High life

In praise of amateurs

26 March 2022

9:00 AM

26 March 2022

9:00 AM

Two weeks ago in St Moritz I ran into both Nicolas Niarchos and Nikolai von Bismarck, two talented young men and Old Harrovians whose parents are friends of mine. This week I was proud to read the former’s byline and to see the latter’s pictures from the warzone in Ukraine. Good on them, the Fourth Estate could do with talented amateurs rather than world-weary pros. But don’t get me wrong. By amateurs I mean those who write and photograph for the love of their craft, not because it’s their job. I’ve always insisted that the amateur is superior to the pro because he or she glories in the execution of a stroke, a swing, an athletic contest or an artistic endeavour. The pro calculates the odds, whereas the amateur goes for glory. Ditto in wartime reporting. The pro broadly follows the ideological bent of the paymaster, be it of the left or right. The amateur writes and photographs from the heart.

Needless to say, some of the reporting from the warzones of Ukraine has been highly lachrymose. The pretend befuddlement over the violence is insufferable at times. War is what it is, a crime against innocents most of the time, and it is always violent. We in the West excuse our excursions into other people’s territories and the death of innocents by claiming we’re doing it for the right reasons. When the other side does it, it’s a war crime. But never mind the sermons, here is the scoop about Nicolas and Nikolai.

The youngsters were friends at school and while Nicolas is extremely – but extremely – well-off, Nikolai is very well-off. Both could be lolling about in the company of Saudi playboys; instead they are reporting and photographing the drama that is Ukraine. Niarchos has written about Iraq and Africa, while Bismarck has had two books of his photos published and a third is on the way. Both are very talented with great futures ahead of them. Nicolas was reporting for the Nation, an extremely left-wing New York magazine whose editorial director, Katrina vanden Heuvel, I took to lunch about five years ago. I found her attractive and pleasant, and we hit it off. It also transpired that an aunt of hers, who is no longer with us, had seduced the poor little Greek boy a century or so before. What sticks in my memory is a Rockefeller scion, also at the lunch, predicting a Trump victory in the 2016 election, something Katrina and I found rather amusing.

The presence of the two young friends in Ukraine also brought back memories. When the poor little Greek first learned to type in order to submit dispatches to Acropolis, the number one Greek political daily of the time, my father was appalled, telling me that most Greek newsmen were blackmailers and lowlifes. When I mentioned Dad’s opinion of journalists to Charles Moore, I remember his reaction: ‘Hacks rank above child molesters,’ he said. Never mind. Greek hacks, determined to prove me a phoney, vainly tried to uncover who my ghost writers were. When I complained to John Rigos, bureau chief of UPI, he told me it was normal. ‘Not many sons of ship owners become hacks,’ he said, or words to that effect. And it got worse. A leftie newspaper (Eleftherotypia) exclusively reported that the tanks I had been photographed next to in the battle for Quneitra, where Nick Tomalin was killed in 1973, were made of paper and the pictures were posed in my father’s back garden.

Mind you, Greek journalists have greatly improved since, as political passions have cooled and the civil war has largely been forgotten. But when I first started 50 years ago, Athens was a war zone of misinformation, rumour and criminal libel. Too many know-it-alls in the pay of the communists, the socialists, or the conservatives did not report the news but invented it. One story that sticks in my mind was when I wrote a human interest story from Vietnam about Willy Shawcross, a man I didn’t know at the time. I recounted how he had emptied out the Saigon American PX store of peanuts. One conservative hack thought it a provocation, a rich American depriving the Vietnamese of peanuts, although Willy is a Brit and the Vietnamese were not allowed into the store. A lefty hack interpreted it as envy on my part because Willy was a well-known journalist while I was pretending to be in a war zone. In those days Greeks played rough, to say the least.

Was I beholden to the right back then and writing according to its creed? You betcha, but I had seen the left in action, murdering my father’s workers, burning down his factories, and for what? Having served his country and having financed a resistance newspaper? Back then it was all or nothing on both sides, no quarter asked or given.

Thankfully, Nicolas Niarchos and Nikolai von Bismarck will not have to go through such shenanigans, although the woke brigade makes my old Greek adversaries look as lethal as Mickey Mouse. Woke today is Savonarola and Torquemada rolled into one. Unforgiving and repressive, it has replaced common sense with crazed theories about race and privilege. The deeply stupid have fallen for it. We are now obsessed with eradicating every -ism in the book. I don’t envy the two Nicks starting out.

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