Stephen Smith

Diary: On the Applegarth

Stephen Smith, 13 April 2000

Applegarth. Seaforth Radio, 13 January. Following received from British steamer Perthshire (Glasgow for Beira) at 8.13 p.m. GMT: Just sank tug (Applegarth) south of Woodside in River Mersey.

Diary: in Medellín

Stephen Smith, 21 May 1998

Of the two cathedrals in the city of Medellín, the one in Parque de Bolivar has far and away the lesser association with murder. It’s the largest brick building in South America and its confessionals are open-plan. You can see the priests, frowning, ears cocked, twiddling the cords of their vestments. The brick walls gave shelter to many mourners in the days when Medellín was ruled by Pablo Escobar, Colombia’s nabob of narcotics. But if you want a cathedral with a past, make for the mountains. The second great building in the Medellín see was founded on a prime slice of real estate overlooking Parque de Bolivar. Actually, ‘La Catedral’, as it’s known, isn’t a cathedral at all. Or if it is, then only in the same way that the expression ‘at Her Majesty’s Pleasure’ refers to a royal palace. The title was conferred by the people of Medellín on the soaring jail in which Escobar served his debt to society, until six years ago, when he got fed up and escaped. Presumably, this had nothing to do with the layout of the place, about which the principal inmate himself had been consulted. The one generally available guidebook to Colombia – published by Lonely Planet – describes La Catedral as ‘a huge hotel complex with sports facilities including football ground and swimming pool, all surrounded by barbed-wire fences and several guard towers. There is a marvellous view over the Aburra valley.’’‘

Diary: a 17-year-old murder victim

Stephen Smith, 5 February 1998

The evening paper was leading with the police calling in a ‘Cracker-style’ forensic psychologist to help them solve the case. There was a poster with the same headline for the newsstands, which was a banker of a shot for us. But the vendor we approached wouldn’t bark his wares for the camera. He was probably on the dole, according to a passing policeman. That was all this affair needed, I thought. As if the story of a slashed corpse in a seaside resort wasn’t already like something out of Brighton Rock, here was a nervous newsman to set alongside Hale of the Messenger, with his ‘inky fingers and his bitten nails’.‘

Diary: In Havana

Stephen Smith, 16 October 1997

Cubans like to say that their impoverished country is a land of miracles. How many people can pack onto a bus? Only God knows. The same irony was there on the road to the Church of St Lazarus at Rincón. The pilgrims had set out on their trek to the church for the saint’s feast-day as perfectly able-bodied men and women, but were inviting disability by grinding themselves against the blacktop for mile after mile. ‘Some of them mix up St Lazarus with a god called Babalú-Ayé,’ said Sister Rita Llanza tolerantly. It was a mix-up typical of Santería, Cuban voodoo, a profane marriage of the Catholicism imported by the Spanish and the faith of West African slaves. Adherents of Santería believed that Babalú-Ayé would look down on their prostration and find it pleasing. Sister Rita wasn’t in the least put out by the Scriptural inaccuracies of the pilgrims, accepting their candles across the altar rail in exchange for a cheaply printed parish newsletter. Wasn’t it a cardinal rule of Santería that initiates must first have been baptised? The Church in Cuba, for so many years oppressed, welcomed sinners wherever it could find them. ‘And you: I suppose you are Episcopalian?’ Sister Rita asked me. A fat bald man was standing at the door of the church, holding his hand out and intoning in a funny high voice: ‘Could you give me something because I cannot see?’ I’m sure the sister wouldn’t have minded, that she would perhaps have looked on me as a challenge, but I didn’t have the heart to tell her that I was a Santería man myself, a Santero, or rather that I was part of the way down the road to initiation, a chicken having been sacrificed over my head in a comical ceremony in a bloodstained chapel.

Last Stand

Stephen Smith, 8 May 1997

Reporting on the Liverpool dock-workers’ dispute in its early days, I was billeted in Wigan. It was December 1995, and an international football match was being played at Anfield. There were no rooms to be had on Merseyside that night. Had I been by myself, I would have turned up on the doorstep of my aunt’s house in Wallasey, which is a mile or two from the docks, but she couldn’t put up an entire television crew. So we made increasingly wide orbits of Liverpool by car before fetching up at a family establishment in darkest Lancashire. I was curious to see how far accommodation for the footloose investigator had come on since George Orwell laid his hat at the noisome tripe shop and lodging-house where we encounter him at the beginning of The Road to Wigan Pier. Orwell was sharing with three others and had to sleep with his legs doubled up to avoid kicking his neighbour. I had a room to myself – the hotel’s somewhat unlikely conference room, such was the shortage of digs – and my only worry was the possibility of collapsing the campbed I had been given. Orwell was disturbed at five in the morning when his roommate, Mr Reilly, got up to go to his job as a colliery mechanic. My sleep was interrupted by a lamp which burnt brightly all night long: it was intended to light the way to a fire-escape for conference-goers, and no means could be found of switching it off.’

