John McCarthy: Captivity, Fame and Surviving Freedom, EIBF 2012, Review

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Edinburgh International Book Festival
John McCarthy, John Little (chair)
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John McCarthy was introduced by Allan Little for this inaugural Frederick Hood Memorial Lecture.  It was also the concluding event of a most successful Edinburgh International Book Festival.

It was explained that Frederick Hood had been a young Edinburgh-based investment manager with Walter Scott and Partners Limited, who was killed in an avalanche in Austria three years ago. He had been an inspiration to everyone who knew him and this lecture has been endowed by Walter Scott and Partners Limited as a tribute and the concluding event of the International Book Festival.

Allan Little said that John McCarthy would be well known to the audience as a journalist and from appearing on television and Radio 4. Of course, after his kidnapping and time as a hostage in the Lebanon, he really had celebrity status thrust upon him when he returned after spending five years as a hostage.

John McCarthy began by paying his own tribute to Frederick Hood, whom he described as a truly remarkable young man.  He said that he was not much older than Frederick Hood when he was kidnapped in the Lebanon.   

He had been there for a year gathering information for a television programme with some Lebanese colleagues.   It was a quiet period in the war, but there had been a spate of kidnapping of Westerners so he had decided to leave and spend some time back in Britain.

He was driving to the airport when a car behind them suddenly overtook and screeched to a stop in front of them, blocking the road. He was dragged out of his car and thrown into the back of the other vehicle by a tall young man with a beard.

After a short while he was transferred to another car and driven for miles locked in the boot.

Eventually he was taken from the car and pushed into a room which was rather like a large safe. There he was blindfolded and never saw his kidnappers again as he was always kept blindfolded. 

He shared his cell with five others, Terry Waite, Brian Keenan and three American hostages.

The whole experience, McCarthy said, was terrifying and very unhealthy as they were cooped up in an extremely small room. He felt out of his depth and was wishing he could be at home.

They could hear other prisoners being beaten and screaming in pain. One poor individual received what seemed to be a lot of punishment. One day the beatings rose to a crescendo and ended with a shot. He had been killed. They could then hear the guards making their way out of the cell block area.

This dreadful incident led him to reflect on his own life - he came from a good family and had had a good education, he felt he had potential and desperately wanted to be able to fulfil this desire and ambition. This is just, McCarthy said, how Frederick Hood's family must have felt when he was killed.

McCarthy said the one thing that kept him sane was the company of Brian Keenan for some four years. Although they were always blindfolded they talked together for hours on end trying to understand each other, as they came from very different backgrounds.

Keenan came from Belfast and spoke like Gerry Adams with a strong Belfast accent; it was so strong that sometimes McCarthy could not understand him! McCarthy said he told Keenan one day, "for  goodness sake stop talking like Gerry Adams." Keenam replied, "OK I'll stop talking like Gerry Adams if you stop talking like Prince Charles!"

Going back to describe their conditions McCarthy said he did not see sunshine for five years and really struggled to keep going.  Very occasionally they received some tiny piece of information or a bit of news.   This was generally on a birthday or a special festive day for the captors.

He heard mention of the "Friends of John McCarthy" but had no idea what this was and what it was doing, or that his girlfriend Jill Morrell had organised it to put pressure on his captors and the British Government.

McCarthy spent many hours talking to Brian Keenan and they explored every facet of their beliefs and make up. It was therefore a shock when Keenan was released, but obviously McCarthy was delighted for him although he missed his company.

Eventually he was released himself and taken by the Syrian military to Damascus.   He found this experience extremely strange as he had forgotten about perspective - he had been blindfolded for almost five years.

Things had changed at home, he found his mother had died and he found it difficult to adjust to being a celebrity.   Life went on, however, but sadly his father and brother died.

In due course he married and became a father which added a new dimension to his life.

In conclusion he recalled going to Belfast not long after his release and being looked at very strangely by his taxi driver. This went on for some time until the driver eventually said, "shouldn't you be in the boot!"

Allan Little then invited Frederick Hood's father on to the platform who spoke very eloquently about his very talented son and thanked John McCarthy for a most stimulating lecture - which indeed it was.