With Don to the Frontier
Sunday Telegraph, March 2010
I knew I was in for an unusual trip but was not prepared for the conspiratorial whisper from Don McCullin as we stood in line at the Libyan immigration desk at Tripoli airport.
“I’ve got a secret for you”, he said, just as we came up before a uniformed Libyan border guard.
“Should you tell me right now’, I replied, with some attempt at discretion, tapping my own immigration form so he would see that I had written “company director” – not “journalist” – beside my occupation. Don waved away my caution, with a “No, they’re fine about all that here,” then continued in a deadpan voice, “I had a stroke this Wednesday.”
I tried to look unconcerned, as if this were a common occurrence amongst my travelling companions.
“ I didn’t want to tell you before we landed in Tripoli – in case it put you off your meal… you know, blood clots and high altitudes.”
It would have. He now had my full attention. Don continued: “My doctor, my wife and an old war-reporter friend had all categorically forbidden me to fly…but I didn’t think I should to let you down, cos’ you’ve been planning this trip for months.
“It’s all in here, he said, waving a thick bunch of medical documents, before putting them back in his case, “so if you see me dribbling out of the corner of my mouth, or having a twitch, give us a kick under the table.”
Before I could agree to provide this back-up medical service, my Libyan friend appeared and we were whisked through customs and immigration in a barrage of Muslim courtesies, greetings and smiles. It was just as well that neither Don’s doctor or wife had been informed about our schedule, bedding down on the floor in Saharan fleapits, bouncing along hundreds of miles of dirt-tracks, following pipelines to wadhi beds, searching for mausolea and Roman legionnaire camps in total darkness, all the better that we could surprise them at dawn before the sun-light took away some of their mystery.
My mission was to accompany Don while he was exploring the Saharan frontiers of the Roman Empire in North Africa. This was an old interest of his, which had flared into a passion and then blossomed into a formal book commission.
We had met through Brigid Keenan, a mutual friend with a number of identities: on one hand a fashion editor, on another the wife of a British ambassador to the Middle East, as well as being a comic novelist, doting grandmother and a free-ranging agent for her friends. In short, she is a power behind the throne and had put Don and I together.
For me it was like winning the prize in a travel competition, the chance to work alongside Britain’s most celebrated war-journalist and photographer, who had himself travelled with many of my literary heroes – such as Norman Lewis and Bruce Chatwin. Under Brigid’s wing, Don and I met up in the corners of launch parties, pored over maps and plotted some half-dozen journeys across the Maghreb and into the Levant.
My justification for being included in the team was that I have written a clutch of books about North Africa, and travel with a rag bag of historical enthusiasms in my head, so that I can be switched on like an iPod, but instead of music you get stories about Apuleius, St Augustine, Hannibal, Massinissa, the Emperor Septimius Severus or the Arabic conquest.
Our first night was in an old caravanserai right in the heart of old Tripoli, overlooking the arch of Marcus Aurelius and within ear-shot of the chants coming out of Dragut’s mosque. In a neighbouring fish restaurant we made up for the lack of alcohol by trading stories which continued as we travelled south into the desert: I served up tidbits of Roman history in the long Jeep journeys, in return for being allowed to quiz him about some of his experiences, as he recorded history being made, and many friends lost, in places such as the Congo, Cyprus, Golan and Vietnam.
I liked the Norman Lewis stories best. For here was a man who was interested in everything, not just headlines, and could dig up a good story by hanging out in a back street bar. Don’s affection for the man also came out in his hilarious imitations of Norman Lewis’s curiously strangled half Welsh/half outer London accent. It also helped knowing that behind Norman Lewis’s typically English reserve and self deprecation was a man who in his prime had kept three different flats going in London, for his different women, while working as a writer, an occasional spy, and running his own chain of photographic shops.
Once we were at a Roman site, there was never any question of either of us being bored, or needing to know the time of the day, or to communicate to each other by mobile telephone. Nor was there much point in concerning myself with worrying about an oncoming stroke. For once I had seen the look of complete absorption in Don’s face, I knew that nothing would be allowed to get in the way with the work in hand. My medical knowledge is in any case centred around three home cures; sleep, whisky and chicken soup.
I have also spent enough time with photographers to leave them well alone while they work, though I have always enjoyed catching up with them in conversation just after they have finished (usually in pitch darkness) as they contentedly pack up their cameras and lenses, sealing up films and labelling cylinders. The talk can be unusually revealing at such moments, when the photographer’s eternal quest for the ‘light’ is briefly stilled. I remember four such instances, at the Roman frontier fortress of Bou Njem (after the sun had burnt out the dawn shadows), amongst the silence of the Romano-Berber mausolea at Ghirza, at Leptis Magna on our second full day and after we caught the amphitheatre at Sabratha at dusk. It became apparent to me at those times that Don had already began to develop the day’s work in the darkroom of his mind, to transfer it into both the magic and the restriction of a flat sheet. Somehow we seemed able to discuss the finished object as it would be, not the landscape from which it came. Both of us were well aware of that sense of awe, fact and stillness achieved by the pioneers in this field.