Diary: At the Dingle Derby

Stephen Smith, 19 September 1996

The man from Cork thumbed through my race-card. Borrowing my ballpoint, he put a cross beside Kinard Diamond in the 4.30 and gave me a meaning look. We were standing at a lonely stretch of railing: myself, a girlfriend, the man from Cork and an old boy who said he used to be a priest. ‘I was in fifteen years,’ said the priest. ‘It was the women, I missed the women.’

Diary: On Alpha 66

Stephen Smith, 25 January 1996

The grenade went off as we were breasting the pampas. There was a bonfire of smoke, threatening to obscure the humid prairie of the Everglades laid out beneath us, and an incongruous whiff, like the smell of the stuff you dip mosquito nets in. We had successfully taken the high ground, or so we thought, and seized command of the field of sweet potatoes which stretched almost to the horizon. The Vietnam vet at my elbow reacted exactly as you would have expected a man of his experience to, and shimmered into the undergrowth. On the face of it, the grenade was a pretty substantial reverse for him. He had just been explaining how we were essentially bossing the entire situation. Now we were cut off from each other by a piece of ordnance which, you couldn’t help noticing, had dropped right down our throats. On the other hand, as I heard him mutter, it was only a smoke grenade. And, when all was said and done, he had let the thing off himself.

Diary: What’s become of Barings?

Stephen Smith, 23 March 1995

Boarding the plane for South-East Asia, I felt like Chicken Little, waiting for the sky to fall. The markets were re-opening after the weekend when the world first heard the name of Nicholas Leeson, the man who broke the bank in Singapore. It’s hard to remember how that dawn felt – now that we have reassured ourselves at the building society, peeped with relief beneath the mattress, patted the nest-egg – but the mood then was that the bottom had fallen out of money. It was feared that even the mighty yen was in turnaround, so heaven help the poor old pound. Sydney had been up for a couple of hours, and one trader on the cobber bourse was reported as saying that ‘sterling just walked off a cliff.’ In the dealing rooms, they call this kind of talk ‘sentiment’. It seemed as though the safest place to be was high above the tumbling sky, above the collateral damage – after the fashion of American Presidents, who were to take the atomic valise onto Airforce One as hand luggage in the event of Armageddon.’

Diary: Make sure you sound British

Stephen Smith, 22 December 1994

Why do people take the ferry to France to buy cheap drink? Obviously, it’s to save money – though not even the Yuletide change that the day-trippers trousered the day I accompanied them explained the glow in their cheeks, or the roistering of our homeward journey across the English main. Less obviously, but only just, the booze-cruises are also about over-indulgence, greed, and in some cases outright criminality. As much as 40 per cent of the beer driven into Britain in returning mini-vans is sold on illegally, according to a study by the admittedly parti pris brewers Whitbread.’

In a library on Paseo de Marti in Havana – a single strip light, a stopped clock, a thrashed fan – I ask if they have anything by G. Cabrera Infante. The Cuban novelist was expelled from his country’s writers’ union in 1968, by which time he had already spent three years in exile. He has vehemently rehearsed exactly how underground his books are in his native land in a new collection of vindicatory essays, Mea Cuba, which I have boldly taken into Havana as hand luggage.’

Diary: Peace in Our Lunchtime

Stephen Smith, 6 October 1994

In the window of the bargain shop there was a photocopy of the front page of the Sun showing a Belfast boy hugging a British soldier. Speech bubbles had been added to it, so that the boy was saying: ‘Why are you going home, Daddy?’ ‘Because the Provies have surrendered,’ the squaddy replies. A few of the Unionists I spoke to sounded this note of triumph at the IRA ceasefire but not many. Most were either sniffing secret deals or talking about waiting and seeing. ‘Peace in our lunchtime,’ one woman laughed.

