American political satirist, journalist, writer, and author P J O'Rourke talks about the difference between holidays in Heck and Hell
In 1989 P J O'Rourke turned the genre of travel writing on it's head with the release of Holidays in Hell, reporting from trouble spots around the world and subjecting them to blackly comic treatment. Twenty-one years later he has released a sequel of sorts. It's called Holidays from Heck, and he speaks to Peter Moore about the changes in travel over the intervening decades.
Holidays in Hell was hugely influential, creating a whole new travel writing genre almost overnight. Did you expect it to have such an impact?
Gosh no. As with most books, I’d waited until I’d accumulated enough material, that was presentable, sometimes on a specific subject, sometimes random, then I whack it together and make it a book.
I think I had it in mind to make collection of stories about going to awful places, but it was so long ago now I can’t remember. There were some books, like Eat The Rich, where I deliberately picked the places I would go to because they offered some kind of contrast – a country with no resources that was very rich, a country with lots of resources that was very poor, that sort of thing. With Holidays in Hell I was just going to wherever bad things were happening.
I was hardly the first person to do it though. You have to go back to a man who was certainly a great traveller but a really terrible write, Sir Richard Frances Burton, to find the genesis of the form. He dressed up as Muslim and went to Mecca and Medina. He wasn’t kidding around.
Didn’t you dress up in Holidays in Hell?
I did disguise myself, as a Palestinian. I wore a kaffiyeh. But it wasn’t to pass among the Palestinians it was actually to get by the Israelis. This was during the first intifada. The Israelis had decided they were going to be very strict about who they were going to let in to the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound. And one group they definitely did not want in were journalists. I was quite tanned at the time – I’d been out in the desert – and it’s by no means unusual for a Palestinian to have blue eyes, so I just put on my foreign-looking jeans, one of those ill-fitting Euro-sweaters and a kaffiyeh. The only giveaway, if they’d been looking closely, is that I’ve never seem a Palestinian wearing boat shoes!
But then my photographer had more problems. I don’t have to carry much equipment but my photographer had to dress up as an old Arab man, wearing the full dishdasha, all the way to the ground, and he sort of hunched over to conceal the fact that he was carry three cameras.
Is being an American a help or a hindrance when you travel the world?
I generally found it to be a help because people are very interested in Americans. That might not be the case as much as it was 25 years ago. And while there’s a good deal of anti-Americanism, the only place I actually ever felt it was in Europe. Never in the developing world, the third world, let alone the communist world. Curiosity always overcomes any animosity, which is general not personal.
While Reagan was bombing Libya – which of course everyone is doing these days, he was in advance of fashion, shall we say – there were huge protests across France and Germany and England. People would look at me and see I was American, in that way people have of spotting Americans, and just started screaming at me as if I had done this personally. I really wasn’t in on the decision. They had no idea whether I thought this was a swell idea or if I thought it was a terrible idea. That was the only time I encountered any significant anti-Americanism.
I never felt the animus was personal anyway. In fact, there was one incident where it was quite the opposite. I was off in the middle of Russia, in Rostov, in 1982, with a Russian, with no-one around to translate for me. He could speak a little bit of English. Anyway, we went off on this river cruise with a bunch of random Russians. And this great big bear of a guy, wearing his military medals attached to his undershirt comes up to me and goes “Deutsch!?!” in a very threatening sort of voice and I said “Nyet Deutsch! Nyet Deutsch. Americanski” and he goes “Americanski!! Allie!!!” and gave me this enormous bear hug and this bottle of really vile champagne.
I gathered, from bits and pieces, that he’d hooked up with the American troops. He’d been in the advance across Germany and when they’d hooked up with the American troops they’d run out of everything. And the American troops had chocolates, cigarettes and c-rations and were quite generous in sharing it. Anyway, he hadn’t seen an American since and he was quite excited.
I remember a story from Holidays in Hell too, where you were bailed up by that young guy in Beirut.
Oh yes! He was screaming at me for being an American. But obviously it was an abstract thing because at the end he said “I’m moving to Deerbourne. I got my green card.” He was going to study dentistry. I’m sure he’s a wealthy orthodontist in Ann Arbour and today probably votes Republican.
Americans have a reputation for being uninterested and unaware of the world outside their borders. Is that fair?
