News Of The World: Kate Adie Interviewed On Music And War
, March 7th, 2011 17:05
Kate Adie is one of the most iconic British journalists of the last thirty years. Wyndham Wallace talks to her about war, peace, changes in the media and her role in the 1960s folk scene
She was there, at the London Iranian Embassy siege of 1980. She was there, when the Americans bombed Tripoli in 1986. She was there, at the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. She was there, in the first Gulf War. She was there, in Yugoslavia, in Sierra Leone and Rwanda. Kate Adie did not lose her edge.
Though she's no longer out on the front line, Adie's expertise is still regularly called upon - as media coverage of the recent Libyan uprising has proven – and, with four books published in the last ten years, whatever extra time she's had has not been wasted. But though she's often thought of as a tough veteran, Kate Adie is, in person, a charming, sometimes deeply serious, other times delightfully light-hearted and occasionally mischievous person.
We are in her discreet West London flat with a stack of CDs, with the intention of playing her some music and discussing the issues that these songs raise. She settles back in an expansive white sofa, one leg tucked up under her, and invites The Quietus to do its worse.
Slayer - Expendable Youth
This is the thrash group Slayer and a track from the last of their 'classic' albums, Seasons In The Abyss from 1990.
Kate Adie: Two years later I spent a lot of time listening to this kind of stuff, not quite such driving heavy metal, coming out of the televisions in Bosnia, former Yugoslavia, where a lot of young people were using music as propaganda to drive through their own view of what the other side was like. And it's interesting because this is anti war. They were all doing their bit for their own side. Every so often you got rather lyrical music about peace. It was accompanied by videos with lots of little children and guys with a gun protecting an old lady and flower petals falling across the screen with very lyrical stuff about, "This is our country, we will protect, we will defend". But the other side of that was quite a lot of driving rock saying, "We will defend, we will stand up for ourselves". I, being much older, was brought up on the anti-Vietnam stuff, Joan Baez and songs from Dylan, much more reflective, not this driving rock.
I get the feeling the drummer has a major say in this band. At least with most protest songs, the lyric, if you've got something to say, is more prominent. This: you've got to know the stuff before it gets to you, which slightly to me misses the point of music.
So this isn't really your thing?
KA: It's quite a seductive use of drumbeats: it changes rhythms, it changes speed, and that draws you in. And it is a kind of urgent sound, so it embodies the subject, war, and the words are quite densely written. One of the things I've always thought about war protest is that eventually you sing along with it, because if the idea takes you, go along with it. I really wouldn't sing along to that. [Chuckles] It's a personal protest, but it doesn't gather any others.
What would your kind of music be?
KA: I'm a pop music animal of the 60s, 70s, 80s, because I DJed on local radio during the 70s. Request programmes: you found yourself playing Cliff Richard endlessly, at the same time putting your head in the waste paper basket in the studio going, "Not them, not them!" So: fairly eclectic.
Just after this period, you started the job we know you for. You were 35 when the Iranian Embassy siege took place…
KA: Was I?!
How idealistic were you about the job you found yourself in, and what did you think you could achieve?
KA: I think idealistic is a very grand word for the fact that I'd fallen into journalism after years of doing all sorts of local radio jobs, which included being a DJ, a farming producer and all of this sort of thing and doing outside broadcasts. I had fallen into journalism entirely by mistake and due to BBC cock-ups, and I ended up as a journalist which I had never, ever desired to be, intended to be or longed to be. I had to learn the ropes in an ad hoc, on the job way. I knew the broadcasting ethics, principles, what you were trying to do, and that you were there for the listeners and viewers, not for yourself, and I went into journalism with that view. So when you went anywhere, even when you were there at the Iranian Embassy siege, you were there for the viewer, to tell the viewer perhaps what more they couldn't see, to put it in context, give them more detail, to relay as much information as you could get. You were privileged to be on the ground. They were back in their armchairs watching. And you were there to give them the feel of what it was like. Not how I felt, but the atmosphere, seeing what other people were doing and how people were reacting. You had to convey that. My own feelings were to be kept out of it. That was another thing we'd learned in my radio days. It wasn't me there. It was just me as a representative. That was what I was aiming for.
