Investigative journalists Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark talk to E18HT about Burmese generals, jade, Gestapo archives and the boundaries between work and home
EI8HT: You have reported from Burmese jade mines, from Russian archives, from Calcutta’s busiest railway station. What would you say unites the stories you choose to work on?
Adrian Levy: Getting beneath the surface of a story is the aim – it’s something we always return to in our work. It’s like when you arrive in a country, the hardest things to do are things like shopping, because nothing is arranged according to the culture you understand. You can’t actually find the things you need to sustain you; you just see a bazaar that you’re passing through. It’s a similar thing with writing. When you land in the middle of a culture for the first time, you inevitably create crass stereotypes. So that’s something we consciously decided to work against.
Kashmir is a good example of where we tried to be with people rather than reporting on the situation. We went back to the same group of people year in year out, following them, then their stories inspired a whole load of other stories that came from that. But it came from their perspective.
8: Is the desire to report from this perspective the reason why you stay freelance?
AL: We have lots of freedom but it’s been hard won!
Cathy Scott-Clark: I could never go back to working in an office; haven’t done that since the Sunday Times.
8: Which is where you met?
CSC: Yeah, I was in education and Adrian was an investigative reporter and we both ended up being foreign correspondents.
8: Working together isn’t that common among journalists-why did you decide to?
CSC: We weren’t going to. We left the Sunday Times and we were going to have a year off travelling, in 1996, but we got bored! We didn’t have plans – or at least I didn’t – to work together at all.
8: But you were, you are, a “couple”?
AL: Yeah. We just wanted a break from the institutionalisation of everything. We thought we’d try set up our own projects to work in tandem but independently. But actually we chose subjects that were either difficult; remote, or that required lots of help.
8: What was your first job together?
CSC: Child sacrifice in India. We had a vague plan to do something about it.
AL: It was an awful story CSC: It wasn’t an awful story. AL: We didn’t do it very well! CSC: I don’t think we did it very badly at all, actually! It’s come back again as a big issue.
AL: Yeah, we hit on some very big issues, you’re right. But it was work in progress, wasn’t it? CSC: It was our first magazine piece, for the Sunday Times: It took about nine months to convince them that we were going to write something sensible.
The attitude was very much “You’re newsroom people – we couldn’t possibly let you loose on a 5000 word piece”. They did eventually commission us.
AL: There was a period of transition. We’d gone from news into reportage, and there’s such a different culture in the commissioning environment, that they tend to deter news journalists from moving into reportage. They think they’ve got the wrong goals, and they’re not looking at narrative or character.
CSC: It’s seen as the wrong kind of writing, not able to construct something so all-consuming as a 5000-word major feature.
AL: And anyway, our goal was 100,000 words. We were saying: “Well, what we really want to do is write books!”
CSC: Which is what we’ve done.
8: How do you actually physically write together?
AL: We’ve got it down to an art, now …
CSC: If we’re in a hurry, then one of us will write the piece, and hand it over, and the other will have another go at it. If we’ve got a bit more time, one person will sit at the computer, usually Adrian, I’d sit next to him and talk it through sentence by sentence, but that’s very long-winded. Takes forever. AL: With the books, everything is really structured and planned and we develop this homogenous idea of where we’re looking for and where going with it, we’ll just split them in half and then the re¬edit becomes really important. If
we went off on our own, we’d probably come back with the same information each other was looking for …
CSC: Er …
AL: I think we would.
8: Do you go off on your own? CSC: We have to now because we’ve got a little two-year-old boy. I think we have different interests within the stories we choose. Adrian has a much more global perspective and is much more aware of the politics, whereas I’ll be much more interested in the human side, which is probably inevitable. So if one person writes and one person edits, that combines the medium, if you like, and I think it works very well.
8: You always have a joint byline? AL: Yes, it’s all shared, whoever is writing or editing. Especially on long projects – and nearly all our projects are, they take months because we have several balls in the air.
CSC: A major feature for Guardian Weekend can take two or three weeks to research and 10 days or two weeks to write.
8: They do back you, then, which is unusual in these days of no¬budget journalism?
AL: They’re very good.
CSC: They do talk more and more of “a quick in and out”… but they’re good employers. The Sunday Times used to be very good, but their environment changed. We haven’t worked for them since 1999.
8: As this is our Relationships issue: I’m interested in where work stops and the relationship starts? Or is it all one thing?
AL: It’s a thorny subject: We used to be much worse at it than we are now.
CSC: Did we?
AL: We had this phase where I felt we were always on a chase, pursuing these ideas, which were invariably protracted and difficult. So we’d go off doing that and … CSC: It was all work.
AL: … and other things fade into the background and it’s very hard to keep a life/work balance. We still haven’t managed to work out what you do in your downtime. A holiday for us is not travelling. So when we do, we’re always looking for things to do.
8: You live in France. Was that part of the solution?
AL: Yeah -we live in the middle of nowhere.
