Other segments from the episode on August 14, 2003
DATE August 14, 2003 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Aidan Hartley discusses his new memoir, "The Zanzibar
Chest," growing up in Africa, and reporting on war, famine and
BARBARA BOGAEV, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev, in for Terry Gross.
Some foreign correspondents get into the business of war reporting because
they thrive on risk-taking and danger. Others are compelled by strong
political views. When Aidan Hartley decided to become a stringer in Africa in
1988, he had another motivation. He wanted to return to what he considered
his homeland. Hartley spent much of his childhood in Kenya and Tanzania. His
father was an agriculturalist in the British Colonial Service. He was also a
descendent of four generations of colonial officers and adventurers who, for
king and country, served and died in Africa and other parts of the world.
As a war correspondent for Reuters Wire Service, Hartley covered conflicts in
Ethiopia, Rwanda, Somalia and the Congo. Now he's written a memoir that
weaves together stories of his youth, his family's history and his experiences
reporting on war, famine and violence in post-colonial Africa. It's called
"The Zanzibar Chest." I asked Aidan Hartley to read a passage from the
beginning of his book.
Mr. AIDAN HARTLEY (Author, "The Zanzibar Chest"): (Reading) `At any one time
we had six wars, a couple of famines, a coup d'etat and a natural disaster
like a flood or an epidemic or a volcanic eruption, all within a radius of
three hours' flight from Nairobi. You could take off at sunrise, commute to
witness a battle or hear a starving man breathe his last and be back home by
nightfall in time to file a story, take a shower and hit the Tamarind
restaurant downtown for mangrove crab and Stellenbosch. We were dropped off
watching the plane roar away in a cloud of red dust and you were gone for
weeks, out of contact and a thousand miles from help. And each time you
returned home after a trip like that, for a few days you were as mad as
Gulliver talking to his horses.
`Those were the years when we hitched rides on dawn flights carrying cargoes
of blood plasma, guns or baby food to bush airstrips, flights on battered
Antonovs with the word (foreign language spoken), `Cheers,' emblazoned on the
nose of the fuselage flown by Russian crews with the Mongoloid faces of Soyuz
cosmonauts from my boyhood stamp collection, their breath sour from drink on
$300 a month with girls thrown in, running weapons in the orbit of modern
African wars. I recall flights when the passengers sat among boxes of
toothpaste and grenades, cement and drums of gasoline. I recall sitting next
to a little girl in a frilly pink dress and bonnet and ivory armlets,
clutching a yellow-haired Caucasian doll as below us broccoli-like black
forests stretched for a thousand miles unbroken and empty.'
BOGAEV: That's Aidan Hartley reading from his memoir, "The Zanzibar Chest."
You worked for Reuters, eventually, the wire service. Now you covered Somalia
and you arrived there after the militia had overthrown the military dictator,
Mohamed Siad Barre, and you describe going to the--to his palace where his
bodyguard--the corpse of the bodyguard is still rotting in front of his door,
and you found a room literally full of envelopes. What did you find?
Mr. HARTLEY: Well, you know, it was the typical scene: dictator's palace
blown to pieces with various bits and pieces, his documents, incredibly
incriminating documents, lying all over the place, various members of his
regime lying around dead. And we were walking down a passage trying to find,
I suppose, documents, find some sort of incriminating evidence that would give
us a story about this toppled regime, and we came up against a door that we
tried to lean into and open, and it showed some resistance, so we barged it
open and we found ourselves standing knee-deep in letters, all of which had
been written by supporters of the human rights group Amnesty International to
Siad Barre's government requesting the release of various people who were
being held in various detention centers. And none of the letters were opened
and the letters went back for a period of more than a decade. And I picked up
a bunch of these and went through them. It really was heartbreaking, from
people all over the world who'd written thinking that someone would open them.
I had no idea how they had identified them, but presumably it was the way that
they were addressed, and they'd simply been filed away in a room and ignored.
I mean, it never ceases to amaze me that dictatorships seem to save all
information that incriminates them. But this is what had happened. And I
still have some of the letters, which I have on my desk and I keep to remind
myself of the evil nature of some governments.
BOGAEV: Can you talk about the challenge of reporting on what went on in
Somalia? I'm thinking that this was among one of the first times that violent
leaders or rivaling clans rose up to take power in the political vacuum after
the dictatorship collapsed. Was there even a vocabulary for what was going
Mr. HARTLEY: No. I mean, don't forget that after all of these proxy wars
during the Cold War era, these countries had just been, you know, held in the
deep-freeze, and suddenly they began to disintegrate very fast. What we had
thought initially was going to be a wonderful change began to become a lot
more complicated because there was nothing to hold these countries up. Once
you took away the guns, once you took away the security apparatus that had
been held up by both Eastern bloc and the West--and in Somalia you had
overnight a complete and utter collapse so that you had no schools, no police
forces. You know, at one point the electrical and telephone wires were being
dragged out of the ground, all the copper. They blasted the front doors of
the central bank and so on.
