FEBRUARY 27, 2017
“PARIS, GOA, MALAYA, LONDON — there’s no point beyond myself in being anywhere.” This was how the English novelist Graham Greene recalled the 1950s in his memoir Ways of Escape (1980). Greene had fallen into a deep depression after the end of World War II; his desire to reexperience the visceral thrill of the Blitz would take him to a number of global trouble-spots — Malaya during the communist insurgency, Haiti under “Papa Doc” Duvalier, and Cuba in the throes of Castro’s uprising. It may strike us as perverse, but it’s far from unusual, and probably has a relatively straightforward neuroscientific explanation: he craved the moreish rush from dopamine and other brain chemicals secreted to help us cope with heightened stress. Perhaps it explains why some people have a propensity to seek out fraught or abusive romantic relationships, but I digress. A good half-century later the addictiveness of adrenaline, with all its troubling implications, was sufficiently destabilizing to prompt the war correspondent Anthony Loyd to entitle his 1999 memoir of the Bosnian conflict My War Gone By, I Miss It So. Lara Pawson, who worked as a journalist for the BBC in several African countries between 1996 and 2007, records a similar feeling in This Is the Place to Be. Reflecting on her time covering the Angolan Civil War, she writes: “It was an incredibly intense experience, one that influenced me radically. For a long time, I tried to work out how I could retrieve it. I wanted a repeat, like that absurd sensation you get when you first take certain class-A drugs.”
We might expect English diffidence to kick in at this point; this is the sort of admission that normally takes the form of a fleeting disclosure, duly followed by a vague sense of shame and a swift changing of the subject. But the theme resurfaces again and again in the many disparate fragments that comprise this small but powerful book: Pawson recalls feeling “a sort of lightness of being” after 9/11; later, she recalls how “an overwhelming vigour definitely swept through me” when watching some people being killed. “It was the same when I saw a group of children,” she writes, “scrambling like rabbits into holes in the ground to hide from incoming shells.”
Pawson had trouble settling back in to normal civilian life when she returned to the United Kingdom. She got herself ejected from an Islington dinner party, for instance, after flipping out in response to a hedge fund manager’s platitudes about wanting to help Africa. Presumably his is the sort of smug liberal complacency she has in mind when she remarks, “Although I have come to understand that the violence of war affects families for generations, I continue to fear the apathy produced by peace.” Pawson, though, is no latter-day Marinetti; when she opines, “The whole point about war […] is that it is intrinsic to life,” the observation is all the more troubling precisely because it comes from someone whose approach to existence brims with humanity and compassion.
The personal anecdotes and childhood vignettes that are interspersed among the wartime reminiscences occur in such locales as Sheen and Weybridge — middle-class suburban towns in the South East of England. The juxtaposition is jarring, the distance impossible to bridge. Pawson bemoans the suffocating compromises of professional journalism, the necessity of reducing everything to a hackneyed sound bite and the impossibility of transcending the limits of the format. She writes, for example, of her frustration at not finding a way to convey anything about the nature of the Angolan sense of humor in her dispatches from Luanda: “Today I don’t believe that objectivity is a useful goal. It’s false and it’s a lie and it doesn’t help people to mentally engage in events.” The point could not be more apposite at a time when the BBC is bending over backward to be seen as impartial in its coverage of the rising tide of racist populism in Western politics, a policy exemplified by its decision to air a lengthy interview with the leader of the French far-right, Marine Le Pen, back in November — on Remembrance Sunday, no less. The producers invoked objectivity, although it’s conspicuous that none of the other French party leaders had been invited onto the program. As the late Howard Zinn once remarked, you can’t afford to be neutral on a moving train.
Pawson articulates profound misgivings about the inherently exploitative nature of war journalism. When she recalls that “[o]ne of the reasons I’d left Angola was because of the voyeurism involved in my work,” one is reminded of the Pulitzer Prize–winning South African photojournalist Kevin Carter, who took his own life at the age of 33, apparently haunted by feelings of guilt at the horrors he had witnessed in Sudan. Western correspondents working anywhere in the Global South are necessarily implicated, at least to some extent, in the structures of socio-economic and geo-political inequality that sustain the privations they are recording, and even someone who has embraced an adopted culture with pure and sincere motives is not entirely free from the taint of appropriation. Pawson is troubled by the notion that she may be merely the latest in a long line of self-styled white saviors: “It’s not my country and it’s not my revolution. There’s quite a history of people like me — white Europeans — wanting to build revolutions in Angola and other parts of the world. Who do we think we are?” These ruminative vignettes are sporadically punctuated by moments of disarmingly jovial whimsy. Recalling an incident in which she chased off burglars while angrily threatening to call the police, she expresses regret that she hadn’t used the word “Feds” — a term rarely deployed in UK English except in inner-city subcultures — instead of “police.” (New paragraph: “Because I like it.”) Of the Cuban doctor who sucked on a cigar while telling her she had to quit smoking immediately: “If anything, this made me take him more seriously.”
This Is the Place to Be is notable for its structural oddness. We might call it a memoir, but that wouldn’t quite do justice to its fragmentary, decidedly nonlinear narrative composition, which gives it a kind of oneiric quality redolent of experimental fiction. The effect is enhanced by occasional riffing on the unreliability of memories. Having related a childhood anecdote about the time her brother banned her from borrowing his air rifle ever again after she shot bull’s-eye, Pawson hesitates: “Is that true? Well, I wouldn’t want to swear on it.” She invokes what cognitive scientists call “the binding problem” — the brain’s tendency, when processing incomplete information, to fill in the gaps using unconscious processing and guesswork. Recalling a memory of having seen a woman cut in half by an articulated lorry in Luanda, she wonders “if what I say I saw was in fact fill-in created by my brain. Which bit was real — the upper part of her body, or the lower part?” We are invited, by implication, to speculate as to how much else was fill-in, and to reflect in turn on the authenticity of our own narratives. For all its personal candor, the spare laconicism of Pawson’s prose — even when recalling harrowing acts of violence — militates against any sense of intrusiveness or therapeutic excess. The result is a sense of intimacy lightly worn; we are told a lot, but it doesn’t feel like a lot. This is particularly important to an English readership, for we are delicate in the face of earnestness and cannot handle too much of it. Give it to us by stealth, though, and we will gladly have it.