A Stranger's Eye: a foreign correspondent's view of Britain
Fergal Keane Viking, 218pp, £16.99
Once upon a time, there was a foreign correspondent called Fergal Keane. He was a good and brave man, who reported with skill and integrity from faraway places such as South Africa and Hong Kong. But then something - no one quite knows what - went awry. Some blame the arrival of a baby son for causing him to send home a treacly little despatch called "Letter to Daniel" (which swelled and swelled until it became a whole book); others say the Wizard Birt, a mighty and malevolent being with a strangely robotic demeanour, cast an unctuous spell on him. Whatever the reason, Fergal found himself transformed into a soulful-eyed, honey-voiced monster of mawkishness.
The strange thing was that almost no one seemed to mind, or even to notice. Fergal's reputation grew and grew, until one day the Queen herself, who was every bit as wise as she was fair, invited him to her fine palace and gave him an OBE.
This is not, sorry to say, a story with a happy ending. Not for me, anyway. I thought I could escape Keane's recent TV series on social exclusion in Britain, which this book accompanies, by decamping to deepest Transylvania to seek refuge among the shepherds and bears of the Carpathian mountains (this being one of the few parts of the world where the tentacles of that hideous Birtian creature, BBC World, have so far failed to spread). But, alas, on my return, the literary editor of this paper pressed a copy of the book upon me. My fate was sealed.
Keane begins by ditching the flak jacket, and sets out for the marginalised fringes of Britain (the bits beyond the M25, in other words). Here he digs away at the hidden stories of everyday folk struggling against deprivation and exclusion in Cornwall, Wales, Leeds and Glasgow. All of which is fine and admirable: here are people living lives of quiet, not to say silent and invisible, desperation within one of the richest countries in the world. What is neither fine nor admirable, however, is Keane's approach to his subjects, which is to elevate their stories to heroic narratives, epic struggles against impossible odds.
Such an approach, which owes more to Angela's Ashes than to Lord Reith, can't help but provide the reader with a prettified view of the poverty it depicts. To take a passage at random, from the chapter on Wales: "Beyond the farm was rocky mountain and miles beyond that the Irish Sea. The ground was hard and flinty, and the rain seemed to fall incessantly." Take it apart: that caesura, repeated in the second sentence, where it builds to a poetic climax, reinforced by the onomatopoeic consonance of "incessantly" to give the sense of hissing drizzle on stony land. Such cod literary devices (did the rain only seem to fall incessantly or did it really?) do not highlight the human story, they diminish it by placing it within a landscape that is majestic and determined by a cheap poeticism.
This book is, as the title suggests, the view of Britain through Fergal Keane's eye, which means that his subjectivity is foregrounded at the expense of what he's looking at. The obvious, and entirely unflattering, comparison is with Nick Davies's Dark Heart, a much harder, far more unsettling book on the same subject, and far more eloquent for that.
Perhaps in our post-Diana, touchy-feely, "new" Britain, this is the sort of thing the punters expect. Me, I'm all for telling the stories behind the headlines (which is Keane's avowed intent here) and putting a human face on the news (unless it's Michael Buerk's smirking visage). But, as a fully paid-up member of the bleeding-heart-liberal club myself, I know there's a fine line between compassion in reporting and poverty porn. So I feel justified in saying that this is as fine a piece of compassion-wank as you're ever likely to come across. Esther Rantzen herself could hardly have done better.