So we had no language to describe this. And what was incredibly frustrating
was that it was the most ghastly thing that happened in Somalia, and yet, at
the same time, the Gulf War, the first Gulf War, was just about to take place,
and so it just happened completely off people's radar and so you got the sense
of a country where the lights were going out and, of course, they were
literally going out. And they ripped out the telephone system so that you
couldn't even phone anywhere in the country. And the digits 252, which was
the national code of Somalia, would just get you this sort of, you know,
popping and wheezing ether as you tried to phone into the country. It just
disappeared off the map.
BOGAEV: But I think Somalia was the first time I remember hearing the word
Mr. HARTLEY: Yes. I mean, we had no way of describing these militias and
what their structure was and what their sort of anthropology was. And so it
was in the Reuters office--I take claim for the fact that we came up with the
word `warlord' to describe these militias. Someone would have come up with it
sooner or later, but it was a sort of conversation that I was having with my
bureau chief about these sort of bizarre creatures that didn't seem to come
from any kind of political body that we'd ever seen suddenly emerging. I
mean, there were basically massive criminals who had taken over the resources
of what was left of the state. And so we christened them warlords and the
name stuck, much to the annoyance of the militia leaders themselves, who
wanted to present themselves as democrats and peace leaders.
BOGAEV: You were thinking of--What?--warlocks and something...
Mr. HARTLEY: Yeah. Yeah. We were talking about a 1970s TV program, I don't
know if you have it in the States, called "Doctor Who," where there are these
people called warlocks and timelords, and so we just conflated the two to come
up with `warlords.'
BOGAEV: You also reported on famine in the camps in Badera, and you write
that to do the job well as a reporter you have to depict the death of an
individual. That's--in order to successfully convey the tragedy of famine to
your readers. Does that translate for you in the field, that you and your
colleagues have to think up ever more novel ways to get across the horror?
Mr. HARTLEY: Yes. I mean, I think that it's very obvious that when you're
there, you also experience this complete overload because the number of people
in the famine camps in Badera were so huge, and at one point 400 people were
dying a day. As much as for the reporter as for his or her professional job,
you had to try and humanize this huge anonymous suffering, and come up with an
individual story. And all too often it had a tragic end, but you in some ways
tried to find something that was redeeming. But, you know, very soon, very
quickly, you started to lose any kind of humanity, I think, and the Somali
famine for me was the point where I began to see the very sick aspects of the
trade that I worked in, that, you know, we were trying to tease out a single
person's death and make that into a story. And at one point I describe how a
soundman for a television station had stuck his microphone into the face of a
dying man and as he rattled his last, the soundman took the microphone away
and said, `I've captured the sound of death. I wanted to do that for some
time.' You know, I mean, really, it's an unacceptable situation to be in, to
be an observer in a situation like that.
BOGAEV: Well, what effect did the experience of recording the famine have on
you there and then?
Mr. HARTLEY: Well, I went through this sort of narcolepsy where I would just
fall asleep in my soup or fall asleep while interviewing somebody. It might
be something that was quite extraordinarily important why I was interviewing
them, but I would just fall asleep. And otherwise I found the sort of the
rest of the bodily functions worked perfectly. In fact, you have this sort of
increased appetite. It's quite disgusting how you can finish a huge meal at
the end of the day and have an incredible sense of appetite despite everything
that's going on around you. And, of course, people came in for brief visits
and they didn't eat. I remember an Irish delegation came in for three days
and they didn't eat. But if you report that for a year, you can't do that.
And, in fact, all of the sort of pretensions of trying to, you know, be
correct in an unacceptable situation just fall away.
BOGAEV: Looking back, though, now, do you feel that perhaps that work was not
the right thing to do or do you wish you had made other, I don't know, grander
gestures to tell people, to alert the world that these people in Africa needed
such desperate help?