Not anymore. When I was growing up in the 50s people didn’t travel much. You travelled to see your relatives which, in America, are usually far-flung. The trips people took were usually to see kin. I remember the Duvandaks, who lived behind us, they took a car trip through the Rocky Mountains, all through the west, one summer. We all considered them to be the most cosmopolitan people in the neighbourhood by far. They been to Yellowstone park!
There’s such a lot of America and much of it is very interesting. It wasn’t until you got to the era of cheap jet travel that we started looking further afield.
There’s also a bit of ignorance on the rest of the world’s part too. We think of the US as being very homogenised but when you get there you realise how vast and diverse it is.
It is. There are at least 20 to 30 distinct regions. Even parts of states can be different. North Texas and the Texas panhandle are exceedingly different places.
Funny story. I had some English friends come over to take a tour of America. They rented a car and they lay out the map on my dining room table in New York and they said ,“We were thinking we would drive to Chicago tomorrow, then maybe on to Montana.” They simply had no idea of the scale of the place.
Then, on the other hand, I was in Northern Ireland in the 80s – covering the Troubles – and I’m driving around Northern Ireland, I’ve got my photographer, Tony, navigating. He had the map folded out and he said, “This map is actual size!” We were able to drive around all of Ulster in one day. And we hadn’t got up early either.
Where is the most godforsaken place you’ve visited?
Oh Mogadishu, hands down. Somalia is vile. Just unmitigated violence. It puts paid to any place. There are places I’ve seen more human misery but that was because of some natural disaster. I was in Somalia 20 years ago. You wouldn’t think it was possible that it could have degenerated even further but it seems to have done.
I remember the violence of the place. I was working for ABC radio and we had this fortified compound outside of which I could not step without a bunch of Somali armed guards themselves none to trustworthy. You’d go up to the roof of the house at night and there was the sound of gunfire everywhere. And it was not happy gunfire. Were you to go any place unprotected you’d be robbed and killed for fun. Basically.
Is there anywhere you’ve been back to since that has transformed beyond recognition?
Oh, Moscow. And the whole Eastern bloc. But the one that really struck me was Moscow. I was first there in 1982 and I arrived at night. Electricity was working but there were no lights on. The place was just empty. And then I came back in 1989 and the place was just popping! Neon everywhere and advertising and traffic and it was like, “Whoah! What happened here?”
How has travel changed between Holidays in Hell and Holidays in Heck?
It isn’t travel necessarily that has changed, it is communication that has changed radically. You’re now constantly in touch. In the old days you could be quite out of touch. I mean no one could find you and you could find no one. Before satellite phones and cell phones and all those things you were truly off on your own.
Just to give you a little story. I met my wife in Washington and shortly thereafter left for Somalia to cover the famine relief that would end up with Black Hawk Down and so on.
The reason I was there over Christmas and New Year was that President Bush was visiting the troops and the Somalis. I was there with a bunch of guys from ABC. Bush was going to helicopter out to this orphanage out in the desert about 150 miles north-west of Mogadishu. So we took this horrendous trip, beyond non-existent roads, with a bunch of armed guards in a pickup truck, chewing Qat until they were silly and we had a big trailer with a satellite dish so we could broadcast Bush’s visit to the orphanage. Well we got out there and it was New Year’s Day in the States and I thought “Well, I met this really cute girl, I’d really like to say Happy New Year to her. So I talked our tech guys into unloading the satellite and generator, hooking it up by flashlight and getting it running.
It took them a while to ‘find the bird’ as they used to say, connect with the communications satellite and then another hour to connect to landlines back in the States. I knew she’d gone up to see her parents in Westport, Connecticut. But I couldn’t remember her father’s first name. So I got a long distance operator on the phone – you could still do that in those days, and this operator puts me through to local information and I tell her the story: I met this nice girl, I really like her, she’s gone home to see her parents, her name is Mallon and I don’t know her father’s first name. she very kindly reads me off all the Mallons in the Westport phonebook.