CSC: It was partly to do with having a baby as well, and Adrian’s mum was ill. We’d been living in Asia for eight years, so we thought we should be back closer to the UK, but not in it. I couldn’t cope with living in London full-time again. It’s very difficult to write here [in London] -we had a small flat and it was incredibly noisy. We decided to rent somewhere in France and we loved it, so we bought the farmhouse. Very cheap, very lovely, very quiet. We go off on trips and then go back there to write.
AL: It makes the whole thing less stressful for is. It’s an exhausting process as well, mentally emotionally and physically and you need time to be able to recharge. We did a whole series of stories back to back, for a long period of time … We went through Kashmir, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, where we were with the Tamil Tigers, we were going from story to story to story …
CSC: And we were writing a book. AL: Yes, our first book, the jade book, Stone of Heaven, and we got to the end of that and we had to do this horrendous journey to get to the jade mines, which turned into an ordeal in itself. I felt like I was suffering from post¬traumatic stress … I know that sounds like a grand thing to say … CSC: No, it doesn’t – you ran out of steam
AL: I had- I’d run out of juice and so had you.
CSC: You are the one that runs out of steam, especially when you’re doing a lot of writing as well. I find when I get to a certain stage, I’ve got nothing left to say. I don’t want to write for a while.
8: How has having a baby affected your work?
CSC: We lump work together a lot; we were in Asia for four months this year so we based ourselves in Thailand, where we lived before, found a house, found a nanny, and once it’s all set up, we went off on some separate trips, some together …
AL: It’s the only way to make it work, so we each get a fair share. When we were in Washington we hired a flat, went on to mums.net, found the right person, then we could get on. We have to work a lot harder to make it work now, but it’s worth it.
CSC: We’d much rather take him with us.
AL: We get to see loads of him – it’s lovely! And also, in the pre¬school years we have the luxury of being able to dip in and out. He knows a bit of Thai, in France he’s picked up a bit of French – he’s getting good, got a little accent …
8: You don’t normally put yourselves at the centre of stories – but there was a story about family heritage, about homelands and timelines, which illustrated so well how, if you spend time talking you can find things out …
AL: That was a whole weird thing. Usually we don’t write about ourselves-ever …
CSC: It’s not very interesting AL: … but that story was interesting -the balance of the story changed, and out of it came something more interesting. It was my grandmother talking about being forced to leave her home in Nove Zamky [near
Budapest] in 1939 with such haste that all she could take with her was a diamond, sewn into the lining of her dress. She should have sailed for Bombay but the ship was diverted to England, where Anna, her husband Miklos, and their new baby (my Aunt Veronica) were ushered down the gangplank at Tilbury Docks… CSC: Your family is interesting because they’ve come further, they’ve travelled. My mum’s side of the family have always been in the UK, whereas yours was part of the diaspora.
AL: We sit with both our families, we’ll listen to stories all afternoon, they’re fascinating.
8: I wanted to ask you about another great storyteller Richard Ryszard Kapuscinski a joint favourite author, I gather?
AL: He’s the greatest reportage writer ever. My favourites are Shah of Shahs, The Soccer War, Imperium, that’s probably one of the greatest -a train journey through the Soviet Union as it’s collapsing. His trick is that he’s Polish through and through and was part of the Polish state news agency that had zero zlotys to spend on anything, so he would always be the last to every major breaking news story. When CNN chartered a plane, he’d be hitching or on the bus. He never went with the pack, so he was in the slums, because that’s where he could get a room . ‘So his book is a combination of this fantastic writerly view coupled with the Polish sensibility of the underdog. CSC: Sorry to interrupt you but he does what I like best which is he doesn’t parachute into situations, he waits ’til everyone has gone, but then he stays for ages – because he hasn’t got the money to go back – and he’ll interview everyone in great detail and get to know everyone properly. He’s there for six weeks and he’ll
interview the dustman, the caretaker, the neighbour, so you get a whole picture …
AL: I’m very interested in Arab writers who are transplanted into the European environment, because culturally they’re storytellers, but also there’s displacement, and it means that there’s a very interesting tension within the stories, as well as the folk element. Russian writers are the only others who come close to that. What all these guys, and Naguib Mahfouz [the Egyptian novelist and Nobel laureate], have in common is the magicalness of mundanity and I think mundanity is great.
8: Would you like to work on UK stories, to reacquire that tension yourselves?
AL: We did Binge Britain this year and we approached the UK like foreign correspondents; because we haven’t lived here for so long. It was really weird being back in Britain. It worked well being strangers … we have the tension of the displaced. We talked about it, to avoid the Third Worldness, to apply those values to western stories. After we did the Calcutta station, we wanted to do Kings Cross station – we will do it one day. My idea is to apply that critical faculty to the UK
CSC: We’ve tried to do that with a normal housing estate but the magazines come back with “what’s the story?” – because there’s no foreigness.
AL: But now we’re away more than we’re here, I actually classify it as a foreign assignment- it’s something I’m desperate to do. CSC: Nick Davies does it brilliantly …
AL: There are very few people like him, who do what he’s doing, he’s extraordinary. We are always juggling ideas trying to find new ways in. You get locked out and then you find another way in.