On the Rwandan Border

Stephen Smith, 9 June 1994

When you arrive in a country on the brink of mass slaughter, it’s bad enough to find that, thanks to the airline, your luggage has goes missing. But you know you’re really in trouble when the airline gone missing. In the finch-loud hall of Bujumbura Airport, Burundi the unstirring arrivals board read annulé for three days. By the time we were reunited with our things, thanks to an intrepid Air Cameroon pilot, the clothes we stood up in were standing up by themselves. As an infrequent flier to this sultry capital on the banks of Lake Tanganyika, I was unable to determine how far the non-appearance of the national carrier was linked to the monstrosities in Rwanda, a couple of hours’ drive to the north. What I kept thinking about instead, I hope not unconscionably, was a matched pair of Ronald Searle plates for one of Geoffrey Willans’s Molesworth books, showing a Gaul marching on Rome and a Roman marching on Gaul. What one pencil-sucking hack at the poolside of the Bujumbura Novotel was heard to call Rwanda’s ‘ethnic cocktail’ could also be found in Burundi, albeit in different proportions. Since independence from Belgium in the early Sixties, the country has suffered at least five spectacular bouts of bloodletting – one more than Rwanda. Indeed, had the South African elections taken place last October instead of in April, it would have been from Burundi, not Rwanda, that journalists stopping over after the inauguration of President Mandela told the world about the Hutus and the Tutsis. Then, as now, weeks of disorder followed the violent-death of a Burundian President. Among many barbarities, kinsmen of the dead President, a Hutu, assembled a group of schoolchildren at a petrol station in the central highlands of Burundi. The Tutsi scholars were separated from their classmates, corralled in the building, and burnt to death. Among the perpetrators was their headmaster, a Hutu.’’

Diary: Italy’s Monsters

Stephen Smith, 24 March 1994

God is screening one of his satirical shorts the morning I arrive in Rome. The rail-link between the international airport and the city centre, which has been expensively revamped, or at least remarketed, shimmers me to the first stop, Ponte Galeria, and then breaks down. The power is out all along the line, says the guard. Trains are marooned to the front of us and behind, like the ghosts of journeys past and yet to come. A party of oriental tourists, their Roman stopover originally windowed for a leisurely seven hours, gives up all thought of the Colisseum. When the current eventually comes back on, they file glumly onto the down-line platform. The guard looks at them and shrugs. He says, ‘Well, today is the 17th,’ a reference to the day that the Italians, a Christian people if ever there was one, unaccountably plump for over the 13th as the blackest in their calendar.

Diary: Encounters at Holy Cross

Stephen Smith, 18 November 1993

Three men left the church by a side door. They made to walk down the stone steps, saw our camera, hesitated. We had been filming what every media-savvy toddler in Belfast seems to recognise as a ‘gv’ – a general view – of the Holy Cross Church and Monastery in Nationalist Ardoyne. It was forty-eight hours or so after an IRA bomb had killed ten people on the Shankill Road, including the Ardoyne man who had been attempting to plant it. The local BBC radio station had just been airing a phone-in on whether he deserved a funeral. With its granite exterior and its rook-loud turrets, the Holy Cross improbably recalled Greyfriars School during autumn term. The dead giveaway that this was not Billy Bunter’s alma mater but a church in Northern Ireland was the RUC land-rover drawn up in the drive like an armoured hearse. We wanted the pictures to introduce a story about a priest who had agreed to talk to us about his flock’s fears of Loyalist reprisals. The three men were an irrelevance to the shot – at most, providing a little foreground movement, three parishioners on an errand or call. To tell the truth, I only noticed them as they havered on the bottom step, and then the only one who registered distinctly was the youngest – moustache, grey fleecy sweatshirt. The other two, in their late forties or early fifties, were neutrally swaddled in anoraks or car coats. But now that I gave them my attention, they all looked alike: they were all as shinily pale as camphor.’

Nuclear Smuggling

Stephen Smith, 10 June 1993

The middle-aged man sat with his head bowed, flattening his face against his palms. ‘Lots of tears, lovely stuff,’ murmured the cameraman. The presiding judge had given us permission to film ‘arrivals’ at the trial of 53-year-old Polish national Krzysztof Chmist, appearing in court with two fellow countrymen at Bochum in the German industrial region of the Ruhr. No evidence would be offered in the blond-wood courtroom until the camera was removed; in the event, the morning session had to be further delayed while a doctor was called for the distraught Chmist. He has been in custody since last October. He faces up to ten years in prison; so do Zbigniew Fiutkowski, a salesman said to trade in bananas and second-hand cars, and Jaroslaw Maslicz, a businessman. The German attorneys were a little vague about the exact law under which the Poles are being prosecuted, but then there has never been a case like it before. The three allegedly failed to surrender radioactive materials to the proper authorities. The long and the short of it, says the German Republic, is that they were trying to sell a seven-tonne atomic warhead: they were attempting to fence a rocket-top in the red-light district of Frankfurt.

