John McCarthy: ‘Humour saved my sanity’

John McCarthy will talk about his new book at the LJCC

John McCarthy will talk about his new book at the LJCC - Credit: Archant

Ahead of his talk for the Hampstead and Highgate Literary festival, John Mccarthy talks about being kidnapped and held hostage, then writing about it

One day during years of captivity, hostages John McCarthy and Brian Keenan were allowed by their jailers to watch television.

Bizarrely, it was the 1990 Oscar ceremony and, while the actors, movies and frocks were meaningless to the two men, the presenter mentioned in passing the recent release of Nelson Mandela and fall of the Berlin Wall.

“We just looked at each other and said: ‘What the f**k is happening! The whole world has changed!’” says McCarthy.

“Then we thought: ‘If they can get Mandela out, there must be hope for us.’”

Five months later, Keenan was freed, and a year after that McCarthy was finally released after five years held by jihadist terrorists.

McCarthy says now that when he went to Lebanon – as a TV news producer covering the conflict – he was an “ignorant, naïve young man who didn’t really know the back story of the region or our colonial past”.

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Kidnapped at gunpoint on his way to catch a plane home in April 1986, he was held by men who were devout Muslims but rarely swapped political or religious views with their hostages.

“They would pray, fast and observe festivals, but never sat down and talked about their personal faith or political beliefs. I was part of a conflict – literally caught up in it, so I became more interested.”

Now 56, the journalist and presenter traces his ongoing fascination with the region to his time in those “fearful underground prisons”, bitten to distraction by mosquitoes, half starved and listening to the screams of tortured inmates.

“While some of the men holding me within those horrible confines abused us and took advantage of their power over us, for the most part they treated us with a degree of respect. I was intrigued and reassured that, even 10 years into the chaos of civil war, they still had that level of humanity towards victims who were effectively nothing and I came out thinking: ‘What is this conflict about?’”

His latest book, You Can’t Hide the Sun, returns to the region to give a voice to Palestinians of Israeli citizenship, often sidelined as “a complication too far”.

It was when McCarthy interviewed a Bedouin Arab family for TV that he realised the position of Palestinians who stayed when Israel was founded in 1948 was “complicated” yet in human terms “so simple”.

“They were a family who had lived on this land for generations and were Israeli citizens being forced off it because they were not Jewish.”

He discovered one in five Israelis is of Arab background and, for his book, interviewed numerous Arabs on their uneasy position in Israeli society.

“I wanted to know what’s it like to have been Palestinian through continuing wars. To look within Israel and see how that community has been treated. It’s an element of the story that hasn’t been appreciated.”

He discovered their experience has been “pretty dire”. After 1948, many were driven from their villages, creating “a whole community of internal refugees displaced, sometimes just a couple of miles”.

For nearly 20 years they were subject to martial law, tight regulations on where they could travel or work – a system inherited from the departed British colonial regime.

“These heavy rules against an indigenous population are about undermining the community, destroying its identity and making it compliant. The majority were, – they kept their heads down and hoped to survive.”

Over the years the community has used modern communications and legal and political systems to lobby for equal rights with their Jewish compatriots.

“As the world opened up, they grew in strength. Now they can’t be put back in that box.”

McCarthy sees their circumstance as less about religion and more about identity and separation – about “keeping the Arabs out of the Jewish homeland”.

Identity, how people define themselves, is another subject he returns to, perhaps because in his first months in captivity, the combination of fear and isolation drove him to intense self-inspection and breakdown.

“You panic and prepare yourself for the end, you think about your lovely simple middle-class life and wonder why you have done nothing with it, you are reduced to a frightened, worthless little boy. I couldn’t cope and be brave and optimistic. I felt I was being dragged down into a whirlpool, so I prayed: ‘God help me’.”

As Frank McGuinness’s play Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me, inspired by the hostages, shows, it was companionship and humour that saved McCarthy’s sanity.

On release, he experienced a different kind of trauma, that of readjusting to “a bizarre celebrity” in a world where Colin Firth was playing him in a film and his old students’ union bar had been named after him.

“I thought I would be unemployable, it never occurred to me people would want me to write a book. After any heavy experience there’s a feeling of self-consciousness, but when strangers greet you with tears in their eyes, you think: ‘Who do they think I am?’ And when you see your photo with the headline, ‘A very British hero’, you think ‘Who is this person – do they know me?’”

McCarthy, who lives in rural Suffolk with wife Anna and their seven-year-old daughter, has come to terms with himself as a former hostage without rancour.

“When I think about the experience, I see extremely positive elements – making close friends with Brian Keenan and Terry Waite, I learned a lot about myself in very difficult circumstances and gained personal insights into this international conflict which remains so important to us. A lot of the work I have done has been to do with that part of the world and I have tried to pass on what I have learnt.

“I do think: ‘If my kidnappers had taken the other route that day, would I be me?’ I can’t think I would be the person I am now.”

John McCarthy speaks on You Can’t Hide the Sun at the London Jewish Cultural Centre at Ivy House, North End Road on January 16 at 8pm. (02085117900 It’s the first in a series of literary talks marking the fifth year of the Hampstead and Highgate Literary Festival.