Acclaimed war correspondent on learning his craft in Troubles-era Northern Ireland
Martin Bell has worn many hats in his 76 years: soldier, war correspondent, politician and writer.
It is unlikely, however, that his formative professional experiences were ever located in as genteel a setting as Bangor Castle’s walled garden, the incredibly picturesque setting for the annual Aspects Irish Literature Festival.
The North Down-based festival – now in its 23rd year – welcomes an eclectic group of figures to the programme and it is certainly arguable that Bell is its most high-profile contributor.
The Suffolk-born veteran appears in conversation with BBC Radio Ulster’s John Toal following the recent completion of his seventh and final book, End of Empire: A Soldier’s Story, a semi-biographical meditation on the demise of Britain’s mighty imperial power.
As expected, Bell has donned his iconic white suit, as much a part of his image as the scarred backdrops of foreign wars that its wearer once brought into our living rooms on a nightly basis.
In both his career as a BBC reporter and the Member of Parliament for Tatton from 1997 until 2001, Bell assures us that his trusty sartorial trademark – born of a conscious decision to distinguish himself as a non-combatant in conflict zones – became a talisman of sorts, keeping him alive ‘in dangerous places like the Balkans and the Commons'.
For the self-described father of embedded journalism, national service with the army informed his newest literary volume. In Cyprus, says Bell, ‘I witnessed the withdrawal from empire’, but he suggests that it was his days reporting on the early years of the Northern Ireland conflict – having already covered Ghana’s military coup in 1966 – that steeled him for his adventures further afield.
‘That was the nearest to a civil war in the United Kingdom that we’ve had during my lifetime,’ he says, seriously, setting aside the charm that belies a reputation for mild grumpiness.
Bell recalls the treacherous ground upon which he, an intelligent and relatively well-travelled outsider, was forced to tread, modulating his language as he went along. ‘I learned very early on to be careful about every word that I said.’
He offers a precise recall of the specific events that defined the horrors of the Troubles, from gun battles on the Newtownards Road in Belfast to the minute details of Bloody Sunday. ‘My experience in this province was a wonderful training for a much more complex situation in the Balkans.’ He would become, he chuckles, ‘an expert in conflict-zone hotels'.
Given the man’s recent passing, Bell is keen to tell his ‘Ian Paisley story’. He passes on the accent while making it clear that the late firebrand was not a fan:‘He and I had a very interesting relationship.’
Bell’s penchant for impartiality did not go down well with Reverend Paisley, who labelled him a tool of the ‘Papist Broadcasting Corporation’ before cheekily singling him out on one particular occasion. ‘I urge my followers not to harm a hair on Mr Bell’s head,' Bell says, quoting the former First Minister, ‘but he’s standing over there in a sheepskin jacket.'
The modern world is a changed place, of course, and the dangers of Bell’s craft are especially evident at present. He admits that the recent murders of three journalists in the Middle East chilled him, such barbarism being a hazard of the job, rather than the subject.
‘Everything changed after 9/11,’ he believes. 'Reporters have now retreated to their green zones.’ The irony is obvious. If this restriction of movement is the current practice – and one can understand why anybody should choose to avoid the possibility of televised decapitation – it comes in an age when travel and communication is faster, more instant, than at any point in history.
In the bucolic surroundings of Tatton, currently the constituency of one Mr G Osbourne, Bell’s four-year term as an anti-sleaze independent afforded him a sobering insight into parliamentary machinations – ‘The four years in the Commons were the most shocking of my life’ – earning him a few enemies in the process: the local vicar and Christine Hamilton, wife of the previous incumbent, Neil.
Nevertheless, Bell's passion for politics remains undimmed. ‘I’m hugely encouraged by the turnout in Scotland. 85 per cent, that is completely unheard of.’ If this results in a reengagement with politics then all the better, he concludes.
As he winds down, Bell seizes an opportunity to emphasis the central tenet of his profession. ‘Impartiality,’ he intones, ‘is an important issue now, more than ever.’
End of Empire: A Soldier’s Story will be published later this year. Read a review of Kenneth Irvine's Bangor Literary Tour at the 2014 Aspects Irish Literature Festival.