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The Diary — John McCarthy

The former Beirut hostage on the pleasures of fishing, memories of revolution in Paris . . . and say

Merlangius merlangus, in the family Gadidae. It sounds pretty romantic to me – an ancient warrior poet, perhaps? No, just a humble little whiting, a small member of the cod clan. But it’s the first fish I’ve ever caught and my friend Mick and I are delighted. Especially as this little creature comes in on the last cast after we’ve stood on Aldeburgh beach for a couple of hours in sometimes horizontal rain.

Though the catch is too small to keep, the outing has been a lot of fun. Our wives and daughters were flying kites before sensibly retiring to a café for warming drinks. Watching rod and line, Mick, a sapper, talks of tours of duty in Afghanistan and serving in Bosnia as a young man. He speaks of wanting to do something worthwhile but also about the excitement of working in dangerous places, building bridges and assisting refugees. As he speaks the waves hit the beach and push through the shingle. Their low roar and shushing reflects the steady pulse of the sea’s power but is also calming. Just as we are all loading tackle into the cars, a Spitfire flies low over the sea just a few hundred yards away. Because of the weather, there is no one else around, so it feels as though we’re being treated to a private air show.

Danton’s inferno

The skies are clear as I walk through the empty streets of Woodbridge to catch the early train. At St Pancras I meet up with the Radio 4 producer Harry Parker and take the Eurostar to Paris. We’re making two features for the new-look Saturday Live, which is to take over the slot we have been occupying for many years now with Excess Baggage, the travel programme.

We head to Boulevard Saint-Germain to rendezvous with the writer Jan Kelley, author of Path of the Patriots, a guide to revolutionary Paris. There’s a fine statue of Danton, flanked by two ardent and musketed supporters, on the site of the revolutionary leader’s home. The figures stand on a plinth about 20 feet above us, which, according to Jan, is just about where his first-floor salon would have been had we come visiting in 1794, just before he fell foul of his fellow revolutionaries.

I studied the French Revolution for A-level and, talking with Jan, the cobwebs start falling away. When she says, “And this is where Marat lived,” I respond, parrot-fashion: “He was stabbed to death in his bath!” But now I can feel the atmosphere of the narrow medieval streets, long since swept away to be replaced by Baron Haussmann’s boulevards. The two revolutionaries lived just 30 yards from each other. Apparently Danton would stop by and impatiently rattle his keys on the iron banisters to hurry the disorganised Marat out of his apartment above. I half close my eyes and the noise of bus and motorbike becomes the clatter of horses’ hooves and the tumbrel’s wheels. These historical characters, who changed the world, come alive for me as I imagine them walking together, plotting.


It seeks us here, it seeks us there and the rain seeks us everywhere. So it’s a relief to spend much of the day sheltered from the elements in the Metro as we use the Paris underground to explore parts of the city often bypassed on the tourist trail. The sun makes a dramatic appearance as the train pulls out of the Gare du Nord and we race across the flatlands of Picardy. The evening sunshine charges fields of yellow rape and green wheat with an electric vibrancy against the blackening, rain-clouded sky.

A real Eiffel

Home in Suffolk after midnight, but happily woken early this morning by my daughter Lydia (aged 6½), who carefully balances an inquiry about possible souvenirs from France with delight at seeing her dad. A ballpoint pen that bears a picture of the Eiffel Tower and plays the Marseillaise, wins me another hug. Most of the day is eaten up with endless emails, making plans but not doing anything really. A more productive hour is spent with my friend Tim Curtis shooting a sequence for his film to raise funds for restoration work on Woodbridge’s very beautiful St Mary’s Church.

The lives of others

On the rails again, this time to Oxford and Waterstones for a talk on my book You Can’t Hide the Sun, which explores the history and landscape of the Palestinian citizens of Israel. The event goes well; people seem hungry to understand the Israel-Palestine conflict better and are interested and surprised to learn about this group of people, who make up one in five of Israel’s population.

At every talk I’ve given on the book, a couple of people have come up afterwards to explain that they are Jewish and fiercely pro-Israel but also highly concerned about the state’s treatment of Palestinian people within and without the country. Hearing about, reading about the lives of ordinary people, caught up in extraordinary and complicated political situations, makes it much harder to write off rival peoples as the “other”, undeserving bogeymen.

Listening to stories recounted on the streets where the events happened lends them a deeper humanity, I feel – whether the location is Acre in 1948 or Paris in 1789.

Brother Brian

A day of interviews for Irish radio stations to promote the book. Again there’s a lot of interest in the subject – and some inevitable questions about the years spent banged up in Beirut with my Irish “brother” Brian Keenan.

Chic, charm and peril

It is the end of an era as we put out the final edition of Excess Baggage. We’ve been touched by many kind words from our audience, who are sad to see the programme go. I’ve worked on it for over five years, cutting my teeth as a live presenter.

Sad though I am at the programme’s demise, I will still be making travel features for Radio 4. The trip with Harry Parker to Paris was the first outing. In the near future we’ll be venturing to Beirut, with its intense mix of chic, charm and potential peril. And we’ll be heading to Canvey Island, with its intense mix of . . .

John McCarthy is a writer, journalist and broadcaster

John McCarthy is a writer, journalist and broadcaster.

This article first appeared in the 07 May 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The Science Issue