Mr. HARTLEY: Well, I say in the book that, you know, I think that, you know,
maybe I could have done more, maybe I could have gone on runs to raise money
for charity or chained myself to the railings outside embassies or something
like that. But really, that's a sort of rhetorical paragraph because I'm
really just trying to illustrate how hopeless it is. I mean, by the time the
famine has got that bad--and I have to say with reference to things like
Liberia, once things have got as bad as they are, then, you know, you're just
going in with a whole bunch of Band-Aids trying to patch things up, but things
aren't going to get better. And in the famine I mention how almost an entire
generation of children of a certain age from infancy to about the age of five
just disappeared in the famine in 1992 to '3. And by the time that food
arrived and forces arrived to protect them--of course, they did save other
people, but those people, probably up to 300,000 people, were just gone, an
entire generation of people. And so, you know, there's a sort of helplessness
about it. It just shouldn't have happened in the first place.
BOGAEV: I'm talking with Aidan Hartley. He's a former war correspondent for
Reuters and other news organizations. He covered conflicts in Ethiopia,
Somalia, Rwanda and the Congo. His new memoir of growing up in Africa and his
time as a journalist is "The Zanzibar Chest."
Aidan, we're going to take a short break and then we're going to talk some
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
BOGAEV: Back with former war correspondent Aidan Hartley. His memoir of
growing up in Africa and his decade covering conflicts there is called "The
Well, you're scathing about the American intervention in Somalia. What were
some of the biggest missteps, and what specific scenes did you report on that
brought it home to you?
Mr. HARTLEY: Well, how can you go from a country that is in utter ruin to a
Western-style democracy within two years? It just doesn't happen. And also,
how can you expect people who live in a society which is not in many ways
similar to a Western society--for example, a Muslim society that doesn't
really have much of a political role for women--and determine that councils
have to be gender-balanced? I'm not saying that councils shouldn't be
gender-balanced, but to sort of impose it from day one seems a little naive.
And, you know, basically it was immediately rejected by the Somalis, who still
had a little bit of a fight to go through, but really, you know, the UN should
have been in there for the long haul and instead of that they thought that
they could come up with a grab bag of solutions and implement them within a
short period of time.
And so, yes, you had completely bizarre scenes where--you know, from a
compound in the middle of Mogadishu that could only be reached by helicopter
because the UN officials were so terrified of actually driving through the
streets to the airport to get out for their R&R, you would have buildings
given over to big signs sort of looming in the duststorms--`Justice,'
`Humanitarian' and so on--all of these sort of departments that were
implementing edicts that came over the ether from New York and to run Somalia.
And yet, these people didn't even go out into the streets of Somalia. They
didn't eat the food of Somalia. You know, they just ate sort of hamburgers
and stuff that had been flown in. So it was utterly surreal and, I must say,
not particularly unique in the last decade or so.
BOGAEV: You're referring to parallels that you see between the situation in
Somalia then and what is going on in Iraq now?
Mr. HARTLEY: Well, to an extent. You know, I mean, I think that the
situations obviously are very different. But really, the hope--and I
understand, once again, there may be good intentions to deliver a country to a
multiparty democracy with human rights and so on, but you can't do it in two
years. You can't do it in five or 10. And, you know, the commitment to the
long haul is pretty onerous. I understand that. But that's what it's going
to take if that's what you want. And in the case of Somalia, of course, they
said, `OK, well, this is a bit too much hassle,' and they left the country
after a period of two years, and the country has fallen just utterly off the
abyss. It's not a country. It's just a sort of Somali wild coast. And they
just gave up. And so there's nothing to show for it for nearly a decade since
BOGAEV: You also covered the Rwandan genocide and you write in your memoir
that `The memory of Rwanda sits like a tumor leaking poison into the back of
my head.' What are some of those memories that haunt you?
Mr. HARTLEY: OK, let me say first that throughout the trajectory of the book
some terrible things happen, but I always felt a great sense that somehow,
including the Somalis, including the fact that they're still in the abyss,
that they'll somehow pull through, because one of the things about traveling
in Africa is that in situations of the greatest adversity you see amazing
behavior, amazing tenacity, amazing resilience and amazing humanity. And for
me, Rwanda is the one area that I can't explain to myself. And to me, it's
just a gap of explanation where history breaks down, where things happened
that, you know, are just haunting to the region, haunting to the people who
covered it and haunting to the international community for many, many years
The memories that I have--I give one example that sums them all up, which is,
how can you explain in historical terms observing one woman with a child tied
to her back chasing another woman with a child tied to her back wielding a
machete and going at her with it? That for me--I don't have any kind of
historical explanation for that. To have witnessed it, to me, is just one of
the big questions that I'll go to the grave with.
BOGAEV: Was there one moment in reporting on what was going on in Rwanda that
brought home the futility of your writing about this situation?
