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EI8HT Interview

Investigative journalists Adrian
Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark
talk to EI8HT 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
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
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 reedit
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 nobudget
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
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 posttraumatic
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 preschool
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
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
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
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/
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
with photographers?
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
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
Photographs taken in the Tiwi Islands
(left) and blessing at full moon in a
nunnery in Doi Saket, Northern Thailand
(right), all by Cathy Scott-Clark