One for water, one for urine

Stephen Smith

  • An Evil Cradling by Brian Keenan
    Hutchinson, 297 pp, £16.99, September 1992, ISBN 0 09 175208 6
  • Hostage: The Complete Story of the Lebanese Captives by Con Coughlin
    Little, Brown, 461 pp, £16.99, October 1992, ISBN 0 316 90304 3

I had that Terry Waite in the back of the car once. Unlike the celebrity fares picked up by Private Eye’s proverbial taxi-driver, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s special envoy was technically occupying the front passenger seat. But such were the dimensions of legate and vehicle – the one broad yet gangly, the other originally designed by the Germans to give a thousand years of ergonomic motoring – that my companion seemed to be resting the crown of his head against the rear de-mister. I had asked him for an interview, and natural negotiator that he is, he had matched me by requesting a lift to Birmingham New Street. While I drove him to his train, he spoke skittishly of the politicians with whom he had to treat. The sight of the Cannon cinema on the Hagley Road elicited a lively appreciation of the neglected art of the Western. A short time later, when Terry Waite was held hostage in Beirut, journalists found themselves asking what his links were with Oliver North.

I have on my desk the daubs of a class of five-year-olds from Stockport, Cheshire, who were commissioned to re-create the scenes that the TV man John McCarthy would have missed during his captivity. Employed by the same organisation as McCarthy’s friend Jill Morrell, I was asked by the children to pass on a collection of their work to her. One picture had been painted by a boy called Timothy, who was born on the day that McCarthy was seized. When McCarthy was held hostage in Beirut, journalists found themselves asking what his relationship was with Morrell.

The shade of Pooter stalks the journalist who reads too much into his own anecdotes, but I can’t be the only hack on nodding terms with the hostage story whose collection of Brian Keenan minutiae would take very little time to dust. In terms of media interest, Keenan was the least remembered of the captives of Lebanon, the George Harrison of the hostage scene, the other one. The reporter Robert Fisk has confessed to him how he failed to follow up a dubious tip-off about where he was being kept in 1988. When Keenan was held hostage in Beirut journalists found themselves asking what the story was.

I am not referring to the international news splash which the bound and blindfold Keenan was literally caught up in. Where that was concerned, all of the hostages were to a greater or lesser extent pawns. Keenan, without the fame or contacts of Waite, without even the modest privileges conferred by McCarthy’s journalistic status, was the pawniest of the pawns. In front-page terms, he hardly mattered to the hostage story. Given the opportunity now to get his own back, Keenan demonstrates that the page-one hostage story does not matter to him either. After his captors passed him copies of Time and Newsweek on the American bombing of Tripoli, and blamed the raid for his detention, Keenan evacuated onto the magazine covers. ‘I defecate on the reason why I am being held in this asylum of a place and then I carefully wrap my excrement in a parcel and push it into a corner,’ he writes. The incident reflects the exigencies of incarceration, of course, but it also reflects Keenan’s attitude to the media and the world that he left behind, the world that left him behind.

In the darkness of his cell, Keenan seldom contemplated the big picture. He scarcely gave Reagan or Thatcher a thought. The Ayatollah doesn’t rate a name-check in his recollections. In other words, Keenan has not written a book about the hostage story for the Current Affairs rack, although An Evil Cradling does include anecdotal evidence of how the West brought upon itself the traumas it suffered in the Middle East. The weapons that Keenan’s posturing guards brandished in front of him all rolled off European assembly lines. Not long before he was abducted Keenan went to see a war film in Beirut:

We sat there in the darkened cinema and as each character pulled out his weapon and began firing furiously, the young Arab men around us would groan and moan in a kind of ecstasy, crying out the names of the weapons. All around us in the cinema we could hear the words ‘Kalashnikov, Kalashnikov; Biretta, Biretta.’ These young men knew the names of every type of gun, even the names for mortars and rocket-launchers. The cinema rang with a chant of excited worship.

Keenan was snatched in 1986, earlier than any of his more famous fellow hostages from these islands. Initial world attention – Keenan’ s due spray of press clippings – was what attracted John McCarthy to Lebanon in the first place. The story that those cuttings failed to tell was of a man who had grown up in Belfast to be a Protestant Republican and, perhaps not surprisingly, something of a misfit.

Ironically, it was frustration with the fundamentalist militiamen of Northern Ireland that helped him make up his mind to leave for the Middle East, and a post at Beirut University. He had hardly unpacked his things, it seems, when he was kidnapped by the local Provos, and thrown into a cell the size if a roomy kennel. He was provided with a mattress and two plastic bottles, one for water and one for urine. Mosquitoes fed on him by night. Scratching the bites on his feet left them so sore that he could barely manage the short hobble to a roach-loud grotto where he was permitted to make his morning toilet.

