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Last Updated: Saturday, 24 September 2005, 12:56 GMT 13:56 UK
A letter with a lingering message
By Fergal Keane
BBC

To mark the 50th anniversary of From Our Own Correspondent, Fergal Keane looks back at the contribution he himself made nearly 10 years ago which produced one of the most phenomenal responses in the programme's history.

Letter to Daniel, a piece addressed to his newborn son, combined the reflections and memories of a man in his role as a foreign correspondent, then working in Hong Kong, but also a father.

Fergal Keane
Fergal Keane reporting 10 years ago

The colony is no more. The baby has grown into a boy and he now has a lovely younger sister. And I have greying hair and no longer roam the war zones of the world. This much - at least- has changed.

It started with a refusal. The producer called and asked if I would think of writing a piece about being a foreign correspondent and a father. I said no. I was on paternity leave and overwhelmed with the sleeplessness of early parenthood.

I also wondered what on earth I would say.

From Our Own Correspondent was my favourite programme - the greatest vehicle for storytelling anywhere on the BBC - and I didn't see how the arrival of one reporter's child might possibly engage the audience.

Surely FOOC - as we correspondents call it - was the place to talk about our experience of other people's lives and countries, not to reflect on our own.

The producer of the programme thought he knew better. He called again. "Give it a try at least," he said. Becoming a parent is a universal experience. "Just write it from the point of view of a foreign correspondent."

I said I would think about it. But I didn't 'think'. Instead, one morning early, sitting up with the baby in one arm, I just started to write. Directly to my son.

Haunting presence

In writing I spoke not just about becoming a father, but also about my own past, about loss and the failure of dreams, about the pain of different children I had met along the roads of war, about my father and how alcohol had taken him from me.

Listening back now I see that at that time, he inhabited my life as a ghost, far from me, yet always present.

There was one draft of the letter. No re-writing. And after the piece was done I went back to my paternity leave.

When I read the Letter now, and I remember that morning with the baby asleep in my lap, I see a young father about to start out on the greatest adventure of his life. He doesn't know that yet, of course.

And then the letters started to arrive. By the sack load. From a mother whose only son had died on a military exercise in Canada; from a man writing by the light of an oil lamp in a tent in Antartica, missing his family back in Britain; and many, many letters from those who had struggled with alcohol or seen loved ones die from it.

The letter writers shared stories of their lives. They were the kind of letters only a programme like From Our Own Correspondent could inspire.

Much has happened in the nearly ten years since the Letter was broadcast.

I eventually quit wandering the war zones of the world. I came to live in Britain.

And I found my father. He was waiting for me at the end of the longest road of all: one tougher than all the roads I'd travelled in Africa and Asia.

For in the years after the letter I found myself gradually becoming lost in the disease that took his life.

Casualties of a different war

Alcohol is an occupational hazard for journalists; for me it went from being the comforting, relaxing presence that calmed the aftermath of witnessing bloody violence, to a self destructive compulsion, that taken to its logical conclusion would have taken my life just as I had seen it take the careers, marriages and lives of good friends and colleagues in newspapers and broadcasting.

Reporting war can give us good reasons for drinking - but for some the "reason" eventually becomes the "excuse." Our trade is littered with its casualties.

I was lucky to stop in time. There were many things that helped: those I loved, good colleagues, and others who had found sobriety long before me.

More than anything though it was the presence of my son, the boy in the Letter: his zest for life and his need for my presence gave me the strength I needed.

And, as I've said, I found my father. In those shivering early morning hours before I quit, in hotels across the world, I think I was touched by some of the pain he knew as alcohol was claiming more of his life and spirit, that steady, incremental departure of hope.

And having known that pain I could only feel compassion and that word which we tough, battle weary journalists of the war zones find so hard to use...love.

Some of my friends worried that I would be identified with "Letter To Daniel" for the rest of my life; they felt for me when a critic attacked me for writing so personal a piece.

And I replied that nothing anybody says about it - good, bad or indifferent - matters a damn in the long run.

When I read the Letter now, and I remember that morning with the baby asleep in my lap, I see a young father about to start out on the greatest adventure of his life. He doesn't know that yet, of course.

But that child will be the making of him, the saving of him.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 24 September, 2005 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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