Following the resounding success of my Locus Quest, I faced a dilemma: which reading list to follow it up with? Variety is the spice of life, so I’ve decided to diversify and pursue six different lists simultaneously. This book falls into my GIFTS AND GUILTY list.
Regardless of how many books are already queued patiently on my reading list, unexpected gifts and guilt-trips will always see unplanned additions muscling their way in at the front.
I’m a sucker for confessions. Have you ever heard of a website called PostSecret? People create these miniature artworks to anonymously whisper their deepest secrets to the world. Some weeks they’re funny; some weeks they make my chest ache in sympathy. On the surface, Anthony Loyd has written a book about the Bosnian war, but as the pages flicker by it doesn’t take long to realise that this book is a confession. He’s shone a light into the darkest corners of his psyche and smeared his beating heart across the page. My War Gone By, I Miss It So is brutal, it’s powerful and it turned me inside-out. Oh – and if you didn’t know already – it’s a true story.
Ant was a child from a broken home, who left the British military without seeing conflict. His London social circle was in a slow downward spiral of drugs and isolation. Ant decided to go find a war. Now, he does his best to rationalise this decision, delving into his formative years for memories of his venerated, mercenary-solider great-grandfather – but that whole line of reasoning never really flew for me – it felt too much like an attempt to squeeze emotional instinct into a nice, neat framework of cause and effect. The way I read it was simple: Ant felt great conflict inside, and sought an environment that would reflect that externally, as an attempt to understand it.
He gets himself a bare-bones qualification in photojournalism, a smattering of Serbian from a restaurant-owner’s daughter, throws some bags in the boot of a mate’s car, and heads off to the new war in Bosnia. He has no affiliation with a news agency, little money and some sketchy press papers – little justification and no safety net, but he goes – because he has to.
War... changes him. As a photojournalist, selling pictures of conflict, you need to get to where the action is. For someone with a borderline deathwish like Ant, this is not a problem – but taking decent pictures is. Ant scrapes by, pinballing from one battle to another, learning how to act cool and get by. At some point he gets a gig as a written journalist, something he’s never done before, and he just tells them straight-up what he’s seen. The newspapers like it, and the work gets steadier. Most reporters stay in the safe zones and write about what they hear, what they’re told – but Ant still works like a photographer, he gets right out in the thick of things and writes about what he’s seen. It’s an important difference.
Don’t get me wrong, you’ll learn a lot about the Bosnian war by reading this book, but it won’t be an analysis of political forces and tactical manoeuvres – this is a story of individuals, moments, sights, sounds and feelings. This is a very personal story of war.
Whenever it gets too much, Ant bolts back to London and his ever-quickening smack addiction. It’s either one or the other – war or oblivion – he simply cannot cope with the peaceful, civilian life going on around him. He cannot understand it, cannot connect with it and cannot endure it. Avoiding peace is Ant’s compulsion.
He’s a bright, articulate, passionate and at times darkly funny man. If this all sounds a bit grim and bleak – it is – but he writes with a rare and startling honestly which makes it eminently readable. As fubar as it seems, this is where Ant needs to be – this is the home he’s chosen and he’s in his element.
There’s a brief detour into Chechnya – the Russian separatist state – during a winter long ceasefire in Bosnia. The war there is a nightmare. They’re shelling the city into oblivion but the rebels are performing miracles. He doesn’t stay long – this isn’t his war.
Everywhere Anthony Loyd goes, he keeps his eyes open. He sees horrific things, but he also sees acts of kindness and strength. He remembers. He respects. He learns. These are the events which shaped the man who became a great journalist, The Times’ lead war reporter and winner of the Amnesty International Award.
I have my own personal connections with addiction and compulsive behaviour – which may well account for the empathy I felt towards this writer. I’ve never met the man, but I am proud of him for staking his naked soul to the page like this. I love the way this book does not end with a happy ever after, or a twist, or a symbolic dénouement; Ant’s conflict is not resolved, his journey is not over. His war is, and that’s going to necessitate a massive upheaval in his coping mechanism - or a new war!
I’ve not been to Sarajevo, but I have visited some of Serbia (Novi Said in particular) and that made it particularly easy to picture the landscapes and the hospitality of the people.
I can easily understand some/many people not liking this book and not liking Anthony Loyd – but this is one of those books I’m always going to defend. I felt a connection with the words that made me want to simultaneously give the man a hug and find my own war. My War Gone By, I Miss It So is well worth a read.
After this I read: The Book Thief
I decided to make the most of the baby's morning nap and get this review, which has been cluttering up my thoughts for the last week, written. I was most the way there when suddenly the PC makes a chiming sound - "Your computer is shutting down, do you want to save?" - I clicked yes, of course, because I had not saved it yet - so it ignored me and shut down without saving. Seriously? Wha-tha-fu?! Angry. Yes. I'm going away now.