More Thrills than Skills – A Half-life in Journalism, Part 51

Over the next few weeks, is to publish, each weekday, extracts from the memoirs of Scottish war correspondent, Paul Harris. ‘More Thrills than Skills: A Half-life in Journalism’, is being scheduled for publication next year.

When a promising little war breaks out in the far flung Republic of Ishmaelia, or wherever, there will always be certain types of hotel guest for the establishment that keeps open its doors. With the package tourists and businessmen gone, there are now four quite distinct types of guest. There are journalists, aid workers, spooks and ‘war tourists’.

That the journos and the aid workers should be there goes without saying, although not all journos are as dedicated to their craft as they might be. Writing of the Commodore Hotel in Beirut during the 1980s, correspondent, Robert Fisk, referred to “a breed of journalistic lounge lizard, reporters who rarely left the building – or the downstairs bar.”

The Commodore is probably best remembered for the resident parrot, Coco, whose convincing imitations of gunfire and incoming shells would more often than not cause guests to dive for cover. It was rebuilt after its 1987 trashing by Druze and Palestinian gunmen. But Coco fled and was never found, despite a British journalist’s generous offer of a $500 reward.

Hotels in Beirut have had a hard time of it. The fabled St Georges Hotel was blown up in the bomb attack that killed Rafik Hariri and sixteen of his entourage in February 2005, and remains an empty shell. Other hotels like the Holiday Inn have never been repaired.

During the Croatian war of 1991, the Intercontinental in Zagreb, far from the frontline, was packed with the breed Fisk talked of. A photographer friend discovered he could sell an unprocessed roll of film in the bar for a hundred bucks. He sold a lot of blank rolls before he was obliged to escape an army of armchair pundits.

Down in Dubrovnik, during the Serbian siege of the picturesque ancient walled city, the best hotel was indubitably, despite its unlikely name, the Argentina. It was renowned for the quality of the home-grown cabaret. Here, journos and TV crews amused themselves at the piano with choruses of Always Look on the Bright Side of Life, as the Serbs poured shells into the city. The Independent’s man, Phil Davison, was picked off by a sniper at the front door. The bullet fragments in his leg were left there by the doctors to excite airport x-ray machines.

The social life tended to attract journalists to Le Pnomh, the main hotel in the Cambodian capital. It enjoyed “an irresistible atmosphere of hot sex and ice-cold drinks”, according to The Sunday Times’ Jon Swain. Alas, standards were not maintained by the Khmer Rouge.

I never stayed there, but friends told me the place to stay in Baghdad in days of yore was the Hotel al-Rashid, with its marble, chandeliers, garden promenades, a lot of pictures of Saddam Hussein and window glass three inches thick. It enjoyed excellent views: it was from here in 1991 that CNN’s Peter Arnett famously observed the smart bombs weaving their way through the streets and around corners right past his window. In those days it was the safest place to stay. The bunkers beneath the hotel reputedly held 1000 people.

One of my personal favourites was on the Kenya/Sudan border. Trackmark Camp in Lokichokkio was really handy for those aid flights into Sudan which, as journalists, we were often able to piggy-back our way onto. Just over the border from famine, pestilence and war, why not enjoy cold beers and a swim in the pool? Accommodation was either in traditional thatched turkals or in tents. My advice was always to go for the tents. It was easier to get rid of the mosquitoes. But you had to keep a sharp eye out for the odd cobra in the grounds.

Even in the most dangerous places of the world there is almost always one hotelier who stubbornly stays open to receive a mix of war guests.

There is a certain category of hotel which will never appear in the handbook of The World’s Leading Hotels. When war and civil breakdown comes to a country most hoteliers simply pack up and go. They are slaves bound to the credit card economy and the type of demanding guest who will complain about building work next door, never mind the odd bit of shelling or snipers routinely picking off the patrons.

Nevertheless, all over the world – in places like bloody Bosnia, anarchic Albania and battered Beirut – at least one hotel usually survives to resist the tide of more disagreeable human events. These hoteliers are really the ones who should pick up the awards for customer service, endurance and determination.

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