JOHN MCCARTHY FEATURE
It is Impossible to read the book neutrally. Charles and Diana are always there begging a comparison.
The banner itself is a signiﬁcant clue to the personality of McCarthy. "linker-Taylor T. T. R. A.’. Time To Roll Another — Joint. It is a joke based on McCarthy’s student days at Hull University and a highly personalised reference to his American Studies tutor, the only people capable of cracking the enigmatic code were trying to build a private language of contact. The implication is simple. McCarthy liked to skin up. You can take it from me that he also liked wine, women and risqué one—liners. He is one of Britain’s most peculiar heroes: a hostage with an almighty hangover.
If Some Other Rainbow is a peculiar study of heroism, it is also a meta-narrative. The central dynamic of the book - the love affair of two people separated by appalling circumstances — has been seized on by every branch of the media and turned into a romance against all odds. But more importantly than the wealth of attention the story has received is the context in which it has been told.
For at least three years now, McCarthy and Morrell’s love affair has been seen as an uplifting alternative to the more emotionally deprived collapse of the love affair between Charles and Diana. Some Other Rainbow is strangely haunted by the Royal failures, forced by association to act as a replacement for the romance that failed the nation. It is impossible to read the book neutrally. Charles and Diana ar: always there begging a comparison. The publishers have played on the potential ofthe Royal romance, the back cover shows John and Jill walking casually through a field of rough grass and thistles. ls it Balmoral or their own peaceful retreat — where Beirut fears to tread?
To buy this image of Jill and John takes a bit of believing. it is an image of romantic harmony, highly marketable in a world of airport novels and Mills and Boon novels, but it cuts against the very grain of the text itself, particularly McCarthy’s dogged refusal to abandon his para-cynical sense of humour even in the darkest moments of captivity. if the publishers and the demands of the market-place are anxious to cast McCarthy as the dashing romantic hero, he stretches the credibility of the role. in the years of captivity he admits his cowardice and compliance, whilst anxiously marvelling at Brian Keenan, his fellow hostage, and his dangerous acts of defiance. McCarthy reflects back on the squandered opportunities of his earlier life, failing exams, scraping through courses, hanging about in student bars.
He portrays himself as a perpetual anti-hero, too cynical and humorous to assume the guise of the hero. The few futile attempts at escaping always end in failure, there are no delusions that this is Colditz. There is no recourse to the bourgeois heroics of the prisoner-of-war. McCarthy even tears his own journalism apart, admitting that he’d fucked up in Beirut, blowing an important interview and failing to get to grips with the intricacies of the foreign correspondent. it is a portrait of the impossibility of heroism, a set of circumstances which draws more on the spirit of Catch-22 than the emotional surfaces of Barbara Canland.
Although the book doesn’t set out to do so, it
inevitably becomes a scathing commentary on Britain and the faded certainties of nationhood. At the outset, there is a deep and very satisfying symmetry to the story. Jill Morrell recounts her life in the north, a quiet working-class girl from Doncaster who does well and makes her way to Hull University to study History. McCarthy is the proﬂigate southerner, a public-school boy who botches his ‘A’ Levels but can afford to pay for expensive crammer courses. Dreams of Oxford recede and he too ends up at Hull. For Jill, going to Hull University is an achievement, for John it is a last resort. She is quiet, unassuming and loyal to her boyfriend back home. He is on a three-year bender, a love affair with drink, dope and dead cool American novels.
The story is told through alternative chapters and the shifting voices of the two narrators. Morrell charts her gradual emergence out of her shell and into the frontline of a campaign to free McCarthy. John is stuck in an old room somewhere, with mosquitos, mice, old blankets and dire food. She is active, he is passive.
As the chapters unfold, the symmetry begins to break down. Urged on by love and frustration, Morrell continues to build the campaign. But in the basement room in Beirut another love affair is beginning to bloom. McCarthy forges a unique friendship
McCarthy learns about Britain as Keenan explains the contours of Irish history. Jill learns about Britain as the doors of otﬂclaldom slam in her face.
~ «n. J’ ' /
I ~ 4 I ~ Wm Ms.- Morrell at the Friends (it John McCarthy headquarters In 1988
with fellow hostage Brian Keenan. it becomes something special, something inexplicable, a dependency that is more profound than the male bonding of his student days. At times the intense, highly personal closeness between McCarthy and Keenan borders on homo- erotica, threatening to displace the more conventional love affair with his determined girlfriend Jill.
Keenan fascinates McCarthy. They swap insults daily. One is a filthy lrish swine, the other a Brit bastard. it is almost a pastiche of the troubles back home. Gradually, it becomes clear that McCarthy is not only a victim of the Islamic Jihad but a victim of Britain and its arrogant intransigence. McCarthy learns about Britain as Keenan explains the contours of Irish history. Jill learns about Britain as the doors of officialdom slam in her face.
At ﬁrst Morrell and the McCarthy family play to the rules, respecting the wishes of the Foreign Office and stoically accepting the intolerable shroud of silence that descends on John’s life. But increasingly the British policy of ‘refusing to negotiate with terrorism’ is revealed to be hollow, unsophisticated and unrelenting. They come to see it as the Britain of Margaret Thatcher — a small-minded ideology — and they learn to resent what they see.
Morrell’s change of mind is motivated by raw emotion and a deep love for her imprisoned boyfriend. The McCarthy family’s devotion is such that their natural conservatism is gradually exhausted by the inactivity of government. As French hostages go free, nothing is heard of McCarthy. As the campaign to release him gathers momentum the state silence is deafening. One by one the main protagonists abandon their conservatism and begin to reassess what it means to be British.
The rest of the story is already too well known to be worth repeating. He gets out. She cries. They fall in love again. And Brian Keenan trims his beard. But Britain refuses to learn from the power of their romance, and continues to peddle its pernicious self- importance as a foreign policy, like a land held hostage in its past glory.
Stuart Cosgrove studied at Hull University with John McCarthy and Jill Morrell. He was a member of the campaign group The Friends Of John McCarthy.
Some Other Rainbow by John McCarthy and Jill Morrell is published by Bantam Books (£14.99).
The List 7—20 May I993 13