Wire - Reuters
KA: Very graphic. It doesn't really have a message. How would I describe that? That's something you listen to the lyrics and it's as if written by a Reuters correspondent. That's pretty straightforward.
They were one of the more intellectual acts of the punk era.
KA: Yes! It doesn't actually have an axe to grind. There are no descriptive or personal or judgemental words in there. It's very straight, which is rather unusual for a song because music usually either expresses a personal sentiment or it's often used to convince other people. It doesn't usually just state the obvious. So I'm thinking, is it meant to be heard by people who are totally unaware, or does it just confirm what goes on in the world? I have to ask why you bother!?
Did you appreciate the political edge of punk?
KA: I genuinely don't know enough about all the genre, but [I know more about] Billy Bragg and artists who feel very strongly about social issues and are articulate and catch the eye of the mainstream media – and that last is quite relevant – make people aware that there is activist music; music with a protest; music with a view; music that actually wants to say something. I have sung on protests 'We Shall Overcome', and we all sang because we felt motivated to protest when I was a student, but the music also helped us. One of the curious things I found about something like punk, and also quite a lot of the rock activism, was that if it doesn't go mainstream it doesn't get to the people we want to take notice. I think you've got to have something which the people on the street; the people who go to the big meetings; the people in the protest; the people gathered actually take up themselves.
Let me give you one example which may seem bizarre. Prague: I was in Wenceslas Square with tens of thousands of people at one of the critical moments when we still weren't sure if the Russians might come in and crush everybody. We didn't know that they were falling like dominos. The Wall was down in Berlin but Prague was [whispers] tense. People were frightened. It was a warm evening and at the bottom of the square the National Orchestra held a concert. The doors were all open, the crowd was silent and they played Smetna's 'Má Vlas' – 'My Country'. You cannot imagine the atmosphere just singing along to that music, the whole square.
Music is a unifying force.
KA: Totally. But also uplifting. And also morale-building. And there they are protesting. It was one of those transcendent moments. And your music has to have your people doing that, and it can do that. That's when it becomes really significant.
How do you think the life of a journalist has changed over the years?
KA: First of all, technology changes things. It shouldn't affect the content too much but it does eventually change things. There is now a huge emphasis on live reportage, both pictures and sound. And the first impressions of anything – shocking, surprising, enlightening – are often inaccurate. You haven't had time to judge, ask why, know if something's staged or false, or it's misleading and insignificant, so there's more of that around now: shaky information. The second thing is that you now have a worldwide sort of journalism.
I say that most of Africa is still half a century behind. There are huge chunks of the world – in China - where there is restriction – in Burma, and lots of other places – where information is filtered, it's censored etc. So one can't talk grandly of global communication. It is patchy. But it is a kind of globalness which meant that people around the world watched live the Twin Towers going down, and that obviously has a long-term effect on people's thoughts about – if not knowledge about – how information whizzes around.
Then there's the third argument, which is one for Western Europe and North America, which is that news audiences are falling catastrophically for television. Radio… well, the UK is unusual because it has very serious radio in Radio 4 and 5, and a lot of places it's just a music carrying business. And newspapers, who are losing readers in North America, UK and some of Europe: you ask yourself what's happening. The cheap and inaccurate reply is, "Oh, the internet". This is not quite the answer. Most people on the internet, the bulk hits on news sites, are people reading five headlines. It takes them fifteen seconds. They don't read further. Unless it's something that pulls them in. Whereas with a newspaper or a news bulletin, you sit through it, whether you're really interested or not. News used to be like a plateful of food, and you had to eat your greens and your potatoes and your meat and then you got pudding. Nowadays it's self-service on the internet. You have a buffet of information in front of you, and most people eat the chips and pudding. And those are sport and celeb. The meat and potatoes – unrest in a foreign country, social complexities at home – are the tough bits which aren't actually very palatable. That's what the challenge is now.
Manic Street Preachers - Kevin Carter
The Manics were, and still are, a very political band, and went to Cuba in 2001 to play, one of the first big Western bands to do that. Do you think it's appropriate for rock musicians to intervene in that way?