Thankfully there were only four or five. And I thought Edward, Edward sounds right. And it was. So I called her. Now I know today, what I did would have the approximate romance of a Twitter feed – Am deep in Somali wilderness, see you later with an eight in it. But in those days it was a $200,000 phone call. It took three motor vehicles, a raft of armed gunmen, two guys with college degrees in electrical engineering, a diesel generator, huge damn satellite dish, a communication satellite. Actually, if you added it all up it was probably more like a $2 million phone call. I miss that.
How have you changed between Holidays in Hell and Holidays in Heck?
I’m just older. There’s no change really. No quantative change except for those that age brings. It wasn’t like I was a kid when I started doing this. I’d never been a backpacker. I’d been a magazine editor. I was fully a grown up before I started doing any correspondent stuff. My first overseas assignment was Russia for Harpers Magazine in 1982 and I was 35.
If you were writing Holidays in Hell now, where would you go?
I think it’s so much tougher now. I don’t know if travel has changed but being a foreign correspondent has changed remarkably in several different ways. First place, there are tons more of them. Very few of them well enough connected to get much done. All totting flip cameras and video phones.
This started with the war in Bosnia. For a lot of would-be Europeans kid journalists, it was a war you could drive to. I was in Slavonski Brod, under artillery fire, when this kid turns up, working for some magazine in Switzerland so hip it didn’t even have a name, in his dad’s car. He’d driven his dad’s Opel to Slavonski Brod. We had a wonderful time in Slavonski Brod. I was tagging along with the BBC. The mayor of Slavonski Brod was furious that Sarajevo was getting all the coverage.
He said, “We too are under siege in Slavonski Brod!”
And I said, “It’s almost like a bit of a marketing problem Sir. Sarajevo is surrounded on four sides. You’re surrounded on three. It doesn’t have the same compelling narrative. There’s a way in and a way out."
The other problem is that the whole thing has become more politicised and dangerous. This whole idea of capturing journalists. Who’d want a journalist? Who’d pay ransom for a journalist? Generally speaking, journalists were not considered fair game. The biggest danger was having your eye talked off. Because everyone wanted to tell their story, at length, in detail.
That of course has changed. Now you’re seen as the enemy. The rise in Islamic fundamentalism has led to that. It’s certainly one of the factors. Journalists are now seen, probably with some accuracy, as pawns on the chessboard. Instead of just using them to tell your story now they’re also physically of some use. Grab them. Keep them. Collect them. Exchange them for their friends. I don’t like that!
In Holidays in Heck you visit Afghanistan for 72 hours and declare yourself an expert, tongue-in-cheek.
Quite tongue-in-cheek. I actually came out of there with knowledge subtracted. If you had asked me anything about Afghan policy, Afghan society, Afghan politically before I went you would have got a more detailed, more thorough answer from me than if you ask me now.
In Holidays in Hell you say that if you want to know what’s really happening in a country, the last person you ask is a politician.
Oh yes. It’s something I’m sure I’ve said several times and I stand by that.
Who should you ask then?
Always the best thing to do is look and listen. Because people can, do and will say anything. But people cannot lie about their actions. What people do is what they do. So hanging around in markets, hanging around in government agencies, hanging around with the military, hanging around with rebels, if you can, and watching what they do. Just hanging out.
You know, people are such terrible blabbermouths. Sooner or later, if you hang around with people long enough, they’ll start telling you their story. They can’t help it. It’s something in people’s nature.
My wife and I were down in Cuba and we got a government minder who took us around, to keep an eye on us, make sure we didn’t talk to any miscreants. That lasted about 20 minutes before he started complaining about his life and telling us how hard it was to buy a mattress and on and on and on. He was just completely spilling the beans.
Another time I was in Poland in the 80s and I needed a translator. I didn’t have any contacts in Poland. I was strictly on my own. I’m in Poland. I’m there on a journalist visa so I do what I’m supposed to do and go to the government press office and the government press office sends me to PAP, the Polish Press Agency.
Ryszard Kapuściński was at PAP, so PAP actually had some stuff going on. So I talked to some senior woman over there and she said, "I can fix you up, we’ve got this very nice young lady. She’s a university student and works for us part time."
And I said, “Well, I want to be frank with you”, because I liked this woman, she was about my age and I said "I don’t want a student. I’m going to be talking to, or trying to talk to, some people who, how to put this delicately, don’t like the government of Poland."
She looked at me and laughed and said, “Nobody likes the government of Poland!” So sometimes the officials aren't so bad.
