More Thrills than Skills – A Half-life in Journalism, Part Twelve

Over the next few weeks, is to publish, each weekday, extracts from the memoirs of Scottish war correspondent, Paul Harris. ‘More Thrills than Skills: A Half-life in Journalism’, is being scheduled for publication next year.

War had come suddenly and largely unexpectedly to this part of the Balkans. Few of us were experts at that time, but journalists, who may be obliged to travel in any one year to half a dozen or more war zones, learn fast.

There is a certain familiarisation pattern based around press centres, accreditation, bars, hotels and restaurants. The first journalists to appear in a new war zone generally set the pace, or the standards, depending on how you look at it, and identify the most amenable places to gather.

In Zagreb, an up and coming European capital, there was a good deal of choice in the matter but the Intercontinental Hotel, by virtue of its hosting the International Press Centre, was very much the centre of events in those early days.

The pressmen planned their days at the front or, for those with possibly more sense, at the twice daily press conferences and in the bar. There tended to be a bizarre holiday atmosphere as guides and interpreters were arranged.

Yet, during its first ten weeks, the war claimed the lives of twelve journalists, with two more missing without trace.

One day, I find there is no interpreter for me. This is bad news. Although I was prepared to take the odd risk or two, one personal rule I then had was not to travel without a native-speaking Croatian. So it looked like a day with the scavengers of the press pack at the conferences and watering holes. But, lo, Sherry sweeps in.

Now some American lady journalists really do look like movie stars and Sherry, from remote Iowa, is no exception. She may be from the backwoods but you’d never have guessed it.

Manicured, designer-dressed, dripping with jewels, painstakingly made up (warpainted?) and bubblingly effervescent, she cut a dazzling swathe through the scruffy, jean-clad film crew girls. I always talk to Americans. Lacking all that tedious European reserve, the rapport tends to get going quickly and you know where you are rather more rapidly.

And, guess what? Sherry actually speaks Croatian by some fortuitous accident of birth. We two were obviously made for each other and I’m really looking forward to a cosy day out. Then the bad news. She’s actually travelling with someone else and, with a degree of trepidation, I agree to a threesome.

Fortunately, Judy is not the incredible hulk I feared. Rather, a mixture of Marilyn Monroe and Barbie Doll. She’s a complete flake. Which is not what you would exactly expect from your actual Professor of Journalism at the University of Texas here to write an intellectual analysis of journalists under fire. As she goes off to spend half an hour in the ‘bathroom’ to engage the mascara I do wonder if she is going to be a bit of a liability, but dismiss the uncharitable thought from my mind.

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