Mr. HARTLEY: Yes, and it's the title of one of the chapters, Lazarus. After
the end of the genocide, when there was this enormous exodus of Hutu refugees
into eastern Congo, we followed them, and there a cholera epidemic took hold
and many thousands of people were killed. And so the peacekeepers who should
have been deployed during the genocide who weren't deployed arrived too late
in the day and essentially became grave diggers. And they would dig these
enormous pits and they would bulldoze the bodies into the pits and cover them
with quicklime and then cover them with earth. And I was standing on the edge
of a pit one day with a French Foreign Legionnaire, and they'd just covered
the bodies over with quicklime, and we're just looking down, waiting for a
bulldozer to come and cover over all of the corpses.
And from down in the pit we saw movement. And we jumped down into the pit and
we scrabbled over these bodies and we pulled out a little boy. And we cleaned
him up on the edge of the pit and we began talking to him, and I say in the
book how ashamed I feel that I took out a notebook at that point, but I did.
And then we took him back to a hospital near the airfield. And as we went, we
felt this surge of optimism because in this dreadful place in eastern Congo
where the sun had been blotted out by smoke, by thousands of bodies--driving
past thousands of bodies, we felt that there was some hope, some ray of light,
and both the Foreign Legionnaire and I delivered him to the hospital and I
wrote the story, and it was a story that--one of the few stories that I wrote
that just went round the world because people were just so inured to this
hopeless news, this dreadful news, and suddenly there was this child--Dibit
Daragwa(ph) his name was--who had come out of the grave and had survived. And
I felt this amazing surge of optimism.
And I went back the next day to the hospital and I took some candy along and I
said, `I'm looking for this kid,' and there were a bunch of other kids there,
all of whom just didn't know what I was talking about, and I eventually found
the nurse that we had delivered the child to and I said, `I'm here to see this
boy,' and the nurse said, `No, dead.' And I said, you know, `What was wrong?'
And the nurse said, `Nothing's wrong. This child died, I think, of a broken
heart.' And for me that was the end. I went back to the news tent, where a
French colonel was reporting on how this child had recovered and, of course,
all of the journalists went in good faith and reported on the recovery of this
child, and I went and reported on its death and no one used the story. I
mean, I carried on traveling into Rwanda and Congo and places like that for
several years afterwards, but for me, you know, I was not able to really ever
get over that.
BOGAEV: Aidan Hartley's memoir is "The Zanzibar Chest." We'll continue our
conversation in the second half of the show. I'm Barbara Bogaev and this is
BOGAEV: This is NPR, National Public Radio.
Coming up, we talk with journalist Aidan Hartley about how Africa changed his
father, who was first sent there as an officer of the British Colonial
Service. Hartley has a new memoir. And David Bianculli reviews two new DVD
compilations, "Rocky & Bullwinkle & Friends" and "The Simpsons." That and
(Soundbite of music)
BOGAEV: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev in for Terry Gross. Let's
continue our interview with journalist Aidan Hartley.
He grew up in England and Africa. His family has a colonial legacy that goes
back four generations in the British Foreign Service. For over a decade
Hartley was a war correspondent for Reuters, covering conflicts in the Congo,
Ethiopia, Somalia and Rwanda. His new memoir of his experience as a foreign
correspondent and his family's history in Africa is called "The Zanzibar
After your period in Rwanda, you went through kind of a hard time. It was
also the time that your father died. Is that right?
Mr. HARTLEY: Yes.
BOGAEV: Do I have the timing--OK.
Mr. HARTLEY: Yeah. In the time actually after I left Reuters and I was
starting to sort of wander around a bit, my father died. And that's what
really sets off the book because I was going through the Zanzibar chest of the
title, which is this ornately carved wooden box that my father used to keep
his papers in, in his office, at home on the Indian Ocean coast. And I was
going through these papers, and I found these documents, including my father's
sort of memoirs and, also, the diaries of his close friend Peter Davey, who
was a friend of his who had been killed some 50 years before. And that's what
sets me off on the journey in the book.
BOGAEV: Now to give some history, you grew up shuttling between East Africa,
between Kenya and England, because your father was a colonial officer
originally, and later he ran his own ranch. What was his assignment early on
from the head office?
Mr. HARTLEY: He was an agriculture officer. His job was to, you know,
develop crops like cotton and do some irrigation and so on. I mean, he
started off as a very young man in a very remote part of Eastern Africa, and
he stayed for the rest of his life, and he grew to love the place very, very
deeply. And it was something that I grew up in his shadow feeling as well.
He didn't seek out trouble. He sought to grow trees and to help people and to
be a farmer. Of course, he was within a colonial system that had its many
faults, but he, as an individual, was a lovely man.