KA: Yes! They're guys who are in the business of art. Why shouldn't they? There have been endless political artists, both in painting and in poetry, and in literature and music. Hey, yeah! That's what it's all about! I don't think there should be any bounds or limits or considerations.
Kevin Carter was a photo-journalist who ended up committing suicide, and his suicide note read "I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings and corpses and anger and pain…" How do you separate yourself…
KA: [Interrupting] Every photographer and journalist goes through these things. Are you going just to record stuff, with the probably unrealistic view that you will never be affected, never be bothered by it, it's just a job? I imagine there are some insensitive people who manage that. Most people have to think, or should think, before they go, that if you go to war, if you go to Africa and starvation, if you go to some terrible situation that you know in advance is going to be difficult, you then say to yourself, "Why I am going? What's my motivation? What's my justification for going just armed with a camera? Or a pen? I'm not taking bandages. I'm not taking a truck full of food. I'm not a doctor. I'm not a peace negotiator. I have no mandate."
My question to myself is, "Am I doing any good?" By that I mean, am I achieving something for other people? It's not for me! It's not for my career. You mustn't ever think about career. I think that is just vain.
You have to say, "But why am I taking up space, getting in front of people, turning up in other people's grief, asking questions, taking pictures of intimate things, seeing things which are absolutely truly terrifying, awful… Why spread this about? Why are you trying to send it to a wider audience?" And my justification, I suppose, is a mixture of those, saying that people should know how their world works. I'm not there to say, "Oh stop it!" I have no part. I'm saying, "Know your world. It's a small globe. Know that this is going on. You may want to look away. It may be very difficult. But it is frequently – and history will show you this – other people from a long way away who make some impact." I think that's what you do. It may not, and this is where I come out with a sort of caveat, it may not be enough.
But once the microphone was off did you find yourself thinking, "I've got to help somebody?"
KA: Practical intervention is something that might appear one in a hundred jobs. You carry no food to feed a whole crowd. You will start a riot if you try to feed two. You carry minimum first aid to help you survive. Which do you treat? The old lady with the leg blown off or the child with the hand missing? You are not medical, you can't do enough, nor are you an expert. You'll botch things. Also, there are others there who can probably do it better. Even as amateurs. How can you even comfort people sometimes if you don't speak their language? If you were to collapse outside a Tesco's and feel very ill, in the middle of Manchester, would you like the first person to speak to you to speak to you in Russian? It's a really important moment, psychologically. You want to hear someone saying, 'Don't worry, love, the ambulance is coming.' The foreigner going in often can't even give that kind of reassurance.
The possibilities of intervention are very rare indeed. The idea that you can stop a massacre is rubbish: you don't have a gun. The idea that you can persuade people not to kill people. Er, your main job is possibly to get out because the camera is not going to embarrass the bastard who's got killing in mind. He's going to say, 'You just wait, I will kill him on camera for you. Come nearer.' There are instances of that. You've got to be aware of this. You do not hold power with a camera or a notebook. That is a myth. You do not shame people into better behaviour when they are at a level of determination you can hardly guess at. That's a very important lesson.
Madonna - Holiday
KA: I blow hot and cold with her. She does torch songs well. I find her mechanistic. She just delivers, and I get the feeling it's pretty calculated. Which I suppose a lot of artists are. But I find her, with the enormous stage show that goes with it, and the desire, and a lot of her PR stunts which say, 'Gosh, I'm a shocking person', I go [yawns], "Yeah, yeah, yeah, fine, yeah…" And words-wise, I wouldn't expect much from her.
This is from early in her career when she was in her pure pop-disco phase. Are you a dancer?
KA: Oh, boy! When I was younger… Can I rock & roll! Sure can! If there's enough space on the floor, because you tend to take up a lot of space doing the full bit. I loved it! I actually find modern dancing BORING, BORING, BORING! Boy, did I rock & roll! Fantastic! It's exhilarating stuff! You had to concentrate, you had to keep with the music, you had to make sure you didn't knock other couples onto the floor, but when you had a partner who threw you in the air, and you slid through their legs, hanging on, and you whizzed round the floor… If you do it on the floor now people just flee! All they're doing is up, down, up, down, twitch. I find disco dancing tedious!
