Saturday, 1 April 2017

Book review: Unreasonable Behaviour, Don McCullin, 1990

Don McCullin must have had about as many near misses, close calls and there-but-for-the-grace-of-god moments as anyone who ever lived.

As a war photographer for more than 20 years, he pushed deep into the heart of battle in the Congo, Vietnam, Cambodia, Northern Ireland, Beirut, El Salvador, Iran, Afghanistan and other hellholes, as bullets and bombs rained down from all sides. He says in Unreasonable Behaviour, his autobiography, that war photographers face even worse odds than war correspondents, because photographers have to "get out in the field where the risks [are] infinitely greater". The number of war correspondents who die on the job throughout Unreasonable Behaviour illustrates just how big these risks are.

People die either side of McCullin in this book, as well as ahead of him and behind him. I didn't count how many, but he makes clear that his survival on many occasions was little more than dumb luck, as in this extract on Vietnam:

There was no security in any of the different methods of covering war. Sean Flynn, the son of Errol, was said to go flamboyantly into combat on a Honda, toting a pearl-handled pistol, while Larry Burrows, the brilliant English photographer who worked for Life magazine, was the model of professionalism and polite diffidence. Both joined the list of the missing, presumed dead.

So why did he do it? Why did he leave behind the safety of England - and his responsibilities to his wife and children - for the dangers and irresponsibility of war?

For much of the book you have only the surface-level morality for an answer: "Your job is to stir the conscience of others who can help"; "I wanted to break the hearts and spirits of secure people".

Indeed, in the middle third of the book, as the Congo gives way to Vietnam, which gives way to Jerusalem, which leads to Biafra, with a return to Vietnam, which leads to Cambodia, and so on and so on, with little personal narrative linking the segments, the reading experience starts to resemble the act of idly flicking through a photobook in a shop, clumps of pages at a time, finding interest on each page you land on but little coherence.

And during the recounting of some of the earlier wars, McCullin's writing is at times as a little detached and flat - the written account of someone better suited to visual media, if you'll forgive the easy analysis - as in the following, which is not for the faint-hearted:

We were cowering under our helmets when the American said, "Godamnit, there's an awful smell here." I noticed that this hole was not firm underfoot. Even though we were in sand, it was too soft. I looked down and saw a row of fly buttons by my boots. We were both crouched on the stomach of a dead North Vietnamese soldier and our weight had caused the stomach to excrete. Despite the shelling, we both leapt out and ran off in different directions, to find other bunkers.

But there are also hard-won and convincingly expressed moral lessons, such as:

We all suffer from the naive belief that our integrity is reason enough for being in any situation, but if you stand in front of dying people, something more is required. If you can't help, you shouldn't be there.

And finally on page 216 we gain a clear insight into why McCullin thrust himself time and again into the inferno:

I needed the peace of my own country, England. Yet when I go home and sleep in my own bed, I soon become restless. I am not shaped for a house. I grew up in harsh surroundings. I have slept under tables in battles for days on end. There is something about this that unfits you for sleeping in beds for the rest of your life. My wars, the way I've lived, is like an incurable disease [...] I cannot do without the head-on collision with life I have when I am working.

And as the account creeps closer to the present day, the writing becomes increasingly affecting, to the point where at times I struggled to retain my composure wherever I was reading, as for example with McCullin's description of being held captive in prison in Uganda, not knowing whether he or his journalist colleagues will be the next ones to be led to execution by sledgehammer down the hall, or this, on the death of journalist Nick Tomalin in the Golan Heights:

When I got nearer, I could see no shape in the car. Perhaps he had been thrown out. I made my way to the other side of it and found him lying there. I tried to talk to him, so far gone was I with terror and grief, though there could be no doubt that he was dead. Picking up his glasses from the road, I ran back in the same eerie stillness.

But staggeringly [spoiler alert], the biggest, most powerful and affecting shock of all comes in the last few pages, after the takeover of the Sunday Times by Rupert Murdoch has seen the paper's weekend magazine replace hardcore journalism with more advert-friendly fare ("Lifestyles rather than life were coming into fashion on the magazine."), and after nature has started exacting a human toll on McCullin's loved ones that is even more harrowing than that exacted by man upon his fellow man:

I realised that you could shoot photographs until the cows came home but they have nothing to do with real humanity, real memories, real feelings.

As the final few paragraphs tick down, you yourself realise that McCullin is not at all in a good way as he's writing, and that the book is going to end with this legend of British journalism crying out in lonely anguish from a very, very dark place:

[...] mostly I'm alone in my house in Somerset [...] the ghosts of all those dead [...]

By the time I finished, tears were streaming down my cheeks...

But fortunately the book was republished in 2012 with a new preface, and if you read that first like I did, you know that McCullin managed to extricate himself from his loneliness and pain and find new life again ("twelve years on, I am extremely happy").

One wonders at what must have happened when the final section of the manuscript landed on the editor's and publisher's desks - had they known what shape McCullin was in? After they read it, did they try to buoy him up before going ahead with the publication? Did they consider altering the ending?

It's an enormously surprising end to the book, but perhaps it was this ending itself that helped to bring McCullin back to the light: he talks in the preface of being "truly staggered by the response [the book] received".

Either way, Unreasonable Behaviour stands as towering testament to an extraordinary life, one that perhaps wasn't easy on McCullin's family, but which captured evidence of and brought to public attention the most inhumane acts and moments of suffering, while also revealing something of the kinds of people who are driven to take such risks to expose the truth.

"If y'know what's good for ye," I was informed, "y'll do as ye're told an' clear off."
I stood my ground and said that I had never cleared off at anyone's behest in all my life, and wasn't thinking of starting now.

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