Gwyneth Williams’s Diary: The Reith Lectures, Beirut with Margaret MacMillan and farewell to Eddie Mair

We talked and then Margaret said, “Well, there’s always war.” At once I knew we had a Reith.

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It’s Reith season at BBC Radio 4. I seem to measure out my time in Reith Lectures. Just before leaving for Beirut to record the eminent historian Margaret MacMillan’s series on war, entitled The Mark of Cain, I was at Westminster Abbey to commemorate the life of another Reith lecturer, Stephen Hawking. In a rare event Stephen’s ashes were interred next to those of Isaac Newton. While I was in the Abbey gardens, listening to a recording of his voice that was beamed up into space towards the black holes that so obsessed him, I remembered the day he told me he would do our lectures. “It’s Stephen Hawking on the phone,” my husband shouted upstairs. My scientist daughter sat bolt upright, in shock. His topic was: “Black holes ain’t as black as they are painted”. But what lives with me are his brilliant eyes, fierce with life and humour. “We are all time-travellers, journeying together into the future,” he wrote. “But let us work together to make that future a place we want to visit.”

Strange voices

My team teased me about choosing only lecturers with distinctly unusual voices when we followed Stephen last year with Hilary Mantel on fiction and history, an original take on fake news. I was entranced from the start by her WH Auden quote:

The glacier knocks in the cupboard,
The desert sighs in the bed,
And the crack in the teacup opens
A lane to the land of the dead.

Enduring conflict

Margaret MacMillan’s range of knowledge is breathtaking, scholarly. She effortlessly plucks out detailed examples from around the world to evidence her points. War has been a lifelong passion. When I asked her if she would like to deliver the lectures, we talked and then she said, “Well, there’s always war.” At once I knew we had a Reith. And that indeed is her theme: there is always war. It is a fundamental part of being human, so we need to examine it boldly.

Violence and dynamism

We flew into Beirut in the evening, low across the triangle city, the sea beneath us reflecting glittering lines of light from its tall buildings and rich nightlife. The atmosphere captured and captivated me as soon as I set foot on the tarmac. The Levant.

The theme of this lecture, the third in the series, is civilians in war. Margaret chose Lebanon, with its long civil war from 1975 to 1990 and Beirut, for years a divided city, as the place to record it. A visit to the National Museum reveals a huge mosaic with a sniper’s hole ripping out its corner. We are told that the old clock tower in the middle of Parliament Square was dismantled and kept while the elegant street leading to it became snipers’ alley. In this country of around five million people, some 40 per cent are refugees and we often encounter small groups of Syrian families. People here wonder if they will return or, like the Palestinians in their camps who came in 1948, remain.

This city, though marked by violent history and increasingly vulnerable in an unstable region, has an infectious dynamism. About 15 million Lebanese live abroad, all over the world, and their influence as they come and go deepens its energy and sophistication. Zaha Hadid’s signature building reflects the blue sky on the corniche. I take balmy late-night walks feeling safe and relaxed. Stone buildings in the old style with ornate balconies, cool in the heat and green with plants, are inviting and exotic.

We make our way to the Sursock Museum for the lecture. There, the conversation develops and experiences are shared across the generations. A young woman talks about enduring division. So much is still unsaid and so much is painful. A challenge is voiced at the start by the former prime minister that we should discuss how to stop the conditions for war rather than the devastating impact of it, all too familiar in this place. Margaret demurs – her mission is to explore the nature of war, the Mark of Cain.

On the crossroads of the world

This trip to Lebanon is personal as well as professional for me. My son-in-law is half Lebanese and I feel a real excitement about being in his city. I have travelled quite widely in the Middle East but I am never prepared for the sense of history that waits in ambush. One such moment is when Lionel’s father, Robert Eid, with true Lebanese hospitality, takes me and some colleagues into the mountains to visit the family village and declares, “We are on the road to Damascus.” This is an ancient place; Tyre, Sidon and Byblos, the oldest of cities. I remember my father, a Geography professor, showing me the map, explaining, “This is the crossroads of the world.”

A patch of Wales in Lebanon

The village welcomes us as only a village can. We are shown the family houses; we drink sweetened Lebanese coffee and eat cake. A cousin sings a welcome, bringing to mind, with its warmth and harmony, my own Welsh family. Among cedars, oleanders and agapanthus is the Hammana Artist House, a passion project, stylishly realised by Robert and run by a group of young performance artists called Collectif Kahraba. We eat Lebanese cherries and talk. This is somewhere to welcome artists from all over the world and offer them a place to live and work for a while. Culture is one way to cross divisions. We sit in the square eating manousheh, cooked in a fiery stone oven. Lebanese food has never tasted so good. 

Comfort in pastry

I return to Broadcasting House to find turmoil in the PM office. Eddie Mair is leaving. He is a consummate broadcaster. I remember my close colleague Steve Hewlett coming to see me in an emotional moment when he had just heard about his illness. He wanted to broadcast and I suggested a radio diary. Of course he went to Eddie. 

Oh well, at least I’ve brought some Lebanese pastries home. 

Gwyneth Williams is the controller of BBC Radio 4

This article first appeared in the 06 July 2018 issue of the New Statesman, England in the age of Brexit