We reflected on what the work of such pioneers as Maxime du Camp meant to both of us, who had travelled out to photograph the ancient monuments of Egypt between 1849 and 1851 in the company of the writer Gustave Flaubert. And we chuckled over the comic differences between the English pioneer Francis Firth and his French contemporaries. Firth was accompanied neither by an erudite, orientalist literary companion, nor endorsed by state-funding. He was instead a typical, bloody-minded, self-willed, self-funded Anglo-Saxon. Before he could dedicate himself at the age of 33 to ‘the rage, the fury, the vexation of all kinds caused by my [obsession] with photography’, Firth spent his youth amassing a sufficient fortune working as a wholesale grocer in Reigate. He could have gone onto become a Lipton or a Sainsbury but instead his record of Egypt and the Holy Land, achieved through separate expeditions in 1856, 1857 and 1858, would eventually fill thirteen volumes. I heard from Don about the ‘startling clarity and precision’ that they had achieved with these first images of antiquity, their honest ‘factuality’, and how you could almost hear the crunch of their footprints in the sand, and taste the dust that has been flicked up towards the camera lens some hundred and fifty years later. These pioneers of their art also stood directly in line with previous centuries of image-makers, framing the same views that had been worked upon by generations of draughtsmen, etchers and lithographers before them.
But it would be unfair to place the works of these master pioneers beside the finished images created by Don McCullin. They would be betrayed by the eternal flatness of their skies, especially when compared to the brooding, nemesis-charged clouds of a McCullin sky that emphasise and exaggerate the melancholic fields of ruin, as well as by the absence of the long tapering McCullin shadows that malevolently people his landscapes.
One evening, sitting in a rundown hotel in the Sahara, I heard about the genesis of his current obsession. I was actually rolled up in blankets on the floor (which smelt of piss) having tossed a coin for the use of the only bed – and lost. So by the light of a cigarette (always useful to keep away mosquitoes whatever they might do to your lung) I heard how some 40 years ago, Don McCullin and the travel-writer Bruce Chatwin had been paired up to follow a a grim tale about how home-grown French terrorists were randomly machine-gunning helpless North African refugees who were huddled in camps and apartment blocks in and around the city of Marseille. Or were they? It turned out to be a very complicated story, wrapped up in governmental complicity, old hatreds and personal vengeance, and further obscured by the hidden schisms that internally divided both the Algerian and the French people during that ‘savage war for peace’ that was the Algerian struggle for Independence from 1954-1962. Bruce Chatwin became engrossed and wanted to take the story back to its source, so they jumped on board a ferry that took them from Marseille across the Mediterranean to Algiers. From here they headed south, to Setif, to find out more about the forgotten but horrifyingly savage and bloody massacre of native Algerians by the French military on the 8th of May 1945.
But aside from being a journalist, Bruce Chatwin was also an art-historian and so in between the interviews and the photo-shoots, the two of them managed to take a break from their gritty labour and visit some of the Roman ruins in this hinterland of Algeria. The memory of those sun-drenched outcrops of golden stone - unexpected, still and venerable and deep buried in the Arcadian landscape of rural North Africa – were lodged in the photographer’s eye. Don told me that no negatives survive from that day, yet I felt absolutely certain that this hoarded memory has proved to be the catalyst for Don’s current obsession.
And while Don is neither an art-historian or an archaeologist, it was clear that he had been gifted with an intuitive ear for the rumbling thunder of history, for catching and recording the cries of the suffering, even when the conflict had been fought some two thousand years before. He is a war-photographer – indeed many of his colleagues would qualify that description further and say that he is ‘the war-photographer’ - a man who seems to have as his personal mission professional empathy, who will not be tempted by mere elegance, let alone prettiness.
I was able to put this to an unintended test a few days later. I took Don to see a place on the Libyan shore that speaks to me of the true enchantment of Mediterranean life and of the Golden Antonine heyday of Roman antiquity. It is a secretive, secluded seaside Roman villa, perched on surf-splashed rocks beside a sand-filled bay, with playful frescoes, plastered vaults, clever mosaics and intimate rooms. No-one who I have taken to this place before has failed to fall under its enchantment. But I noticed with interest that throughout our visit, Don’s camera bags remained in the jeep and not a single image was taken. The ghosts of aristocratic villa life and dinner parties could be left to fend for themselves. However in two locations of an identical historical period which we had visited the day before and the day after, in similar weather conditions he was frenetically busy – like a man possessed, driven it seemed to me, by a need to witness the undoubted suffering that had taken place here in the past. The buildings were a Roman frontier fortress and an amphitheatre. To my mind, it was is as if some modern Tacitus armed with a camera is telling us once again ‘that the Romans call it peace, but only after they have first made a wilderness of it from their wars.’
Don McCullin’s ‘Southern Frontiers: A Journey Across the Roman Empire’ is published on March 4 by Jonathan Cape (£50). A second book of photographs, ‘Shaped by War’ (Jonathan Cape, £25), has just been published and is accompanied by an exhibition (Shaped by War: Photographs by Don McCullin) at the Imperial war Museum North, Manchester (www.iwm.org.uk ), until June 13 before moving to Bath and London.
Barnaby Rogerson’s “The Last Crusaders: The Hundred-Year Battle for the Centre of the World” has also just been published, by Little, Brown isbn 978-0-316-86124-3, (£20). His History of North Africa has just slipped into its Third Edition, published by Duckworth, isbn 978-0-7156-3738-8. For a glimpse at his day job, running in Eland, the home to classic travel literature, see www.travelbooks.co.uk.
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by Barnaby Rogerson