BOGAEV: As a child, which did you feel more at home in, Africa or England?
Mr. HARTLEY: Growing up, I always felt that East Africa, or most particularly
Kenya, was my home. This was the place of my early memories. And because it
was so difficult to live there and the turmoil of the politics in the '60s and
'70s, and because my father had to go and work in other countries like
Ethiopia and Somalia, I suppose that I began to associate Africa with my
father. And one of my earliest memories was praying to `our father who art in
Africa.' And I suppose that I conflated to and made it something that was my
kind of ultimate goal to love and want. I wanted it to love me back.
BOGAEV: So your father was gone a lot. Was he traveling around with the
irrigation projects, with the development projects?
Mr. HARTLEY: Well, the story is that once he left the colonial service and
became a farmer in the turmoil of the 1960s, our ranch in Tanzania was
nationalized, and so my parents had nothing. And everything that they'd
worked for for many years was gone. And so my father got a succession of jobs
with different organizations, working on agricultural projects in some pretty
exciting places in Ethiopia and Somalia and so on. And I remember these
amazing trips to go and see him in places like eastern Ethiopia in the
highlands or down in the desert, and, you know, this only fueled the fire. I
just thought, `I really want to get here rather than be stuck in some school
in a nasty, little, rainy island like England.' But it meant a great deal of
absence, and the absence sort of continued until I was an adult and could get
back and work as a reporter in his footsteps in the sense that he had gone to
all of these amazing, remote, rugged, wild places.
BOGAEV: Well, shortly before he died, your father said to you, `We should
never have come.' So what was the context of that statement, and what was he
really saying to you? Was he referring beyond himself to generations of your
family who had pursued careers abroad and partaken in colonialism?
Mr. HARTLEY: My father, when he went out to East Africa, was part of a
system, but I think that during his life he, because of his own individual
experience, comes to draw his own conclusions about the system in which he
lives. And he felt that the system that he had been employed by had made some
dreadful mistakes. And at one point he describes this.
He told me the story which I describe, which is that he had gone out, and he
was on this project to resettle a group of people. And he was going into an
area of western now Tanzania on the southern shores of Lake Victoria to
resettle people, and he was trying to go and identify some land. And he went
into this village, where he did something; he shot two impala antelope, and
this seemed to be some seminal event which had been predicted by the people of
the village. And this sort of rather, you know, lurid story he tells of how
they brought him into the village, and they began to dance, and they told him
that he had fulfilled something that had been predicted. And he went off and
later walked out of that village. And several days later he suffered a
nightmare in which he saw a shadowy figure at the end of his bed that, in some
way, pursued him or threatened him, but made him feel that he should pursue or
attack it. And through the years he would jump out of high windows. During
some period of insecurity in Kenya when everybody was armed, he fired off
pistols into the ceiling, pretty mad stuff. And this went on for years and
I think that there were times when he felt that our presence in East Africa
had just basically, you know, torn the curtain in the temple, had destroyed
and despoiled something that was beautiful. Of course, it was a romantic
view, and it was something that he, nevertheless, had been able to observe
through his life because the Africa that he saw when he first arrived in the
1920s--he was very old when he had me--was a place that environmentally was
not despoiled, where society was living with a pretty, you know, predatory
nature and environment but had nevertheless an organization and a society that
had existed for many, many years without outside intervention quite well.
And the 20th century was an extraordinarily traumatic time for Africa when
societies were destroyed, when the environment was despoiled, when completely
alien ideas were introduced, when Africa was sort of wrenched out of the
existence that it had led for centuries and sort of just plugged into the
international economy, much against its will very often. And at the end of
it, it was supposed to benefit from this whole process of wrenching out of its
sort of sleep and being made part of the international community. But what he
had seen in 30 years of independence in Africa, since the end of colonialism,
was nothing but dictatorship and suffering and neocolonialism and sort of
dreadful happenings. And so I think he felt pretty disappointed at the end of
his life with what had happened.
But in rejoinder to what he says, `We should never have come,' I say to him,
`But, you know, we stayed here.' And the point is that, I think, one of the
reasons why I admire my father very greatly is because he stayed on. There
were lots of other people who just left, or they left after their contracts
ended, or they left because they just gave up hope in Africa. And so, you
know, I think that the life of my father described in the book is one that I
write with a great deal of admiration because he bore witness and he stuck it
out. And that is something that I'm trying to copy.
BOGAEV: You're no longer a war reporter. You live in Kenya with your wife
and your children. What are you doing professionally?
