Powerful stories about war, love and forgiveness from Britain’s longest-held hostage in Lebanon, John McCarthy, held the audience enthralled at the University of Portsmouth’s Chancellor’s dinner.
Brutality and moments of extraordinary kindness and humour peppered the conversation between Chancellor Sandi Toksvig and her long-time friend, and journalist, writer and broadcaster.
The black tie dinner at Portsmouth Guildhall was the University’s third annual Chancellor’s dinner. About 340 guests attended, including senior staff from the University, city friends of the University and former and current students.
Before introducing her guest, Sandi presented the first Chancellor’s Award to the students’ union’s boxing club president Cain Bradley for being the most inclusive of all students clubs and societies through the previous year.
John McCarthy was, Sandi said, one of her oldest friends and “the most extraordinary journalist and human being whose resilience and fortitude, humour and grace are an example to us all”.
John was five weeks into his first foreign assignment in Beirut, in April 1986 and aged 29, when he became the-then youngest Western hostage to be abducted by Islamic fundamentalists.
It was to be five years and four months before he was freed.
His kidnapping was said to be in retaliation for an American bombing raid on Libya. John had been ordered to flee once bombing started and was just two minutes from the airport when his car was ambushed.
He was taken to an underground cell where he kept track of the first 90 days by making a mark on the wall once a day when he was taken from his cell to use the toilet.
He said: “When I was first taken I was in denial, in a bubble. It was almost like being in a scene on TV. I was held in a cupboard-sized cell for about three months. There was no
natural light, no connection to the outside world. This was Beirut, there was a war on and the power often failed, plunging the cell into darkness and the fan to stop circulating air.
“Though, at that time, they didn’t hurt me, I could hear others nearby being tortured. I heard someone being killed. It was hell on earth.”
After about three months, he was bundled blindfolded into a car boot and moved to another underground cell where he immediately sensed another person was in the room with him.
“I took off my blindfold and there was this mad man, his hair wild and with a long beard, His eyes looked crazed. I was terrified. Then, I realised he was terrified, too, and my hair and beard were long and wild, my eyes were probably crazed.”
The other man was Brian Keenan. Though each initially struggled to understand the other (“Brian sounded like a cross between Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams, and he told me to stop speaking like Prince b****y Charles”), the two became lifelong friends who spent weeks talking and making each other laugh as “our only defence against our captors”.
“We had time. We would take turns letting the other one talk, for sometimes weeks and weeks, one of us would do all the talking. When you listen and listen and listen to someone for weeks, you learn empathy.”
On very rare occasions, their captors would throw a tattered book into their cell, occasionally a Mills and Boon, and once a book on breastfeeding.
About 18 months into his capture, he was taken from his cell and brought to the guards’ room where they gave him a small birthday cake, put the film Rambo on a video player and let him watch a grainy, poor quality video of his mother making a television appeal.
John spoke movingly about how captivity stole more than his freedom, it also eroded the memories of his family and friends and he had struggled to remember what his mother looked and sounded like.
It took more than five years to gain his release. Throughout, his then-girlfriend Jill Morell fought to keep his plight in the public eye and following his release, they co-wrote Some Other Rainbow, which became an international best-seller.
Despite everything, he was, he said, lucky.
“I’ve seen refugees living behind barbed wire, abused children who can’t go home. I was lucky, when I was rescued I could leave this foreign place and come home and my family, my home, my friends were all there. Many people have no home to return to.”