Diary: In LA

Stephen Smith, 25 March 1993

I’m driving in South Central Los Angeles in my rented Ford, which is calculated, with its icing-sugar bodywork and sappy sprig of an aerial, to lose itself in the fitful lines of flaking write-off and deckled insurance jobs. My chrome is see-your-face; theirs is in-your-face. It’s a loweringly humid afternoon on which four white men are standing trial in a city courthouse accused of depriving a black man of his civil rights, especially the right not to be batoned following traffic violations. The sheriff’s car with which I have been making tender eye-contact in the rear-view mirror seems to have turned off, somewhere on Compton or Alondra. I’m now the only white man for blocks. I know this because the people of South Central LA are on the streets – black teenagers wheeling buggies to the 99-cent thrift shop, moustachioed Hispanics waiting in line for a bus near the Solid Rock Church. When people tell you that nobody walks in LA, they mean nobody except people of colour: the euphemism preferred by the hand-wringing classes, all of whom consider the idea of going to the ghetto – you mean actually going – one of the worst they’ve ever heard. The man at the hire-pound had been uncommonly sanguine, perhaps because he had learnt his roadcraft on the streets of Lagos.’

Diary: What about Somalia?

Stephen Smith, 11 February 1993

Reflecting on Somalia at the recent UN-sponsored peace talks, I found the more I heard about warring factions, Western intervention and the re-drawing of boundaries, the more I felt like shouting: ‘That’s enough about Bosnia – what about Africa?’ Although it was impossible to grudge the Bosnians their summit in Geneva, it was possible to be disappointed that the serious British media were in Switzerland for talks on what used to be Yugoslavia instead of in Ethiopia for talks on what used to be Somalia.’

One for water, one for urine

Stephen Smith, 3 December 1992

I had that Terry Waite in the back of the car once. Unlike the celebrity fares picked up by Private Eye’s proverbial taxi-driver, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s special envoy was technically occupying the front passenger seat. But such were the dimensions of legate and vehicle – the one broad yet gangly, the other originally designed by the Germans to give a thousand years of ergonomic motoring – that my companion seemed to be resting the crown of his head against the rear de-mister. I had asked him for an interview, and natural negotiator that he is, he had matched me by requesting a lift to Birmingham New Street. While I drove him to his train, he spoke skittishly of the politicians with whom he had to treat. The sight of the Cannon cinema on the Hagley Road elicited a lively appreciation of the neglected art of the Western. A short time later, when Terry Waite was held hostage in Beirut, journalists found themselves asking what his links were with Oliver North.’

Ethnic Cleansers

Stephen Smith, 8 October 1992

Born too late – and that was the least of it – to be James Fenton, I cannot claim to have spent the fall of Saigon hitchhiking to President Nguyen Van Thieu’s palace aboard a Northern Vietnamese tank. By the time I reached the city, more than a decade after the President’s government was toppled, I was also a little late to experience the thrill that the poet and war correspondent had felt in living through its death throes. Nevertheless, I called on the former United States Embassy fondly hoping to pick my way through poignant debris like portraits of Presidents behind crazed glass, and the bust of a bald eagle gleaming dully from a nest of old communiqués. The miserable photographs I had seen of the Embassy failed to do the place justice. The real thing was much worse, windowless and swaddled in concrete. It reminded me of a vast cold storage vault at Nine Elms, South London. Because I turned up on a Sunday, I was able to convince a guard called Tuan that I might promenade the grounds with him. A bonfire was smoking, and chicken pecked the dirt beside a cycle-rack.’’

Diary: In Mogadishu

Stephen Smith, 23 July 1992

The cars drive into the United Nations compound in Mogadishu. The two Somalis get out, and so does the Filipino woman, and the sad-looking Egyptian who has been telling everyone he must be on the flight back to Nairobi at four o’clock. I am the only one who is going on, to the Save the Children Fund compound. Ahmed turns the car around and there are only the two of us in it. The guards open the tall metal gates to let us out, and there is no sign of the Toyota pick-up which escorted us from the airport, a machine-gun mounted behind the cab, a man braced against it as if he were in the prow of a whaler. I catch sight of an anxious face in the wing mirror and recognise it as mine. There is a ceasefire in Mogadishu but it doesn’t involve anything so prosaic as a cease in the firing. What it means in practice is no first use of artillery, a moratorium on heavy ordnance. It has not put an end to the shooting: thirty casualties a day are turning up at the couple of gamy hospitals in the city.

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