Mr. HARTLEY: Well, it took a long time to write this book, six years, and I
spent a lot of time doing that until recently. I do some journalism but of a
very different kind. I have a column in the magazine Spectator. And I also
farm. And I think at the end of this long experience of covering troubles, I
now live in rural Africa where I get to meet the sort of local notables and
the police chief and the local chief and the various cattle traders and so on.
And it's a very redemptive experience for me because it proves to me that I
can live in this place that I love and be a part of it, and I don't have to go
around sniffing out bad news and getting depressed by it all the time.
And the place where I live has many problems. I can see people who are so
poor that they suffer malnutrition almost from my front window every year
during the dry season. But at the same time I live as part of the fabric of
society in Kenya, as I never did when I was living in the city and, you know,
belting out news on what presidents say and what the UN says. And so I find
it a lot more of an enriching experience. I mean, I'm sort of in the trenches
of trying to make the economy of Kenya work from ground level as a farmer with
cattle and sheep and some organic honey and so on.
BOGAEV: In your opinion, what does the United States not get about promoting
democracy in Africa?
Mr. HARTLEY: I think the time that it will take to achieve. I feel sorry and
full of admiration for the people who have to go and deploy in countries and
be shot at and so on. I think that I don't subscribe to any of the sort of
anti-Americanism that a lot of Europeans do in just taking an opportunistic
potshot at the Americans just because they either do do something or they
don't do something. But I think that for the Americans it's something that
they feel uncomfortable with because they don't want to have an empire. It
goes against what your Founding Fathers prescribed for your nation, and I can
quite understand that.
But at the same time there has to be a long-term policy, which is a coherent
one. And it's not about just grabbing Bush a few votes here and there. It's
about the fact that you can't have, which is what is in existence at the
moment, a policy whereby you just sort of transport the harvest of grain from
somewhere like Nebraska and just dump it on Africa and call that a policy.
And you can't do it by short-term military interventions that don't set up an
administration that can take root. And, I mean, no one's saying that it's
easy. It's unbelievably difficult. But we are in here for the long haul, and
that's talking about three decades, not two years or three years.
BOGAEV: Aidan Hartley, thank you so much for talking with me today. It was
Mr. HARTLEY: Thank you very much, Barbara.
BOGAEV: Aidan Hartley is the author of a memoir, "The Zanzibar Chest."
Coming up, a review of two new DVDs of cartoon series. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: DVD box sets of the first season of "Rocky & Bullwinkle
& Friends" and the third season of "The Simpsons"
BARBARA BOGAEV, host:
Two of the most durable and influential prime-time cartoon series in TV
history are now compiled in new DVD box sets. This week Sony released the
complete first season of "Rocky & Bullwinkle & Friends." Later this month Fox
Home Entertainment presents the complete third season of "The Simpsons." TV
critic David Bianculli heartily endorses them both.
(Soundbite of "Rocky & Bullwinkle & Friends")
"ROCKY": And now...
"BULLWINKLE": Hey, Rocky, watch me pull a rabbit out of my hat.
"BULLWINKLE": Nothing up my sleeve. Presto! No doubt about it, I got to get
"ROCKY": Now here's something we hope you'll really like.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVID BIANCULLI reporting:
Matt Groening, who created "The Simpsons," used to watch "Rocky & Bullwinkle"
as a kid. He loved it but noticed that his dad loved it, too, and laughed in
spots where Matt couldn't figure out why. That's because Jay Ward's "Rocky &
Bullwinkle" was aimed at adults as well as kids and contained lots of jokes
and especially bad puns that no grade school kid could be expected to get.
The show's chief villain was a Cold War spy named Boris Badenov. I think I
was in my 20s before I discovered that his name was a play on an opera, "Boris
Other jokes were a bit less obscure but no less clever, like the tiny
jewel-encrusted toy boat called the Ruby Yacht of Omar Khayyam or the lion
tamer whose name, instead of Clyde Beatty, was Claude Badly, or the time when
Bullwinkle, the talking moose, after having collected a wheelbarrow full of
cereal box tops, wheeled them into a bank where he's suspected of
(Soundbite of "Rocky & Bullwinkle & Friends")
"ROCKY": Could we have a little service, please?
Unidentified Banker: Why, yes, certainly, sir. Arbigast(ph), call the
police, the FBI, my wife.
"BULLWINKLE": I'd like to start a box top account with your bank.
Unidentified Banker: Why, yes, sir. What kind? Just checking?
"BULLWINKLE": No, I really mean it.
BIANCULLI: If you're old enough to remember when box tops could be redeemed
for prizes, then you probably remember and treasure all the wonderful elements
of this series. If not, you're in for a very twisted treat. There's Mr.
