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Cheers from a foreign correspondent

We often think the world is going mad, and if statistics are to be believed, it may be true.

Consider that in Victorian England in 1859, there was only one certified insane person for every 535 sane people.

Forty years later, at the turn of the millennium, the number of officially mad people had risen to one in every 312 normal folk. A quarter of a century after that, it had shot up to one in every 150.

God only knows what the current figure is, but if the pattern persists, scientists say that in 2040 – just 30 years hence – there will be one crazy person for every sane person.

When that happens, we won’t be able to tell which is which. In effect, we’ll all be mad. And possibly a lot happier.

I find that reassuring, because a measure of madness is essential for any foreign correspondent, which has been my career for longer than I care to remember.

And since it’s the start of yet another year on the job, let me tell you why it still thrills me.

According to newspaper myth, wrote the veteran New York Times correspondent Russell Baker: “Reporters are footloose, irresponsible corsairs.”

It is wrong to call us irresponsible; we are quite the opposite in my experience. But I still love that phrase because it encapsulates what I always wanted to be – a roving pirate foraging for treasures of information around the world.

It did not come easy. My early years were spent in a series of jobs that paid a decent wage, but were profoundly unfulfilling.

Then, in the aftermath of being sacked from one such job in Vancouver, I summoned up the cojones to stuff a backpack and head off into the unknown. It was a welcome moment of madness.

Three months later, I was in India. And as I have earlier described in a memoir, it was there, in a New Delhi bookshop, that I bought a copy of The Four Quartets by T.S. Eliot. It still sits over my desk today.

There are two passages in it that reverberate in my mind constantly, and which I regularly reach up from my keyboard to re-read. The first is fittingly on page 1:

“Footfalls echo in the memory/Down the passage which we did not take/Towards the door we never opened/Into the rose-garden.”

I can never read this without a lump coming to my throat. Funny, that, because I’m a pretty cynical philistine at heart and the world’s madness has made me suspicious of any emotion.

But these words, even on first reading so many years ago, seemed to embody the joy of exploration into all things and all places that make life as a foreign correspondent so wondrously worth living.

Yet they also convey the sadness of all those missed opportunities to explore that constantly tempers the joy – or at least seemed to do so before I took up this job.

So many missed rose-gardens, so many doors never opened. Why? God only knows; but I have passed too many and will never knowingly do so again, no matter what the risk.

I’m not sure if I was already imbued with this sentiment when, several weeks after I’d purchased the book, I arrived in the cauldron of Calcutta.

It was early evening, and being alone, I shared a cab into the city with four others. As we drove along in the darkness, we passed open fires beside the road and figures would flare vividly into view in the smoky, dusty gloom and then quickly vanish.

It was an almost Bruegelian journey into some kind of mad heart of darkness, and it thrilled me in a panicky sort of way. I had no idea where I was going to stay.

At Sudder Street, I got out with two Japanese girls and we tried several rather seedy-looking guesthouses. The first was full except for a dormitory; the second was full except for the roof; the third had a double room which the girls took.

I was left alone on the dark and oddly deserted street and it began to rain. I did not know where to go and there was no one to ask. Yet I still felt strangely excited and I impulsively headed down a darkened passageway that connected with the adjacent parallel street. There I chanced on the Astoria Hotel, which had one single room left.

Would I like to see it? I would. It comprised a cot bed in a white-washed cell up under the eaves and adjacent to a balcony that looked out across the city’s dark tempestuous night.

Almost suppressing wild laughter, I said I’d take it, knowing that I had entered a rose-garden and that my life as a roving corsair was truly under way. And it was. And mercifully, it continues.

When I returned to Calcutta years later as a senior correspondent for Asiaweek, I did not visit Sudder Street or the Astoria. For, as all rovers know, the key to keeping the madness under control is to continue seeking out new passageways and new rose-gardens.

And I found another one then. It was the Tollygunge Club which I came upon by good fortune. I had been booked into a US$300-a-night hostelry by a helpful but naive business tycoon in Delhi, who believed that foreign correspondents were well paid.

I got them to reduce the rate by 50 percent, but it was still way over my limit. Then an Indian colleague told me about the Tolly Club and said he could sign me in if I wanted to stay.

Thankfully, I accepted his offer. The ancient club is located amid green pastures in a haven of tranquility beside what was then the last stop on Calcutta’s single Metro line.

I was given a twin-bedded room overlooking the first tee of the golf course for $45 a night. Early next morning, I met one of the club’s oldest members, the late Bob Wright, walking his labrador and smoking copiously in the crisp morning air.

Over a breakfast feast of fresh fruit and curd, scrambled eggs and spicy sausages, toast and coffee, Wright gave me a brilliant rundown of the politics and personalities of West Bengal. As the former Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee said: “People will talk if they feel comfortable.”

I tried to scribble everything down, then luxuriated over the morning papers, before dragging myself off for interviews in the city.

Then, after an exhausting day driving around in the swamp heat and madding crowds, I returned to the tranquillity and splendour of Tolly where I had dinner with my Indian journalist friend.

The club brochure says Tolly has “excellent cuisine”. Frankly, it was appalling. The soup was watery and barely lukewarm, the main course inedible, and the sponge cake reminiscent of wartime substitutes.

But a large Kingfisher beer and my friend’s company and his exciting tales of reporting in Assam, Manipur and Nagaland made up for it.

Fellow correspondents always do.

Ben Bradlee also said: “The sheer joy and romance of being a foreign correspondent is hard to explain, even harder to exaggerate.” He’s right, but there is a downside: Some passageways lead to trouble and opening some doors has nasty consequences.

My Raffles Place office was once ransacked and I was later asked to leave Singapore.

As well as being banned for years from Myanmar, I have been roughed up in Vietnam and recently denied media accreditation.

I’ve also been knocked about in parliament, sued in court, and subjected to interrogation at the police headquarters in Kuala Lumpur and subsequently jailed.

I’ve been smacked in the gob in Thailand and publicly chastised by the head of the prime minister’s office in Brunei.

One might ask why they do such things to regular, mild-mannered blokes like me who are just doing their job and behaving as roving corsairs for truth.

But that’s why you need a degree of madness. And anyway, I can’t say I’m complaining when I have a bagful of Calcutta-like memories to look back on – and more to look forward to.

After that long-ago dinner at Tolly, a taxi came for me early next morning to take me to Dum Dum airport. Dawn was breaking and massed choirs of birds echoed around the golf course.

As we drove through the streets, with hundreds of sleeping bodies lined up on the pavements as if for burial, I recalled the other passage from The Four Quartets that I love and always re-read. It is aptly on the last page.

“We shall not cease from exploration/And the end of all our exploring/Will be to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time.”

I am still exploring. I have told you about Calcutta, but it could have been La Paz, Moulmein, Tirana, Zanzibar or myriad other places where I’ve been searching in vain for my starting point.

Perhaps I am a little mad. But remember those stats and take a glance around. Yes, that’s right, most of them are insane.

So relax. Enjoy the new year. Me, I’m off to Papua New Guinea.

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