When was the last time you danced?
KA: At a wedding. That's the one chance because all the oldies elbow their way onto the floor, and all the handbag bouncers get removed by these dreadful oldies like me saying, 'I'll show you how to…' [laughs]
You've obviously travelled a huge amount around the world, so where do you choose to go on holiday?
KA: I'm finding that air travel now is just a nightmare and airports are full of thugs screaming about regulations. Every so often from this country you need a bit of sunshine so you go off somewhere and just lie for a few days on a beach. I don't like lying too long. Otherwise my idea of it is somewhere like a lovely bit of Italy where there are things to do, wonderful food and drink, beautiful sunset, glorious landscape, bit of history, and pleasant little towns which you can poke around in and feel it's different but there are things to look at, see, enjoy.
I've always been interested in history. I went to the Crimea and to stand on the hills above Sebastopol, the charge of the Light Brigade, and go to Yalta and be in the room where Roosevelt and Stalin and Churchill sat. I love seeing those places. Really wonderful, and not too overrun with tourists.
So you don't ever entirely switch off, then?
KA: No, I'm interested in the world. I don't go to get away. I go to get TO something.
J Mascis: Leaving On A Jet Plane
KA: I know this one. I used to have to play this in the 70s. I have to say, I don't know why people do cover versions. I mean, it's a different interpretation, but the original one, I used to sit there doing an afternoon music request show on Radio Bristol. From springtime onwards, [adopts West Country accent] "My sister's going to Costa Brava tomorrow, can you play 'Leaving On A Jet Plane'?" [Laughs heartily] I used to have it ready in my hand, along with Cliff Richards' 'Congratulations' for birthdays.
Do you prefer John Denver's original?
KA: Yeah, because his voice had yearning in it. He was quite a 'reach out and touch' person with his voice, it had a frisson.
There is apparently a saying that a good decision is getting on a plane at an airport where Kate Adie is getting off a plane.
KA: For most of the stuff that I did, particularly abroad, you didn't get on a commercial plane very much. You got on aid planes, cargo planes, military planes, you occasionally hired a plane. For Sarajevo you had to drive in, or you had to lift in on a military plane or an aid plane. But it is a fact that getting to places where there's real trouble, there is no ordinary commercial service. Suspended. Or the airport is in flames.
The Fall - There's A Ghost In My House
This is The Fall.
KA: I've heard of them.
It's actually a cover recorded for Motown by a guy called R. Dean Taylor.
KA: I'm big fan of Motown. I danced to it, I liked it: Martha and the Vandellas, Dionne Warwick, all of that. I like the the Wall Of Sound and all of that. But to see the state that Phil Spector got into, who ended up on a murder charge. [laughs] Gosh, talk about youthful dreams getting crushed! What a life in the music industry does to you. But the Wall Of Sound bit… What you did feel was the people singing it, the black voices, really were one with the music. There wasn't a separate lyric and music, it was all one. Fabulous! It was like you stood in the shower of this noise.
Talking of ghosts, what makes you scared?
KA: Oh, lots of things. I've been scared out of my wits, people trying to kill you.
But outside of your work?
KA: Oh, yes. I don't like spiders, like 75% of the population. There are some things I fear. But I'm not a fearful person, and I say that not as a boast.
Queen - Radio Gaga
KA: It's a great musical production. He was an opera singer. This is an orchestral work of pop. I always regret that I never saw them live. I found that I got to very few pop concerts and things, but I was working. Boy, he was a talent!
Were you at Live Aid?
KA: No. I remember bumping into Geldof in the lift just after he'd come to see Michael Grade and he'd got the green light to put Live Aid on television. He was standing there going, "Fuck! Fuck!" It was Michael Grade that made it happen.
So how does radio compare with working with TV?
KA: It's two different techniques, full stop. The classic thing with radio is you need to give the words to paint a picture. In television you need to shut up and let the pictures do the painting. And then also in radio you can talk far more intimately than television where you address a camera. It is, as somebody says, getting out there with a loudspeaker and blaring away to an audience because it's hugely difficult to be intimate on television, even with a camera close up. You still feel you're seven steps back. Radio, you're there whispering in someone's ear. Which you literally are late at night sometimes, people lying in bed.
