In his introduction to this third edition, Granta editor Ian Jack discusses the adoption of the French “reportage” over the plainer, English word “reporting”. The clue to the preference for the French version, he feels, can be found in the very British distaste for ‘people poking their noses in’. Reportage, he says, “has that nice sense of things being seen, the event observed (which may be because its original use in English was confined to documentary photography, a French specialism.)”
Jack is right to dwell on the significance and origins of the term. What each of these writers achieves, in vastly varying styles, is to conjure up a mental picture of the bar at the Royale in French Saigon, where the “coffee at breakfast tastes like diarrhoea” as James Fenton so evocatively describes it, or of the utter confusion that descended on Tiananmen Square and how John Simpson dodged the Molotov cocktails and rolling tanks to tell the story. The modus operandi and ultimate intention of the writer and the photographer are surely the same.
In each epic piece, the writer (whether a journalist by profession or an author such as John le Carré or Marilyn Robinson) has gone way beyond the essentials of the who what where when and why to produce something that transcends what we would usually call journalism. While it is indeed pleasurable for the reader to access such well-crafted writing in an anthology like this one, it is sobering to think it is rarely available in its natural habitat. That newspapers have all but abandoned the longer report, even reportage itself, is a travesty. Because all the writing presented here is essentially journalism, the first draft of history, even, the omission of a date on each piece is at odds with its factual content.
It is a treat to read Germaine Greer on passionate form, writing on women and power in Cuba, drawing out a fascinating comparison on cervical smear tests in Thatcher’s Britain (the NHS unable to cope with demand) and Cuba, where every sexually active woman is given one every two years. This, she says, is real power.
Wendell Steavenson’s very contemporary take on the meaning of terrorism is a welcome inclusion in this book predominantly concerned with classics of reportage. Whether ‘Osama’s War’ will have the same longevity is by no means certain, but it provides a refreshing contrast as well as a useful definition from Osama, a 24-year-old Iraqi who had been fighting the Americans in a mujahideen cell in Baghdad: “Terrorism as I see it is when a person with money and power goes into a neighbourhood and starts shooting randomly.”
Of the ‘old school’ writers revisited here, Jack draws a comparison between Fenton, who he says became “tiresome in his world-weary omniscience” with age, and Martha Gellhorn, who in Jack’s eyes continued to be a beacon of all that is exemplary in reporting. As Jack acknowledges, Fenton’s “The Fall of Saigon” in this anthology is far from tiresome. Indeed it’s crackling writing, alive with an unexpected detail here, an illuminating insight there, no less vivid now than 30 years ago. Working only with this evidence, Fenton outshines Gellhorn; the latter’s “The Invasion of Panama” has aged less gracefully, even though it must have been remarkable in its time.
Personal preferences aside, this is a book of riches. “Are they to be described as ‘writing’ in the sense of literature, or as ‘journalism’? I have never quite known where one begins and the other ends …” says Jack, epitomising Granta’s raison d’être in a simple, graceful