Peabody, the time-traveling dog, and his pet boy, Sherman; Edward Everret
Horton narrating fractured fairy tales; Dudley Do-Right of the Canadian
Mounties and so on.
Jay Ward launched "Rocky and His Friends" as a late-afternoon cartoon series
for ABC in 1959. Two years later it moved to prime time on NBC and was
retitled "The Bullwinkle Show." This DVD set for continuity purposes presents
both series under the same umbrella title, "Rocky & Bullwinkle & Friends."
But what's being released this week, for the first time in almost half a
century, is the complete first season of "Rocky and His Friends." The
animation is crude, but the jokes are sharp. And it's very clear to see where
"The Simpsons" came from.
"The Simpsons," of course, doesn't need any sales pitch from me or anybody
else. The releases of its first two seasons are the best-selling DVD sets in
history, and pre-orders for season three make it three in a row. On DVD, "The
Simpsons" would be worth buying even if it didn't offer any extras. But the
alternate audio commentary on many of these episodes is just as much fun as
the shows themselves. Listen to the large cast of characters crammed into the
recording booth to comment on one episode here and how quickly they get into
the funny spirit of the thing.
(Soundbite of "The Simpsons")
Chorus: (Singing) The Simpsons.
Mr. RICH MOORE: Hello. My name is Rich Moore. I'm the director of this
episode, which is titled "Stark Raving Dad."
Mr. DAVID SILVERMAN: This is David Silverman, supervising director.
Ms. JULIE KAVNER: Hello. I'm Julie Kavner. And this is one of my favorite,
Mr. DAN CASTELLANETA: This is Dan Castellaneta, voice of Homer and others.
Mr. MATT GROENING: This is Matt Groening.
Mr. AL JEAN: Hi. Al Jean. I was one of the show runners and one of the
writers of this episode.
Mr. JIM BROOKS: Hi. This is Jim Brooks. And would we all agree that at the
time, given everything, this was the biggest guest star in the show's history?
Mr. SILVERMAN: Yeah.
Mr. GROENING: Absolutely.
Mr. JEAN: Oh definitely.
Mr. CASTELLANETA: Absolutely.
Mr. MOORE: Yeah.
Mr. JEAN: What I remember was Michael Jackson had said he wanted to do the
show. So Jim...
Mr. SILVERMAN: He called up. First of all, you got to realize that you
actually had Michael Jackson on the phone. I mean, it was true.
Mr. GROENING: I was working in the office by myself late one night, and the
phone rang. `Hi. It's Michael Jackson.' And I couldn't believe. And,
really, it was a back-and-forth for about a minute before I would finally
believe that it was actually Michael Jackson.
Mr. BROOKS: OK, OK. It's this many years later. `Hi. I'm Michael Jackson.'
Mr. GROENING: Oh, no!
Mr. BROOKS: Got you.
Mr. GROENING: Jim Brooks.
BIANCULLI: "The Simpsons'" third season is beautifully packaged, loaded with
extras and offers 24 episodes' worth of one of TV's best and funniest cartoon
comedies. It's another great example why DVD players and DVD box sets are
selling so quickly.
The sales figures for the "Rocky & Bullwinkle" set won't be quite so
astounding, but they should be. "Rocky & Bullwinkle" and "The Simpsons" are
the best of their genre and deserve to be sitting next to each other on the
same home video shelf. That's where they are on mine and, I suspect, on Matt
BOGAEV: David Bianculli is TV critic for the New York Daily News.
(Soundbite of music)
Ms. NANCY CARTWRIGHT: (Singing as Bart Simpson) Yo. Hey, what's happening,
dude? I'm a guy with a rep for being rude, terrorizing people wherever I go.
It's not intentional. Just keeping the flow. Fixing test scores to get the
best scores, dropping banana peels all over the floor, I'm the kid that made
delinquency an art. Last name Simpson, first name Bart. I'm here today to
introduce the next phase. The next step is the big Bart craze. I got a dance
real easy to do. I learned it with no rhythm and so can you. Ooh! So move
your body if you got the notion, front to back in a rocklike motion. Now
that you got it...
BOGAEV: Coming up, we revisit an issue raised last week about truth in memoir
writing. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Commentary: Debate over responsibilities of a memoirist
BARBARA BOGAEV, host:
We're taking a few minutes now to follow up on an issue that arose on our show
last week. When you read a memoir, do you assume that everything in the book
has really happened, or do you expect that the writer has taken certain
artistic liberties? Our book critic Maureen Corrigan talked about this
question last week when, instead of reviewing a new book, she discussed her
reaction to a new controversy about the author of the revered memoir "Fierce
Attachments." Vivian Gornick's 1987 memoir is about her relationship with her
Two weeks ago Gornick spoke at Goucher College to students in a masters
program for creative nonfiction. Many of these students are already
professional writers. Gornick explained that some of her writing did not
describe events exactly as they actually happened. She said she had composed
some scenes and conversations in the memoir and that some scenes were
composites of two or more incidents.