Which do you prefer?
KA: There are times when you are trying to explain something complex and also sensitive and radio is your medium. The timbre of people's voices is the greatest link you can deliver to the emotions of people. Television, visually, can stagger and astound. And also explain. And has an impact which is very different. And there are times when you're on radio and you wish you had a camera there, and I think an example of that would be the Twin Towers: almost impossible to explain in words, the impact and the sight, of all the things, all the images, one after another: radio's not quite adequate for the job. But there are other things that radio does so much better, very much so. So it's horses for courses.
Massive Attack - Teardrop
So this band had to change their name during the Gulf War, though it was probably pressure from the label or management rather than anyone else.
KA: It wouldn't be a government thing, but you get this sort of thing: the marketing people will have been after them.
They thought the name Massive Attack was insensitive, and I wanted to ask if it's necessary to err towards the conservative…
KA: [Interrupts] Oh, look, it depends who owns the station. You can go round the world and discover that certain things are never played on certain stations. And you go to American radio stations and discover there's a HUGE amount of stuff which is completely and utterly taboo because of conservative Southern Baptist religious views. Vast amounts of stuff. Because of the behaviour of the artist, the image they have, what they sing about. I remember huge complaints about 'D.I.V.O.R.C.E.'. For some Americans it's a very serious business, and (adopts American accent), 'God didn't want us to have a D.I.V.O.R.C.E.'
KA: One of the great arguments is you draw attention to things if you decide to ban it. It becomes underground and much more popular. So there are times when you leave well alone if you're mature. Every so often somebody makes a fuss about it, and the moment the BBC bans things everybody goes out and buys it and says it must be good. So you learn, after you've been around for a bit, you've got to be grown up. And every so often the children in management take over [laughs] so you're doomed!
Then you have to work out what constitutes real offence. Now here the obvious thing to look at, the last ten or twenty years, is American black rap, where women are treated as prostitutes or just something material to be pushed around, and it's hugely offensive to a lot of people, unpleasant against half the population. And there I think you do pull up short and say 'What are these guys advocating?' Whether you actually ban the music is difficult, but I think you have to ask all the questions publicly about, "What do you think you're singing about? What's your attitude to women? Are you promoting violence against them in a throwaway attitude?" So there are, I think, questions. Depends what you think is offensive. And of course that is different for every day of the week in every culture in every different view, so you can go right across the board.
PJ Harvey - Written On The Forehead
This is from PJ Harvey's new album Let England Shake, an album made about art about war. Andrew Marr asked if she would consider becoming an official war songwriter and apparently the Imperial War Museum is considering…
KA: [Interrupts] I read about this because I used to be on the board of the War Museum, and the arguments used to be about what constitutes war art these days, and in the last twenty years they have commissioned both installation artists, people who have printed stuff, and sculpture, and video as well. That doesn't mean to say they've abandoned the representational view, because curiously I would argue very strongly, along with a lot of us who got involved with it, that what an artist sees is very relevant with regard to war as opposed to the clinical camera.
I believe you're quite into Vaughan Williams' folk interpretations. Polly Harvey takes a lot of folk music on board.
KA: I was there in the 60s when there was a big folk revival. I'm the former member of a folk group. And we played alongside a group that was then known as the Alan Price Combo. They played their last gig before they went to London to seek fame and fortune and said to us at the university (adopts Geordie accent), 'We've got this thing called 'A House'. It's an old song but we've given it a new taste.' And we said, 'What's this, 'House Of The Rising Sun'? What the fuck's that?' They said, 'We're off to London tomorrow', and off they went [to become The Animals], Eric Burdon and all, with terrible acne! We used to hire them for our student hops: I think we would give them five quid or something, you know.
Do you play an instrument?
KA: The piano. But I longed to play the guitar and I never quite got round to learning. I was doing so many other things. So I was the one with the blonde hair in the middle. And a tambourine! We were hugely influenced by Dylan, and Simon & Garfunkel. When I was a student I met people that met Paul in pubs when he was over, so I heard about him but never quite got to meet him.
