Being there

Telegram from Guernica: the extraordinary life of George Steer, war correspondent

Nicholas Rankin

The digitally enhanced byline photos that dominate newspapers today suggest that most journalists are not only more attractive than their subjects, but also more important and more interesting. This is what they would have us believe, but in reality few journalists lead very gripping lives. A journalist's job is to observe and tell, not to take part, and certainly not to create news, so it is unusual for their biographies to make good reading.

An exception is Henry Morton Stanley, whose meeting with Dr Livingstone in the jungles of Africa in 1871 became a news sensation in its own right. Another is George Steer who, like Stanley, reported both from Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) and the front line of civil war in Spain. Like Stanley, Steer himself became news. His reports about the illegal use of poison gas by the Italians in 1930s Ethiopia were debated in parliament and at the League of Nations in Geneva, and divided people, either for or against him.

He caused equal controversy with his revelation that the destruction of Guernica during the Spanish civil war was the work not of the Spanish nationalists but of Nazi Germany with Italian support. After the defeat of the Italians in Ethiopia in 1941 - the first successful blow against fascism - Steer was personally crucial in restoring Emperor Haile Selassie to the throne.

Even Steer's wedding became news, appearing in the New York Times under the headline "Reporters in Addis Ababa wed to tune of rifle fire". The ceremony was conducted behind barbed wire in the British legation after the Italians invaded in 1936, while outside the gates Addis Ababa was a frenzy of looting and murder. As war clouds marshalled over the world, Steer managed to be in the right place at the right time. But whereas many foreign correspondents grab their stories and run, Steer dug himself in until he became part of a place, and of its history. As a friend wrote in an obituary, Steer was first and foremost a journalist, whose despatches and books took priority in his life, but he was also a humanitarian, a politician, a supporter of lost causes and a brilliant guerrilla leader.

Ultimately the desire to participate rather than observe took over, and Steer joined the British army in 1940 to pioneer the use of propaganda along the Burmese border, where the British were in bloody deadlock with the Japanese. It was a fatal decision. Having witnessed the gassing of thousands of Ethiopians, survived being bombed by the Nazis outside Guernica, escaped being blown up on the Republican front line, and evaded snipers and bombardment by the Japanese, he was killed by his own (possibly drunken) driving. He was 35.

George Lowther Steer's brief life was almost unbelievably exciting (and there were those such as his rival Evelyn Waugh who doubted his veracity, but who ultimately changed their minds). Nicholas Rankin is an ideal biographer for him, although I wish the publishers had included better maps. Do they assume we read their books with an atlas to hand? Or are we supposed to know the whereabouts of Gorahai, Daggahbur and the Ogaden, all of which are mentioned in one sentence alone? The book is also thin on personal detail, but this perhaps can be blamed on Steer's widow and his parents' executors, who destroyed most of his letters and papers. However, Telegram from Guernica is a gripping read, sympathetic to Steer and well grounded by Rankin's extensive research, both literary and in the field.

Born in the Eastern Cape of South Africa and educated at Winchester and Christ Church, Steer was a natural journalist - clever, brave, competitive, ambitious, an author of richly evocative prose. He was also charming: within days of arriving in Addis Ababa as a stripling 25-year-old on his first job, he managed to secure not only an exclusive interview with Haile Selassie, but also his lifelong friendship. The em-peror became godfather to his first child.

As a short man, and a colonial, Steer supported the underdog, the little country against the greater power. Steer was in Ethiopia reporting for the Times while Waugh was there for the Daily Mail, and their different responses to the situation reveal their opposing characters. Where Waugh mocked the Ethiopians, Steer sympathised; where Waugh sneered at their rituals, Steer took them on their own terms; where Waugh saw the benign civilisation behind Mussolini's fascism, Steer supported an independent Ethiopia. It is clear where Rankin's sympathies lie: Waugh is portrayed as a red-faced ass.

Steer is best known for his reportage in the Basque country. His descriptions of the burning remnants of its spiritual capital, Guernica, prompted Picasso to paint one of the greatest pictures of the 20th century, a visual cry of anguish.

But Steer's revelations of the atrocities perpetrated by Mussolini's Italy are more shocking, partly because they are less well known, and partly because of their implications today. It was Steer who told the world that the Italians were violating international agreements by dropping poison gas on Ethiopia in 1935. The Ethiopians were armed with little more than spears; the Italians used their country as a laboratory for air power, and dep-osited on them tons of yperite, known because of its smell as mustard gas. Steer accompanied a mission to take gas masks to these beleaguered people, and des-cribed the victims, burnt alive, blinded, their lungs destroyed. His reports led to public outrage in Britain, but the government and League of Nations did nothing. The Italians were never even rebuked.

It is salutary to note that these events are still well within living memory. Telegram from Guernica is more than a biography of a long-dead war correspondent - it is also a reminder of the devastating effect of chemical weapons on ordinary people, a moral tale for our times.

Helena Drysdale's Mother Tongues: travels through tribal Europe is published in paperback by Picador