How to look at loss: Don McCullin’s powerful photographic exploration of Syria, The Road to Palmyra

Plus: the return of The Bridge.

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January 2018, and a pair of old guys are in a car, driving through the Damascus streets. Looking out of the window, one of them, a slightly fey, twittering sort of a fellow, says that it’s hard to believe the war in Syria is still going on: everything looks so perfectly normal. Listening to this statement, the other one, granite-handsome and somewhat less loquacious, blinks slowly. “[But] death could arrive in the opposite direction,” he replies, levelly. Somehow, his voice suggests long experience. A few moments later, the two of them arrive at their hotel. Now, both are quiet. From the balcony of their rooms, they can hear the crump of shelling: the sound of eastern Ghouta, which still burns. 

I wasn’t expecting to fall for The Road to Palmyra (9pm, 7 May), in which the architectural historian Dan Cruickshank and the veteran war photographer Don McCullin travelled to the ancient city to see with their own eyes the destruction Islamic State inflicted on its ruins during its periods of occupation between May 2015 and March 2017. A little bit of Cruickshank, I always feel, goes a very long way. But then, I wasn’t expecting to be so disarmed by his travelling companion, either. Where Cruickshank emoted wildly, ever more florid speeches tumbling from his mouth as he climbed the sad piles of stones, McCullin kept his own counsel. Where Cruickshank seemed to have no real function save for to try and express the inexpressible – how to describe the loss of a building like the Temple of Bel, constructed in around AD32, and now little more than rubble? – McCullin was ever purposeful. He was there to take pictures.

Doubtless, his upset was no more sincere than Cruickshank’s, but I felt it far more keenly. Save your tears, said his body language, for there is always something worse. And so it proved. Later, the two met the sons of Khaled al-Asaad, the keeper of Palmyra’s artefacts, who was beheaded by IS in August 2015. As they told their story – their father’s murderers left his crucified body to be eaten by wild animals – McCullin turned his back to the camera. In his hand was a white handkerchief.

The film, I think, told two stories. The most important, it goes without saying, was that of Palmyra, and the heinous barbarism inflicted upon both it, and the people of Tadmur close by. But in McCullin we were given a fine example of what it means to have work you love: how that work can see you through; how painful it might be to have to give it up. “My body is beginning to say: this could be the last adventure of my life,” he explained (McCullin is a straight-backed 82). Inside, though, he felt the same as ever: questing, open-minded, never bored.

To shoot the Old City of Homs – so ruined, it resembles at a distance a collection of trampled cardboard boxes – he climbed what remained of the stairs of an apartment block until he reached the roof, at which point, two bearded young men (cameramen, I guessed) hauled him up by his wrists and his ankles on to what appeared to be a water tank. He was embarrassed both by their concern for him, and by what he regarded as a momentary loss of dignity on his part. But then his eye caught the elegant minarets of Homs’ Ottoman-era mosque, still standing beyond all the twisted metal and torn concrete. Thrilled by the afternoon sky, which was just right, he lifted his camera.

The first episode of the fourth and final series of The Bridge (9pm, 11 May) opens with – surprise, surprise – the discovery of a woman’s body. Her killers buried her up to her neck in the fertile Swedish earth, after which they slowly stoned her to death.

Germaine Greer has written recently of her belief that it is women who particularly love watching shows that turn on darkness such as this, and for all the fuss that her comments caused, I’m not sure that she’s wrong. Safe at home, we love to be frightened; it’s as simple (and as complicated) as that. Nevertheless, I’m growing weary of The Bridge, a show now so overloaded with random savagery, it has long since ceased to be credible. The trouble is that it’s simply not possible to be afraid at the same time as you’re rolling your eyes. 

The Road to Palmyra (BBC Four)
The Bridge (BBC Two)

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article appears in the 11 May 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Israel vs Iran