You've crossed paths with a few people like that, though. I think you used to drink in the same pub as The Rolling Stones?
KA: Yeah! When I was in the National Youth Theatre. With a woman called Mirren. I don't know what happened to her! She was in the same season as me in the Youth Theatre. A group I knew was The Pretty Things. We went to the same parties. And I was at university with Bryan Ferry.
Steve Miller - Macho City
KA: BORING! Am I being talked at? I'm not being talked to.
Steve Miller is a peculiarly American artist, and I wondered what music you enjoy from across the world?
KA: Terrible as I find part of it, some American country music is truly, truly appalling but at the same time very seductive. The lyrics are usually rubbish. You know what they're going to say. But you listen to someone like Dolly Parton, who's a real musician and a great bird to meet. She's funny as well. I love Irish music. 'Fairytale of New York' is a wonderful fusion of rock and Irish music by The Pogues. And Kirsty MacColl was the most terrific singer. Loved her!
What is very interesting is to hear what Arabs like in the way of modern music. There was a very famous woman called Umm Kulthum. She had a funeral when she died many years ago where a million people went. She embodies to Arabs the ultimate romantic torch singer of modern music. People absolutely swoon at her music.
I'll tell you the greatest moment, where you feel you've got roots together and you've got things in common. The National Union Of Students got an invitation in the 60s from Sputnik, the junior student version of the dreaded Intourist. Somehow I got involved, and we went by train to Russia. We were hosted by students. All of our parents thought we were going to end up in a Gulag or come back as brainwashed communists. They took us on board a paddle steamer with a harvest moon in the summer, and they put a band on board: accordion, you know. They all had huge picnic baskets, we headed to a cornfield, and it was magic. The band came, and we all spread the things out, got the glasses out… [Pauses, then hums 'Those Were The Days']… and all the Russians sang it. And so did we! It was the biggest hit of the previous year. It's a Russian song. It was a magic moment. They didn't know we knew it. We didn't know they did. One of those extraordinary moments. It was also at that moment in Prague. I knew 'Má Vlast', and you knew that they were a European country.
You never forget those things. I was in New Zealand a few years ago, and I was doing a book signing, and a bloke stood in front of me, and he said, 'You can't have forgotten me.' I got up and I grabbed him and we sort of crashed against each other. I said, 'It's John!' He said, 'It's Kate!' And we both said, 'Do you remember the cornfield?'
The song was called 'Macho City', and journalism is a notoriously macho job.
KA: Is it?
Well, that's what I'd like to ask.
KA: Not as much as businesses. I've seen people in the city. Brutes. Newsrooms might have been robust – they used to be more than they are now – but when you get out there… Someone said, 'How do you survive in violent conditions?' I said, 'The first thing is you never lose your manners.' You're always polite to someone pointing a gun at you.
And you've been in that situation?
KA: I have. There have been all sorts of incidents. Lots of them. Lots of them. Lots of them. Lots of them.
Have you ever felt like you've had to – I use this phrase in inverted commas – 'be one of the boys'?
KA: Only to the extent that you don't make a fuss about the lavatory problems, and undressing, and where you're going to sleep. That is not on in the middle of a barracks, or a field. You just get on with things. But other than that I don't feel you have to be one of the boys. And I certainly can't drink what men can drink. There were real macho drinking sessions in Bosnia instigated by the fighters. We used to dread it. [During] the negotiations, meetings and press conferences. I remember nudging Paddy Ashdown and he said, 'It's only ten in the morning.' I said, 'Tough. Remember you're a Royal Marine.' [Laughs] I said, "You see the pot plant? Feed it, I'll be doing that."
So that's probably the only thing where you've not competed with the male journalists.
KA: I don't want to compete with the men.
'Compete' was maybe the wrong word.
No, you don't compete, you basically say, "Excuse me. I'm a professional, I'm not here as a woman journalist, I'm here as a journalist. Secondly, I have no desire to be a man, and thirdly, therefore, here I am.' I turned down an interview the other day from an outfit, not in this country, who said, 'We want you to talk about being a woman journalist.' I said, 'No. I only talk about being a journalist.'