After reading an article in Salon magazine about Gornick's seminar, Maureen
said that Gornick broke the autobiographer's pledge to tell the truth.
Maureen also said that she hadn't been this disheartened since historian Doris
Kearns Goodwin was accused of plagiarism or Benjamin Wilkomirski's Holocaust
memoir was revealed to be a fraud.
Vivian Gornick asked us if she could respond with her point of view about the
responsibilities of the memoirist. She called us from Yaddo, the artist
colony in upstate New York.
Ms. VIVIAN GORNICK (Memoirist): A memoir is a story taken directly from the
raw material of a writer's own life and shaped into a piece of experience that
can hold meaning for the disinterested reader. What actually happened is only
material. What the writer makes of what happened is everything. To state the
case briefly, memoirs belong to the category of literature, not of journalism.
It is a misunderstanding to read a memoir as though the writer owes the reader
the same record of factual accuracy that is owed in newspaper reporting or in
literary journalism. What is owed is only the ability to persuade that the
narrator is honestly trying to get to the bottom of the experience at hand.
Two weeks ago I spoke about memoir writing at Goucher College before a group
of writing program students and their teachers. At a question-and-answer
period afterward, I was bombarded with questions that had more to do with the
literal actuality of the events behind my own memoir than with any of the
writing questions I had assumed the talk would generate. In the course of
responding to these questions, I casually said what I had said many times
before: that on a few occasions in the book I made a composite out of the
elements of two or more incidents, none of which had been fabricated, for the
purpose of moving the narrative forward.
These words were taken as a confession on my part, and a student in the
audience rushed off to send the scandalous news to Salon magazine, whereupon
FRESH AIR's book critic subsequently denounced me on this program, comparing
me with those other liars, Benjamin Wilkomirski, Doris Goodwin and Jayson
The giveaway here is this trio of names. I, a memoirist, who
composed--composed, mind you, not invented--a narrative drawn entirely from my
own experience and being compared to a psychopath, a plagiarizing historian
and a dishonest newspaper reporter. These wildly inappropriate analogies
demonstrate, sadly, that memoir writing is a genre still in need of an
BOGAEV: Vivian Gornick is the author of "Fierce Attachments" and "The
Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative." She was responding
to a commentary by our book critic, Maureen Corrigan. We asked Maureen to
give her reaction.
Gornick and I are in agreement that the person who writes the autobiography is
not the same as the person who lives the life and that memoirs are works of
literature. I said so last Tuesday. Where we disagree is on the issue of
responsibility, specifically the responsibility a seemingly conventional
memoir like hers has to its readers. Each and every autobiography instructs
its readers on how to read it. Many famous autobiographies, like Mary
McCarthy's "Memories of a Catholic Girlhood" and Gertrude Stein's
"Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas" intermingle fact and fiction, condense
scenes, play with chronology or otherwise acknowledge the indeterminacy of
absolute truth that thinkers from Freud to Foucault have taught us is a
defining condition of modernity.
These autobiographies are explicit about their indirect efforts to capture
experience on the page. Other autobiographies include a prefatory note
stating that some scenes or characters have been fictionalized. But when the
writer of a memoir or an autobiography doesn't provide one of these ambivalent
signals, readers tend to take her at her word. They assume she's forged her
art out of a good-faith accounting of her life as she honestly understood and
Yes, what the writer makes of what happened, as Gornick says, will determine a
work's power as art. Thus, even a memoir found to be wholly fictitious can
stand as an artistic creation. But the truth always imperfectly evoked
attaches readers to other lives actually lived across barriers of time and
space, race and gender and attaches the writer to the genre's ancestral
origins and Augustine's and Rousseau's outsized efforts to however impossibly
wholly know themselves.
In its' steely unattainability, the truth demands either an acknowledgement
from the autobiographer that it will be playfully deconstructed or a utopian
determination to get it right, even if inevitably it turns out to be somewhat
wrong. It adds insult to injury to be told by the autobiographer in question
that in accepting the conventional autobiographical contract that the writer
is indeed trying to write the truth, you as the reader are a dope.
BOGAEV: Maureen Corrigan teaches at Georgetown University.
BOGAEV: For Terry Gross, I'm Barbara Bogaev.
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