Who has been your most unlikely 'source'?
I was up on the Pakistan frontier, trying to get into Afghanistan as the Russians were being kicked out of there in 1989. And the best informed person I ran into was, of all things, a Christian missionary. He'd had fuck-all success converting anyone, but he had actually met the Taliban. As with many pious people the Taliban had respect for other religious people. They have a certain respect for other people of the Book. What they really hate are atheists.
Anyway, this missionary had a really nice relationship with the Taliban and at one point, in the chaos, he had to leave his warehouse full of food. The Taliban took it over and were launching anti-aircraft missiles from his warehouse. When he managed to get back to Kabul, the Taliban took him back to his warehouse and proudly showed him that they hadn’t touched any of his food. There’s rice and sugar and so on and in the month or so he’s been gone they have not touched this.
"Everything is here as you left it," they said.
He pointed to the missile launcher and said “I don’t remember leaving that here.”
“No, no, no, that’s us. But we have not touched any of your food.”
And he said, “That’s such a shame, because I know you’ve had privation. That’s what it’s there for. You should have taken it.”
And they said “We couldn’t have done that because you weren’t here to ask.” So you never know, who’s going to turn out to be the expert.
Apparently you have more citations in The Penguin Dictionary of Modern Humorous Quotations than any other living writer.
If anything happens to me I go way down the list!
I’m not sure how true that is. Some time back, in the 90s, the fellow who did that particular edition The Penguin Dictionary of Modern Humorous Quotations happened to be a fan and included all these quotations. Doubtless there is a new edition with a new editor who has taken a whole lot out. That’s one of those things, as a journalist, I’d call 'Too good to check'!
Having said that, you do come up with some killer lines. I really loved the one about Korea being a nation of people who do their homework on Friday night.
I’m never allowed back to South Korea, incidentally. Absolutely not. I could probably get into North Korea more easily than the south. They were furious about the piece I wrote calling them the Irish of Asia and they were just furious about it.
You know, I got pre-printed postcard death threats, essentially mimeographed death threats. There was something so unthreatening about this, I’ve got to say. Of course, they were all sent to Rolling Stone. They had no idea where I was. Plus, we all look alike.
They’re great lines. Are you going for cheap laughs? Or just presenting truths in a more palatable manner?
Oh cheap laughs! And in the cheap laugh there often is a deeper meaning. That’s my story and I’m sticking with it.
With this new book, Holidays in Heck, you did a bit more travelling with your family. How did you find that? Do you think it robbed you of experiences? Or did it open you up to new ones?
It’s just a new kind of thing. I’m probably too old now for the prior kind of experiences. And it’s fun anyway. Our kids are good little troopers. They’ve been to Hong Kong, they’ve been to England and all over the United States. We took them to Australia. So they’ve done quite a bit of travelling.
In a few years time and they come to you and say “Dad, I want to go backpacking", would you let them go?
Well, not to the Iranian border! (Laughs)
What advice would you give them?
Well, I’ve never been much of a tourist really so I'm not sure what kind of advice I could give. I was always going to some place to cover something. And I was a grown-up. So I really don’t know much about the bumming around culture. It’s a little beyond me.
I guess I’d tell them to have a reason to go somewhere. Don’t just go. Don’t just go and take the public bus through India. Have a job in Calcutta. Or go to Hong Kong and work for your Uncle Dave. If you’ve got a purpose for being in a place it becomes much more interesting than if you’re just gawking.
You’re a bit of a guilty pleasure for a lot of left-wing people. Are you just saying out loud what everyone else is thinking?
There’s a little bit of that. But the modern Left has a strong libertarian streak to it. I have a long libertarian streak myself. So I disagree with them. But it’s an ordinary and pragmatic kind of disagreement – should we take the subway or should we take the cab?
I think there are many things I look at the same way as many people on the Left. I’m not callous to human suffering or sanguine about human oppression. I don’t like bullies. I know there are a lot of bullies in capitalism but, at least in the modern world, unlike government, they do not have a monopoly on deadly force. Which makes government power of a different order than corporate power.
At any rate there’s enough there for me to get on with the Left. Even when Christopher Hitchens was very left wing – from which he has recovered – we still had plenty to talk about.