An Evil Cradling recounts the techniques Keenan found for coping with the privation he endured at the hands of his captors; for readers of a suitably morbid disposition, it is a ‘how to’ book as well as a ‘how could they?’ book. In effect, he resolved to eavesdrop on himself, to keep the candid log now written up here. Despite attempts at a breakout, despite his hopes that the Shiite hostage-takers would see no value in holding him once they had made sense of his Irish citizenship, the only escape Keenan could contrive was the kind familiar to writers. ‘I decided to become my own self-observer, caring little for what I did or said, letting madness take me where it would as long as I stood outside it and watched it. I would be the voyeur of myself. This strategy I employed for the rest of my time in captivity.’ Another, equally important, strategy was McCarthy. Keenan’s record of McCarthy’s emergence as ‘a man of vast tenderness and compassion’ is a love letter secreted within the pages of a prison journal. The English former public schoolboy and the soi-disant working-class socialist from Ireland shared a mattress ‘like lovers in bed’. For more than three years, they were chained at the wrists and ankles. In contrast to the po-faced American hostages with whom they eventually roomed, Keenan and McCarthy kept themselves going with insults and scatology. On the one hand, McCarthy’s sang-froid tempered the zeal for confrontation evident in his cellmate. On the other, Keenan rejoiced in being able to take a beating from the guards, believing that once the hostages learnt to resist their own fear, their captors would in turn become ‘the prisoners of our resistance’. The connection between violence and ecstacy that he remarked on at the cinema is developed in his observations of prison brutality. While he was not aware of deriving masochistic satisfaction from the rifle-whipping he received, he heard gratification on the hot breath of his jailers. In the faltering dialogue between hostages and guards, Keenan found his oppressors to be obsessed by thoughts of sex. To him they appeared ignorant, repressed by fundamentalism, and bound by the routines of the cell block almost to the same extent as the hostages. ‘God and sex’, for them, ‘were not about religion or morality. They were ciphers for their own powerlessness, an impotence they experienced unconsciously on a deeply personal level and also in the world of politics.’

There are some grim lines in Keenan’s book – ‘each of us had different life experiences and a different complex of needs and aspirations’ – but all sorts of clichés deliver a payload when they come from a man who spent four and a half years raging for his freedom. The only substantial disappointment of An Evil Cradling is that Keenan has not brought the tale of his captivity up to date with a postscript on his rehabilitation. Con Coughlin, however, gives it a try. ‘After the euphoria surrounding his return,’ Coughlin writes towards the end of his persuasive and readable study of the hostage crisis, ‘Keenan turned his back on his sisters, Elaine and Brenda, who had campaigned so hard for his release, and withdrew to the wilds of the West of Ireland to resume his old drinking habits.’ Economically turned, Coughlin’s bulletin is a sample of the bracingly low opinion in which its author holds most of the hostages. He argues that the crisis is put in its proper perspective when one recalls that tens of thousands of Lebanese were incarcerated compared to ‘the fifty or so’ Western captives. Yes and no, one might say. There were, after all, a lot more Lebanese about. And it’s hard to imagine that Coughlin regularly ‘nosed’ his despatches from the Middle East, where he was formerly the Daily Telegraph’s man, on the latest locals to be snatched.

Coughlin is honest enough to admit that he was only spared the ordeal of being kidnapped himself by the intercession of his Lebanese driver – it happened while he was making a swift exit from Beirut the morning after a more successful attempt on fellow journalist Terry Anderson. But this chastening glimpse of where he might have gone but for the grace of God failed to leave him noticeably forgiving of expats less blessed than himself. Indeed, ‘they should have known better’ becomes a somewhat wearisome refrain. Hospital administrator David Jacobson ‘worked out his own reasons why he was not at risk ... he was fulfilling a worthwhile function which was appreciated by the Lebanese’; Frank Reed ‘felt he was safe because he was married to a Lebanese’; Jo Cicippio ‘thought he was safe so long as he did not leave the AUB campus.’ For Coughlin, the captives were plucked from a dubious social register which included swaggering pressmen, academics who would have been unemployable elsewhere and New Age pensioners. In deciding to stay on in Beirut because of the dissolute thrills of life near the city’s notorious dividing line, they had simply relinquished their common sense.

Coughlin’s greatest scorn is reserved for Terry Waite. He warms up with the merely snide, contrasting Waite’s fanciful styling of himself as ‘an independent humanitarian’ – a phrase which inexplicably suggests P.J. O’Rourke’s own job description of ‘lone humourist’ – with the ‘mundane’ and ‘fairly unremarkable’ position he actually held on Lord Runcie’s payroll. Before long we are treated to Waite the preening egotist, whose grasp of the treacherous quiddities of Lebanese politics might be likened to that of the bores in Beirut’s Pickwick Bar. On his first mission to the city, ‘he wore a smart, well-tailored three-piece suit and a gold watch-chain dangled across his waistcoat. His thick, black beard was neatly trimmed and pomaded. His demeanour was more that of an Edwardian gentleman on his way to lunch at the Athenaeum than of a man about to enter one of the most godforsaken cities in the history of the late 20th century.’

The most ‘sensational’ passages of Hostage are those where Lord Runcie speaks to Coughlin about Waite. ‘There was always something a bit grandiose about Terry,’ Runcie says at one point; later Waite had a ‘love of publicity and a lack of sophistication about what was being worked on him by the Americans’. Runcie was ready to sack to Waite before his disastrous last trip to Beirut, but later he spoils it a bit by saying he would have preferred Waite to be helping with the admin on his now rather musty pamphlet ‘Faith in the City’. There are other difficulties for Coughlin, too. He must concede Waite’s ‘good will, sincerity and sheer guts’, and acknowledge that there were few apart from Waite willing to try anything at all on behalf of the American and British hostages. Furthermore, he recognises that Waite has repeatedly denied knowing about North’s arms transfers, while North for his part has denied giving Waite any information.

Coughlin’s allegations are that Waite was in it for the publicity, with the freedom of the hostages as a happy by-product (‘it might be a trap but if he pulled it off he would be a hero once more. And Sutherland and Anderson might even be released’); that he claimed credit for freeing men even when he had played no part in the behind-the-scenes manoeuvres to liberate them, and that his celebrity, and his links to North, actually held up the release process. The harshness he endured in detention was in direct proportion to the irritation he had caused his kidnappers while he was presenting himself as an intermediary. In other words, Waite, even more than the other hostages, was ‘asking for it’.