; I’d love to go again!

• Puerto Rico: The Many Faces of Puerto Rico
Gallery openings, vibrant restaurants, hotel development, and preserved examples of the old way of life play well together in Puerto Rico. From my side of the States, this would be a relatively inexpensive “exotic” vacation. Hmmm …

• Tuscany and Puglia, Italy: Italy’s Treasured Olive Oil, at the Source
In Tuscany and Puglia, making olive oil is a lifestyle, one threatened by bad weather and a killer bacteria. Food is my favorite souvenir!

• LA to Mexico: On a Gay Cruise, Just One of the Guys
A cruise that conjures up the thumpa-thumpa club scene does more than you’d think: it creates a worry-free space where being gay is the norm. This isn’t my demographic, but it might be yours. 🙂

• 6 Places in Africa: Into Africa—Vacation Ideas
The Times asked current and former NYT international news correspondents, who have collectively spent 25 years reporting in Africa, to tell what to do in the regions they’ve covered.

• Italy, Yet Again: A Honeymoon Through Italy
The reporter says: “We danced at midnight in Venice, motored through Tuscany and made memories. Just as newlyweds should.” I had a three-week honeymoon myself this year … but who says you have to be on a honeymoon to take this trip?

So there you have it—eleven fabulous stories to whet your appetite for travel! Where did you go in 2015? Where will you go in 2016?