Once a week, my mail package arrives from The Independent foreign desk in London. It contains anything up to 250 letters and parcels, and wherever I am – in the hot smog of Cairo, amid the Atlantis towers of Dubai or on my own flower-smothered balcony in Beirut – I never cease to be amazed. Some letters are just plain asinine. Others are packed with the kind of psychobabble that makes me writhe with fury. Most are eloquent to the point of literature, analysing human folly, family history and war with a grace and philosophical wisdom that leave me breathless. Why oh why, I find myself asking when I read them, can’t we journalists write like this?
So this week’s column is dedicated to our readers. The most ridiculous letter first. It arrives each year from a public relations company in London, seeking my thoughts on some item of news that has absolutely nothing to do with the Middle East. It is always correctly addressed to “Robert Fisk, c/o Foreign Desk, The Independent, etc”. But it always begins with the imperishable words: “Dear Mr Desk…” Sorry, no reply.
Then there are the universities seeking lectures from me. The latest (I will keep this academy mercifully anonymous) invites me to speak on the Middle East and “to challenge the mainstream hegemonic and ethnocentric discourse about radicalism … in order to gain a better understanding of the multidimensionality of the problem”. Jesus, Joseph and Mary!!! This is enough to make you join the Taliban. I phoned back to tell the culprits that I will consider the invitation – if they write again without using this anthropological claptrap, as insulting to the writer as it is to the recipient.
But now to the gems. First, here comes Kathie Somervil-Ayrton from Marienbad (as in Last Year in…). She recalls an article I wrote about the funeral of a Norwegian friend in a heavily Teutonic church in Oslo, and the brief mention I made of the graves of wartime RAF crews outside the entrance. I quote Ms Somervil-Ayrton’s words exactly: “In one of the … war graves you mention … lies my Uncle Cyril Berger, lost on the coast of Norway until, I understand, his aircraft and the bodies of the crew were found much later. He was the youngest of my Grandmother’s six children – tall, blond, debonair, looking more like a young blond Viking than of Russian Jewish descent – as most of us are in the family but that is another story. I inherited from my Mother (who, like Grandmama, never got over his death) my Grandmother’s Victorian mourning book – black enamel with pearls and in the middle, in a very small gold frame – his photo in his leather flyer’s cap, goggles on forehead, immensely grinning, thumbs up – there must have been (another) photo somewhere – all gone now – with so much else from both sides in Russia – all thrown out with the rubbish when Grandmama died – no one wanted to know, much less remember…
“I remember him well – he came over (from New York) to be trained as an airman … and I was allowed to go with my father to meet him at the station … but now I am the last to remember him – so vividly – and as I am 78 – when I die there will be no one left – this is, of course, in the nature of things. But when, at 19, one dies for one’s country and what that country stands for – it should not pass unnoticed if possible.”
Then there arrives another letter from Ms Somervil-Ayrton, remembering how I once sat next to the late Mstislav Rostropovich en route to Beirut with what he called his “wife” – his sacred cello – on the seat beside him. Did I know, asks Ms S-A, the airline story about Piatigorsky, “who had the reputation Rostropovich has now”? I fumble for my massive, 2,239-page edition of the Norwegian K B Sandved’s The World of Music, a weighty heart attack of a book wherein, on page 1622, I find “Gregor Piatigorsky, Russian-American cellist, born 1903″. He began life by playing at his local cinema, but at 14 was engaged by the Imperial Opera in Moscow. At the revolution, smugglers got him out of Russia, leaving him stripped and penniless in Poland but he became first cellist in the Berlin Philharmonic and toured the US in 1929 where Samuel Chotzinoff wrote that in his hands “the cello loses its limitations, his playing is as light and brilliant as if he were playing a violin”.
Now back to Ms S-A who writes how Piatigorsky “was shopping around for an airline that would carry his cello free of charge – as he was sick of all the hassle and expense … he managed to find one – ‘Of course, Mr. Piatigorsky – of course’ – and went on the appointed day to pick up his tickets. To his surprise, they proudly presented one for himself and one in the name of Miss Cello Piatigorsky. I think he had to pay anyway…”.
And now comes James Brannan of Strasbourg who read my article on the man who shot Nelson at Trafalgar (a Frenchman who was the friend of a Paris artificer who … I won’t go on). Well, according to Mr Brannan, “This exploit was claimed by an ancestor of mine, Henry Renouf of Jersey … it is just a family legend and most probably fiction.” Mr Brannan draws my attention, however, to another Jerseyman, John Pollard, a midshipman on board the Victory at Trafalgar in 1805 who was credited with shooting the man who shot Nelson. Mr Brannan later worked at the International Court of Justice in the Hague where “I was once reprimanded for advertising a party in aid of the victims in Chechnya. I have a letter saying that I breached the staff regulations for expressing views on a conflict! A few months later, Putin was received at the court with great pomp…”.
Hypocrisy grips our readers, so I will end with two verses from a poem sent me by James McIntyre of Strasbourg, called “Rendition”: “I know an English word, ‘rendition’/I know I never use it wrong!/It means ‘the reading of a poem’/Or ‘the singing of a song’… Our agents representing us/Are what we need, the very thing,/Conduct themselves as we’d expect/They ‘render’ terrorists – to ‘sing’.”
Speechless, I am.