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History by Laptop

The Independent

The laptop has done bad things to us. I’ve spent the past year writing a history of the Middle East which has proved to me–quite apart from the folly of man–that the computer has not necessarily helped our writing or our research into the sins of our fathers.

As a journalist who still refuses to use e-mail–forcing people to write real letters cuts down the amount of ungrammatical and often abusive messages we receive–I would say that, wouldn’t I? But, along with two researchers, I’ve ploughed through 338,000 documents in my library for my book–my reporter’s notebooks, newspapers, magazines, clippings, government statements, letters, photocopies of First World War archives and photographs–and I cannot escape the fact that the laptop has helped to destroy my files, my memories and, indeed, my handwriting.

My notebooks of the Lebanese civil war in the late 1970s are written in a graceful easy-to-read script, a pale blue fountain pen moving in a stately way across the page. My notes of the 2003 American invasion of Iraq are illegible–except to myself–because I cannot keep pace with the speed of the laptop. I no longer write words, I have discovered. I represent them–that is to say I draw their likeness, which I cannot read but which I must construe when transcribing them. I should add at once that this very article is being handwritten on an Air France jet from Beirut and even now, as I write, I find I am skipping letters, words, and expressions because I know what I want to say–but it is no longer there on the page.

What a relief to go back to my reports on the 1979-80 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. They were punched out on telex machines–those wonderful clunkers that perforated tapes–even though, today, the wafer-thin paper falls to pieces in my hands. I remember a Kabul post office official using a welding iron to cement the H back on to his machine–Conor O’Clery of The Irish Times is my witness–but I have every memorandum and every report I sent to my then employers at The Times.

Today, we use telephones–or e-mails which are easy to delete–but my telexed messages to London in those terrible years of war, just as in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq conflict, tell their own tale. When I was filing reports from Cairo or Riyadh, a foreign desk “blooper”–a last paragraph cut, an inelegantly phrased headline–was easy for a foreign correspondent to forgive. But emerging from Iran’s front lines at Fao–guns, shellfire and corpses–and I found it difficult to see a dropped comma as anything but an act of treachery by The Times. Pity the poor foreign desk. And the correspondent.

Of course, there are ridiculous moments in this historical “search for truth”. My two researchers, after only three days of work, could not understand why they constantly felt hungry at mid-morning–until we realised that between 1976 and 1990, the only way I catalogued my flights around the Middle East was by noting the destination and date on my airline lunch menus. Three days of foie gras, caviar and champagne was too much for my two brave friends to read. For my part, I did not, for many weeks, understand the deep depression in which I would go to bed–or wake–after hours of writing.

The answer was simple: the written notebooks and telex tapes–taken together–became an archive of suffering, of torture and despair. As a journalist, you can catalogue this on a daily basis, go back to your hotel and forget and start again next day. But when I put the telex tape and the notebooks together, they became a dreadful, utterly convicting testimony of inhumanity.

Telexed copy dies out in my files in the late 1980s and computer records suddenly arrive. But they don’t work. While I always kept a “hard copy” of my reports for The Independent, I assumed that the blessed internet would preserve the prose which I had supposedly hammered out on the anvil of literature. Not so. Many websites contain only those pieces of “fiskery” which their owners approved of; others, however legal, simply missed out reports that seemed unemotional. I am always amused by the number of institutions which telephone me in Beirut each week to check on quotations, dates or facts. Google cannot help them. They assume–usually correctly–that the Fisk Memorial Library (all on paper) can. And they are right.

Of course, I have discovered other, equally discredited “facts”. For years, I have been describing the meeting which Newsweek’s Tony Clifton had with Saddam Hussein in the late 1970s, in which he was driven by Saddam himself–after telling the Great Leader that some Iraqis might not like him–into the centre of Baghdad. “Ask anyone here if they love their President,” Saddam Hussein told Clifton. I reported this in The Independent. I have my files.

But Clifton told me last year that this was not correct. He had indeed interviewed Saddam Hussein–but the Iraqi president had merely laughed at Clifton’s question and told him to talk to any Iraqis he wished. He never drove him into town. Ouch.

The first US pro-consul to Iraq, retired General Jay Garner, spent much of his time deriding Saddam Hussein. But my researchers dug up an interview I had with Garner–when he was protecting the Kurds of northern Iraq in 1991–in which he repeatedly stressed how the West must “respect” Saddam’s government and Iraq’s “sovereign territory”. My researchers’ attacks on Google failed to discover this remarkable story. Thank God for my notes.

I’m not a Luddite. I do remember pounding some Churchillian prose on to telex tape in the luxurious lobby of the Damascus Sheraton Hotel–which had an indoor pond–after a mind-numbingly boring Arab summit. I also recall looking up–and seeing my paper tape literally floating away across the Sheraton’s artificial lake.

E-mails, we are now told, will revive the art of the historian. I doubt it. It is easy to delete e-mails and–if governments are generous enough to keep them for archivists–historians will need a well-paid army of researchers to prowl through this ocean. In other words, historians will need to be rich in order to write.

As for me, I have my dad’s First World War snapshots–taken by himself–and the last appeal of the young Australian soldier (like my dad, 19 years old) whom he was told to execute for murder. And I have my dad’s long-dead testimony that he refused to shoot the young Australian–the signature on the firing party’s report is not Second Lieutenant William Fisk–and Bill Fisk’s memory of his punishment, digging up the corpses of British soldiers on the Western Front to put them in the official war graves, remains. Had it been an e-mail, who knows who would have deleted it?

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Robert Fisk writes for the Independent, where this column originally appeared. 

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