More Thrills than Skills – A Half-life in Journalism, Part 72

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.

Washington to New York doesn’t look such a long way on the map but it’s five hours’ drive. My publisher, it seems, can’t afford plane tickets. We arrive next day in time for a scheduled interview on talk radio, WBAI. I am momentarily nonplussed when it becomes clear they are going to allow Phyllis, my publicist, to do the whole interview.

The IBA wouldn’t allow that sort of thing in the UK. Phyllis gets around ten mentions of the book title, the publisher’s address and telephone number and the post paid price of the book into the 20-minute interview. I stand and watch helplessly from behind the studio glass feeling rather thirsty.

On to another public meeting on Bosnia, this time at New York University. Phyllis lives in Brooklyn in a pretty, detached wooden house which is defended like Fort Knox with locks, bolts, seals on windows and infra red beams. I’m warned not to wander around in the night lest I alert all this paraphernalia. Over coffee, Phyllis says she is very doubtful about getting onto CNN. This makes me even more determined to land them.

Thursday is a bad day. Not only are the media waking up to the fact that tomorrow is the anniversary of the Oklahoma bombing, but the Israelis shell a UN base in southern Lebanon, killing more than 100 refugees. C-Span TV ring up to cancel tomorrow’s live TV slot, everybody at CNN is uncontactable as they’re working on the Breaking News story and my 2pm press conference to launch the book with Bosnian Ambassador, Muhammed Sacirbey, at the UN building is off.

Back in Washington, more calls to CNN and Jim Clancy says: “The interview is a goer, Paul.” After half a dozen calls to Atlanta, I’m through to guest bookings and they are trying to book a studio. The studio’s in New York. I’m back in Washington . . . Much of the rest of the day is spent in taxis, between radio stations, bookstores and private briefings of US ‘think tanks’ involved in some mysterious way in policymaking on Bosnia.

A luncheon address at the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee Convention on the Saturday in Crystal City, Virginia, is not quite the cosy little gathering I had assumed. There are more than 3000 delegates – activists, professionals and businessmen – and most of them seem to be gathered in the dining room of the Marriott Hotel. Once the clattering of knives, forks and china is stilled I’m on my feet for their Keynote Address on Bosnia.

It must have gone down okay because copies of Cry Bosnia are evaporating from my publisher’s stand outside the dining room. After signing for an hour, recovery is called for. The organisers have thoughtfully provided a suitably luxurious suite – on the back of the door it says something about $700 a night – so the delightful Envera and I retire to quaff champagne from an ice bucket. I’ve thoughtfully smuggled my own into the room in a brown paper bag. All by myself, I’ve found out what ‘brownbagging’ is. Now this is what author tours are really about.

Michel Moushabeck, my publisher, lived in a delightful clapboard little-house-on-the prairie just outside the university town of Amherst. It was quite different here from downtown Brooklyn. He never locks his front door, horses prance in the paddock and the frogs are spawning in the swimming pool. And New York’s just three hours’ drive away.

Local signings, more calls to CNN, Amtrak back to New York and I arrive in plenty of time for my talk and signing in Brooklyn. I call CNN from noisy, bustling Penn Station and everything is set up for tomorrow, my last day. I then catch the underground for Brooklyn in plenty of time for the 7pm talk and sign event. But I don’t count on an explosion and fire ahead on the track. I’m trapped powerlessly for an hour deep underground.

I eventually arrive just after 8pm, an hour late. Phyllis is at the door. “Where the hell have you been ? I’ve been searching all the bars around.” She thinks she has me taped. The audience has dwindled to four hopeful stalwarts, so I do my stuff, and sell two copies.

Back at Phyllis’s, there’s a message on the answering machine from CNN, cancelling. But please phone tomorrow. I duly call CNN in Atlanta from call boxes all over New York – streets, stations, bars. Just after midday I’m told: “You’re on. Get into the New York studio for 1.45.”

I’ve been keeping a log. This was the 37th telephone call to CNN.

Considering I’m about to address a worldwide TV audience in excess of 500 million, the studio is a distinct disappointment. There’s an uncomfortable straight-backed high swivel chair on which the interviewee perches, in front of a fuzzy photograph of the New York skyline and it constitutes the only furniture in a dark, camera and cable-strewn cavern. I can’t see Jim Clancy in Atlanta, so speak into a void with the questions materialising through an earpiece.

But that is it. I’ve knocked it off – with a full 60 minutes to go before check-in at Kennedy Airport….

Of course, I didn’t make any money out of it. But I was rather used to that situation by now. Books have continued to pour off the presses: a book of photographs of the conflict in Sri Lanka, Fractured Paradise; two books of photographs of Shanghai, Transition and About Face; a book about my year in Sri Lanka, Delightfully Imperfect: A Year in Sri Lanka at the Galle Face Hotel; and, forty years on, When Pirates Ruled the Waves remains in print. They make small money. However, books still carry with them a certain gravitas and they do serve to open doors to other things.

Never mind the bank manager. I am still a great believer in the ineffable power of the printed word.

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