Memoirs by foreign correspondents are ten a penny. But what about their husbands and wives?by Edward Lucas / July 28, 2007 / Leave a comment
Are we there Yet? Travels with my Frontline Family by Rosie Whitehouse (Published by www.reportagepress.com, £8.99)
Foreign correspondents write two kinds of books. There are sententious ones about the earth-shaking events that they have “witnessed” or “covered” (never merely “seen”). And, occasionally, there are amusing ones about the dark secrets of their trade. “Anyone Here Been Raped and Speaks English?” by the recently deceased Edward Behr was the best of the latter.
Rosie Whitehouse’s chronicle of her family’s Balkan odyssey in the 1990s adds a new category to the genre: the tales of a foreign correspondent’s spouse. In a different life, she could have been the reporter, dragging a dutiful househusband beside her. A former journalist herself, she has all the qualities needed to be a stalwart of the foreign desk: she is gutsy, polyglot and a good wordsmith. Instead, she follows her husband Tim Judah, the freelance Balkan correspondent for a bunch of British and American publications, to grim post-Ceau?escu Romania, the mayhem of Milosevic-era Serbia, and many points in between.
The real-life flavour will be appreciated by anyone who knows the Balkan region—and is exactly what is missing from the sterile accounts of high politics and the clichés of war journalism. Whitehouse’s children noticed that Yugoslavia’s economy, even in wartime, was more advanced than Romania’s, because you could buy fish fingers there. Her capacity for slapstick humour is commendable: warming the pouches of frozen baby milk in her knickers is particularly memorable. Sometimes the raw honesty jars: it is clear that she loves her husband deeply; we don’t need to know that they made love on a balcony in order not to wake the children.
Whitehouse enjoys some wince-making asides about her self-absorbed counterparts in the well-padded world of diplomatic spouses. Salaried expats, with their health insurance, evacuation plans, embassy commissariats and generous paid leave can seem like a different species to struggling freelances living hand to mouth. Less fairly, she bashes her husband’s employers. Why don’t freelances have better training, security and back-up? she asks. The truth is that freelancing is one of the last bastions of journalistic freedom, for both sides, and any attempt to regulate it would be a disaster. The freedom to pick up a pen and start writing, even for pennies, is worth cherishing.
Whitehouse’s emerging realisation about the unfamiliar identity that she has married into (Judah’s family are French Jews, with German connections) are thought-provoking. On a trip to France, her children instantly understand the connection between Jean-Marie Le Pen’s xenophobia and the racism and bigotry they have seen in the Balkans. She begins to examine her own Irish roots more deeply as a result.
Anyone thinking of being a foreign correspondent should buy this book. Anyone thinking of marrying one should read it twice. And anyone thinking of writing something similar should think again.