8: Who is the persuader?
CSC: [laughs] Who do you think? He is!
AL: I’m a used car salesman. CSC: He’s brilliant at talking people round …
AL: I think both of us are …
8: Is it to do with having the backing of a big paper?
AL: No- not at all. I think it’s about going into a situation being certain of several key things. One thing is that most people want to talk. Any person, any race, any religion.
First you have to get over the potential embarrassments. They are always things like language, money, how we sit, how we eat. So if you go into someone’s house and have tea with them, they inevitably will end up talking. Doesn’t matter where in the world you are. If you listen, then you succeed.
8: With people in a station, say, I can imagine that. With generals in Rangoon, though …
AL: They’re all the same. Doesn’t matter. They all need something; they all want something.
8: Do you ever pay people off? AL: Never pay anybody anything. Ever. We’d pay for government permits, for transport, we pay our fixers as generously as we possibly can all the time. We are often in situations where people become fascinated by the process. We are working on a big project at the moment …
CSC: It’s on Nuclear Pakistan and you’d be amazed at how keen people are to talk, people in the public domain. It’s just a matter of knocking on the doors. People tend to say – come in. Ask us if we’re going to write the same as everyone else – we say no. You tell us what the truth is, we’ll write it. AL: Also, people who are slightly out of the limelight but in major
events in their country or culture -they tend to want to biographise all of that. If you go slowly, and you don’t approach it as one hour, you approach it as days, or many different meetings – it doesn’t matter if the first day you get nothing. We spend a lot of time. CSC: Sometimes I don’t even get my notebook out. We can always go back to a situation in order to document it. We only need to do that if people are really twitchy. AL: We were in a situation in Burma where they were going to deport us, even though we’d been invited to go there to hear their perspective. And that situation was transformed -we were literally under hotel arrest – into them sending a car and taking us to meet members of the government who sat in chairs and talked at us, they produced a microphone and one by one, delivered a lecture …
CSC:… and then we got invited to a party!
AL: And that’s because we listened. We were with some UN people, typical paid-up people who have no insight into the culture they’re dealing with. They said we should give in. We just ignored them. Right up until the end, we didn’t know if it would work. And it did work: we got one of the first big interviews with the cabinet of the Burmese government.
8: Do you think you keep each other going in such situations? That maybe alone, you’d get a rising sense of failure … or is that just not in you?
AL: Cathy bounces back from things very quickly.
CSC: I can’t stand failure!
AL: Your natural response when you hit a cul de sac is to find another way round. The thing is with two people, there is that ability to share failure, by converting it to a positive. We’ve
only ever failed once, on something we were forced to do … it was a glib thing on stunt women for a women’s magazine, but they’d all resigned in a mass industrial action, so the stunts were being done by men in drag! AL: What we did discover though is that the combination of history and reportage works really well. It’s about bringing out timelines. We’ve done a lot of archival work, all round the work.
CSC: It’s great going from the document to the person. AL: We happened upon this amazing story in Prague, these amazing archives in the Strahov monastery, where papers had been abandoned by the Gestapo and they’d been frozen – our idea, the theme we came back to – was to take the documents and find the people from the documents, to get a collision between the history and the now. It’s an idea we came back to in Israel/ Palestine.
CSC I went on a fantastic journey with one of the Israeli women, who had never been back – didn’t even really know the name of the village her father had come from. She didn’t know whether it was in Ukraine, or in Poland or in Russia … She gave us this name which turned out to mean “small village” and she had a photograph of her ancestor outside this wooden house in their frilly clothes and we actually found the house! She’d never been. We worked out it was actually on the border of eastern Poland, and Belarus. We found the right town, we found a translator, found out half the town had been burnt down in 1945, and we thought “Oh no, we’ve brought her all the way here… ” We were literally walking around the town looking at the window panes, looking for the ones in the photograph …
8: Do you ever actively try to work
AL: We both like to – because everything we do is integrated into the images. Cathy shoots really well herself, although she wouldn’t say so. .
CSC: It’s more difficult these days to take a photographer with us, magazines often tend to say they’ll send you the photographer later, so we end up taking pictures ourselves. We have worked with the lovely Stephen Gill, though, and we really want to do a project with Jonathan Torgovnik.
AL: Often the places we go to are quite remote so we’ll end up writing and shooting. We just came back from the Tiwi Islands, Australia, and it was all about getting access to the place, so we couldn’t pick up where we left off or even get there again, probably, so Cathy took the pictures.
8: Was it a similar access problem in the jade mines?
AL: Yes. I shot that myself, on a broken APS. I had to hold the shutter open with my finger. That was an example of downscaling because of the kind of story we were doing. Normally, we’d use a Leica!
8: So where are you off to next? AL: To the States for the last part of our book on Nuclear Pakistan. It’s really America Arms the Axis of Evil. It’s told through the prism of this Superspy who was working for every side.
8: And how on earth did you get hold of him?
AL: Oh, you know the CIA, they’re all desperate to talk! 8
Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark were talking to Max Houghton
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