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Sunday, 12 November 2006

One Crowded Hour bookcover; Cornstalk PublishingReview: One Crowded Hour, Tim Bowden (1987)

Written in a dry, laconic style, interspersed with quotes from interviews the author had with Neil Davis, the cameraman and war correspondent, the book starts with jerks and pauses. In the beginning, in Tasmania, in Davis’ childhood and adolescence, we are wondering why he has written it in this way. Nothing very interesting seems to happen and the centre of the story seems to be missing.

Davis then gets a job with Visnews in Singapore. He covers the downfall of Sukarno in Indonesia. Here, history kicks in and it becomes clearer why Tim Bowden has chosen this method of storytelling. Also included are extracts from letters Neil wrote to his aunt Lillian in Tasmania.

When the action turns to Vietnam, of course, the method Bowden has devised — a dry, laconic and crisp delivery — comes into its own. He lets the story unfold without touching it directly, very much. The drama unfolds with great speed as towns and cities fall to advancing communist troops.

The communists had recovered following the Tet offensive some years earlier. It is revealing, here, to read of the make-up of the different groups. I didn’t know, for example, that the Viet Cong were different from the North Vietnamese. But they were:

One immediate result [of the Tet offensive] was that the southern-born guerrillas, the Viet Cong, were effectively destroyed. After that it became war with the North Vietnamese versus South Vietnam and America.

And the action and the story become compelling. Snippets of war stories and anecdotes dot the narrative. Sometimes you laugh out loud. Sometimes you pause in amazement. Setting the record straight seems to be a peculiar need, for Davis and, also, for Bowden. The contribution of South Vietnamese troops in the conflict needs to be acknowledged. And it is. The cannibalism of the Khmer Rouge needs to be revealed to the world (he didn't film it when it was happening because he thought the soldiers wouldn't like it if he did). And it is.

But it was sometimes difficult to get a story, especially with Australian troops in Vietnam:

Unlike the Americans and other Allied groups fighting in South Vietnam, the Australians did not welcome foreign correspondents; they had a deep-seated distrust of the press. It was known in the trade as the ‘feel free to fuck off’ approach to public relations.

The material, though now dated and ‘safe’, is still quite sensitive in many respects. The figure of Suharto lurking in the background as he manoeuvres Sukarno out of power, is thrilling. The overcompensation of the American troops in Vietnam makes them look somewhat like Keystone Cops. But time has passed and, with it, any need for caution. No doubt some feathers will be ruffled. The fact that Sukarno hated Jakarta — he called it a dirty slum — may open some peoples’ eyes, especially in the archipelago.

Davis’ enduring love of Asia is mixed up with his philandering. A woman in every port, kind of thing. Sort of sad, really. But he obviously felt a great sympathy for the natives of each country he visited. And, Asia has changed so much in the past forty years, it’s amazing. The rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Indonesia seems to be quite a recent thing. But Davis' larrikin character endures throughout:

Jem Gerrand remembers that if Davis were caught with other journalists under fire, he would always crack jokes to jolly along those who might otherwise panic. He had a very genuine compassion, Gerrand said, for others who were frightened, and never thought less of them, then or later. Sometimes his tension-relieving jokes would not be appreciated; he was fond of whistling to imitate an incoming shell.

After quitting Visnews because the London headquarters wanted to remove him from South-East Asia, Davis continues to work as a freelance cinecameraman in the region, covering the downfalls of Phnom Penh (to which he had relocated; he lost all his personal possessions when he fled the city) and Saigon.

When the Indo-Chinese wars end, he relocates to Bangkok as a base, and covers breaking stories in Africa and the Middle East. When the Israelis bomb the nuclear reactor being built near Baghdad, Davis and other NBC journalists visit the Iraqi city and are arrested as spies and held for over a week before finally being released. A tense time.

But he never related to people in these parts of the world like he did to Asians:

Although Davis spent a great deal of time in Africa and the Middle East in the post-Vietnam years, he never identified with either region as he had with Indo-China.

After leaving Visnews, Davis constantly had problems getting his stories played at the length he had filmed them. They were cut mercilessly but the American networks. This didn’t please him, as he was a bit of an artist when it came to his work. On one occasion, when he filmed a ‘soft’ story in Cambodia (a young Khmer Rouge soldier was trying to cross the border into Thailand and was stopped by Thai soldiers; they eventually accept him because he pleads with them so strenuously) and sent off the reels to New York, the result was less than satisfying, from his point of view:

Too long, they said, and not hard news. It was rejected. If I had shot that for Visnews, it would have been used in full by a grateful editorial desk.

This book is written in quite a ‘writerly’ way, bordering at times on literary journalism. It is necessary, in order to evoke the character and temperament of the people in the story. The huge perceived gap between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ news is a continued blight on journalism, I think.

I recently exchanged e-mails with a literary journalist who had this to say about this gap:

Those who claim to be uniformly "objective" should be sued for false advertising.

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