Friday, 4 June 2010

The Road Taken - Michael Buerk

I finished reading this book a while ago in the bath - my only reading spot since Ceilidh arrived - so apologies for not posting the report sooner.

A Christmas present from my dad 2008, you might assume I'm a slower reader than all of my students, right? Semi-true. My students get bullied to read (at first) and encouraged to keep it up - and final grades depend on reviews....

This is the auto-biography of a journalist, who spent most of his time with the BBC. For that reason I hadn't really picked it up 'first' (I have an extensive shelf of 'to read' books). I regret it. I totally loved the read. Journalists should never be the story, and this book was all about the stories, and how this ambitious reporter got the story out.

Michael Buerk is not famous. Well, maybe not famous. If you are my age you'd recognise his face (the young one, the foreign correspondent one, the older one). But one of his reports stopped the (western) world and especially stopped a scruffy Irish punk rocker from wanking himself blind (another awesome auto-biography, incidentally, "Is that it?"). (Saint) Bob Geldof got off his bum & put Live Aid together in July 1985, with his Ultravox mate Midge Ure (of "Vienna" fame).

I kind of missed all "that" in the summer of 1985: I was working in a Kosher kitchen at a children's summer camp in Hendersonville, North Carolina. The particular evening of Live Aid I had manged to sneak out of camp & hitch hike into town - Irish Bar of course - and been forced to watch some meaningless baseball game. It didn't matter that I and my Aussie pals Linton & Charlie were adamant the rest of the world was doing something shatteringly more important that night: 'play ball'. Bollocks. We never saw this until months later, I reckon the most iconic sound/image collage of my generation. Buerk made this story 'happen'.

So reading Michael Buerk's life actually filled in a lot of blanks for me. Pre-internet era, how do you keep up with news? A traveller's best bet was aerogrammes to PO Boxes Poste Restante, and hope you made it before they got 'returned to sender' - and that your correspondents included 'news'. It staggered me at the time how insulated most Americans were to the outside world - and how threatened they were to anything not American. Kids in the camp rioted when they woke up to find nations other than theirs' were celebrating Fergie's Royal Wedding with Andy. Not that we cared, but it was one hell of a good wind up, and very salutary. To this day, I respect my boss Rodger Popkin for the stance he took that day. Pity less sensible people run Israel.

I am delighted I still can't remember Michael Buerk's name; I'm serious, the book is next to me here. Otherwise I couldn't spell his last name (my brother is a 'Mike'), so I can manage Michael.

Buerk was there, persona non grata in apartheid South Africa trying to report. He was there when Flixborough had blown up (and my day heard it) & when Maggie had survived the Brighton bombings (and for the only time I had sympathy for a bunch of Tory tossers). He was Johnnie on the spot in Korem, October 1984 - the only journo to get into the most ravished part of Ethiopa. I swear, if a book has never moved you to tears, and this one doesn't...I don't want to know you. The Ethiopa story itself is gut-wrenching. His cameraman Mo losing his arm, his colleagues bleeding to death in Addis Adaba, or dying in that first You Tube plane wreck off the Maldives. I could care less for journalists, but this man's humanity and decency shines through.

A fabulous read. Totally loved this book, Non-fiction. Brilliantly written. A life well lived.
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