Saturday, August 02, 2008

Book review: Am I Dead Yet?

[A few days back I received a pleasant inquiry from an agent for Fitzhenry & Whiteside, asking if I would be interested in reviewing former CBC journalist John Scully's memoirs. I've done my share of book reviewing in the print media over the years--made my name mud in certain quarters this Spring, in fact, with a critical review of a recent book on Nunavut political culture--and this seemed like a good opportunity to move my hobby into cyberspace. And then, by coincidence, one of my sparring partners in the 'sphere sent me his book to review as well. Summer is hurtling on, I have a thesis proposal to write, and I start teaching again next month. So both of these mini-projects found their way to the top of my to-do list. One down, one to go. --DD]

Am I Dead Yet? 71 Countries, 36 War Zones, 1 Man's Opinion
by John Scully
Fitzhenry & Whiteside 2008
213 pp.

John Scully was a radio and television journalist for fifty years, working for the BBC, CTV, CBC, Global Television, Vision TV and TVNZ (New Zealand). He's done front-line reporting from nine war zones (the title refers to numerous return visits to some of them), come under fire both figuratively and literally, and was very nearly executed with his camera crew by right-wing vigilantes in El Salvador. He's been around, in other words, and he has quite a few stories to tell.

Am I Dead Yet is a collection of those stories--anecdotes might be a better word--that one might tell late at night in a bar in Beirut when everybody but a few hard-drinking buddies have gone home for the night. There's a stream-of-consciousness feel about the tales, strung together with salty opinion and not a little moralizing.
They bear a few signs of embellishment here and there. Less memoirs than reminiscences, there is no chronological order. The narrative is almost free association, and most of the many photos are undated.

Scully turns out to be the realization of the worst conservative CBC nightmares. Unrepentantly and sometimes bitterly left-wing, he minces no words.

Israel's former President, Chaim Herzog: "former Israeli Ambassador to the UN, former resistance fighter, former London barrister, professional asshole."

Mother Teresa: "Aggie, this saint-on-earth...cultivating a celebrity image. ...She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979. I guess it was for creating the same kind of peace as other great winners of the vaunted prize: Henry Kissinger, F.W. de Klerk, Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin."

Pope John Paul II: a "besotted reactionary...[who] went on a beatification bender, sending nearly thirteen hundred souls on the second step to sainthood, including Albanian Aggie."

Prince Philip: "Phil the Greek," an "imperious racist" with a "pathological hatred for the media."

Ronald Reagan: "Hollywood Ron...tall in the saddle as platitudinous home truths dribbled from his aw-shucks chops."

Then there's the "swaggering" Rick Hillier, or Trudeau in Paris, engaging in "huge amounts of pomp and not a lot else."

I'd buy a few more rounds for the guy just to listen to more of this.

Scully, as the saying goes, has been there and done that, and has all the T-shirts. As the sub-title indicates, he's done journalism in 71 countries, helpfully named at the end of the book. His list charmingly includes both Great Britain and Scotland, which seems rather prescient, actually, given the recent SNP takedown of Labour.

Read all about it: crazy fundamentalists trying to resettle Hmong refugees from Vietnam and Laos--in Jonestown; the Iran-Iraq war, when Iraqi troops offered to let a colleague shell Iranians as a birthday present; Moscow mafiosi and leaking radiation in Murmansk in the post-Communist Russian utopia; filming the Ayatollah Khomeini; bribing a Vatican priest to cover the funeral of Pope John Paul I; being thrown out of one Irish pub and welcomed in another, where drunks were busy reciting Yeats (ah, nostalgia: CUPE's Sid Ryan and I once did the same thing, in the same condition, late one night at a CLC convention).

The hazards of the profession are stated almost matter-of-factly. Getting film out of the battle zones was a triumph of dedication, perseverance, bloody-mindedness, bribe money and sheer luck. Friends and colleagues of Scully died for their stories. Dysentery regularly laid journalists low (Scully spends a fair bit of time, perhaps too much, talking about that particular affliction.) He nearly died of an amoebic liver abscess after a trip to Latin America. And then the producers back home carped and criticized and demanded re-writes and re-splices. Business as usual.

Bureaucracy was another serious obstacle. Many examples are provided: worth the price of admission, though, is Scully's lengthy and hilarious account of
importing CBC equipment into India to set up a bureau office. Those familiar with Air Canada runarounds will feel sympathy and then mounting horror as they realize that the aforementioned airline is a model of brisk efficiency and excellent customer relations compared to the Circumlocution Office run by Indian customs officials.

Scully is defiantly old-school, and he has nothing but scorn for the invidious current practice of "embedding,"
which began in 1991 during the Persian Gulf War. Getting out of the bed is impossible, because the journalists have to sign secrecy agreements. Rather than head off into the perilous fire zones themselves, as Scully and his colleagues did, the new crop of journalists has military minders to control everything they see and hear. Scully cites an appalling bit of puff-piecery as an example of the perils of embedded journalism. He doesn't source the article or its author, but here it is, courtesy of Google: judge for yourselves.

Nor does he spare the uncritical acceptance of public opinion polls by lazy journalists. He is scathing about one carried out in Afghanistan: how trustworthy, he asks, are the results of a poll carried out in wartime by foreign pollsters when the country is under occupation? One inconvenient response to the pollster was buried, it seems: only 2% of those surveyed knew that Canada had troops in the country:

Indeed, those polled were members of a well-informed, credible populace who gave honest answers that presented the most current and reliable picture to date of the War in Afghanistan. And I'm a six-sided ham sandwich.

The man does have a tremendous gift of gab, and there are lots more stories to be told, including one about a man with a nuclear weapon for sale. (Waiter, another round! Maybe there'll be a sequel.) Reading Scully is like reading, well, stories in a newspaper. Several might have some common theme, but they don't form one coherent narrative. I can hear him snorting at that: "Life isn't a narrative, boy! It's one damn thing after another!" Something like that. In fact, Scully is at his best just telling stories--his rhetorical flourishes and reflections too often seem laboured and contrived, and
at times can be downright lame. But when he gets out of the way and just tells the reader what happened, we can see why he did so well for half a century in the news business.

This man should have a blog. Wouldn't he fit right in?

UPDATE: Shoot, the man does have a blog. And he does fit right in. Go visit.

UPPERDATE: (August 10) Matt, over at CC's place, has reviewed this book as well. Check it out.

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