Invité du mois


Photo: © WHIB / P.VIROT

Interview with Gordon Martin, journalist.


How did you start your career as a journalist?
I became a journalist in many ways purely by chance. I studied Classics and Modern languages at Oxford, and spent the years 1951-53 doing some dilettante research into the teaching of Greek in Florence in the 14th century. Then, I first set foot in Switzerland in 1953 as a teacher of Latin at a big international school in St. Gallen, followed by a spell teaching English for the British Council in Finland, and finally a year as a graduate student at the College of Europe in Bruges. Then I thought it was time to settle down to a steady career, and talked my way into a job in the wine-trade. But at the last minute I joined Reuters News Agency, since despite the prevailing prejudice against University graduates in Fleet Street, Reuters took two such trainees each year. Since I spoke Italian, they sent me to Rome, where I spent two wonderful years, 1955-57. The mid-50s were the great years of the dolce vita in Rome, and we had a marvellous boss, who lived at the top of a medieval tower overlooking the Forum, where we were often invited, and his wife Jenny, who was a daughter of Robert Graves the poet and historian.

What lessons have you learned from life as a journalist?
In Italian they have a saying “meglio nascere furtunato che ricco” – better to be born lucky than rich. And I certainly am lucky to have survived quite a few incidents. In September 1960 I was sent by Reuters to the Congo, which had just become independent from Belgium and had split into two parts. I was in Katanga, and one day flew on a military transport plane to take supplies to a township besieged by rebels. On the way back to Elisabethville, as it was then called, we landed at an airstrip in the bush to refuel. To my horror, hundreds of naked men rushed towards us, firing poisoned arrows. To make the scene even more frightening, they were all painted white, as the witch-doctors told them this would protect them against bullets. I heard the officer in charge of the UN detachment from Mali shout into his field-telephone “Ils attaquent, je ne sais pas quoi faire”. I said to the Swedish UN observer travelling with me on the plane “Did you hear that?”. His reply ended any faith I had in UN peacekeepers. “I don’t speak French”, he said. I pushed him into a UN jeep and told him to get us away immediately – fortunately, he did as I told him.
Just one other anecdote, this time from the Basque region of Spain, where I was based as BBC correspondent for the West Mediterranean. Back in 1977, two years after the death of Franco, who had treated the Basques very badly, the Madrid government was still banning the celebration of the Basque National Day, Aberri Eguna, on Easter Sunday. I spent a miserable morning in the Basque town of Vitoria, recording the gun-fights going on between Basque nationalists and the riot squads sent from Madrid. A friendly Basque invited me to join him for a drink in his aged mother’s flat. As we looked through the fifth floor window at the mayhem going on in the plaza below, one of the riot police saw my microphone, possibly thought it was a gun, and fired a rubber bullet. His aim was good – almost too good. And the bullet took the wine-glass out of my hand – I was left holding the stem. I apologised to my host for the trouble I had caused. “I’m sure we have gained a friend” he said.

Gordon Martin with Adolf Ogi (on the left)

What major changes have you witnessed in the way you work?
Journalists have of course been affected by changes over the years – I think the most striking is the development of telecommunications. When I see correspondents on television talking into their videophones, I think of the problems that faced my generation in getting dispatches back to headquarters in London. I’ve spent many nail-biting hours waiting for telephone-calls to get through. A couple of weeks ago, when Qaddafi was celebrating his 38 years in power in Libya, I was thinking of my coverage of his takeover in 1969. I was waiting for a call to London in my hotel room in Tripoli, when a heavily-armed Libyan sailor burst in to find out what I was saying.
A less risky wait for a phone-call occurred when I arrived in Teheran to attend a magnificent banquet being given by the Shah in Persepolis. In those days, before the ayatollahs took over, the national drink of Iran was vodka and lime – in the eight hours it took for my call for London to come through, I’d consumed so many I found I could no longer pronounce the phrase 2,500th anniversary, which was what the Shah was celebrating for his dynasty. So I had to ask them to read that phrase in the studio in London.

What fascinating personalities have you met?
One was the Dalai Lama. I went to meet him in 1962, just after he had left Tibet and set up his headquarters in India. Against my better judgement, I took with me the wife of my former boss in Rome, whom I mentioned earlier. This was very much at her insistence. She was a forceful lady, and I instructed her to keep quiet during my interview, but right at the end she couldn’t contain herself, and asked the Dalai Lama whether it would be possible for a woman to become Dalai Lama. I felt embarrassed at what I thought was a stupid question. But there was a long pause, and the Dalai Lama then answered “I don’t see why not”. The interpreter told us afterwards this was the first time the Dalai Lama had been asked this question, and it was an important statement. A few months later, when I went to see him again, the Dalai Lama greeted me by asking “Where’s that lady who was with you last time”? And in my nine years as BBC Diplomatic Correspondent based in London I spent my time flying round the world with Mrs. Thatcher, or Foreign Secretaries like Sir Geoffrey Howe or Lord Carrington, as well as covering some overseas visits by Her Majesty The Queen.

How do you feel about being 80?
Everything that can be said about growing old has been said by far more distinguished men than me. So just three quotes. The comedian Bob Hope, who said “You know you’re getting old when the candles cost more than the cake”. And, more seriously, from Albert Schweizer: “Only when your wings droop, and the innermost depths of your heart are covered with the snow of pessimism and the ice of cynicism, only then are you truly old.” When Winston Churchill reached the age of 80, in 1954, he said: “I am prepared to meet my Maker – but whether my Maker is prepared for the great ordeal of meeting me is another matter”.
I consider myself fortunate to be in Geneva as a journalist. We are lucky in having such a charming and efficient lady as Marie Heuzé as Director of the UN Information Service, and I am not forgetting her predecessor Thérèse Gastaut, who encouraged me to come to work in Geneva after I finished a stint in Afghanistan in 1988. I am happy to be in Switzerland. In the year 2000, former Swiss President Adolph Ogi, who did me the honour of coming from Bern to my birthday reception, said in a speech to the Swiss community in London “Britain is one of my true loves”. Well, Switzerland is one of mine. And I was delighted to have Alphorn blowers to bring an echo of the real Switzerland to my birthday party.