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Is the story all there is?

May 10, 2012

James Mossman

James Mossman, Rebels in Paradise, 1961
Nicholas Wright, The Reporter, 2007

A former MI6 agent becomes a brilliant journalist and film maker, famed for his aggressive interviewing style on Panorama, the BBC current affairs program. In mid-career he kills himself, leaving a note: ‘I can’t bear it any more, though I don’t know what “it” is.’

I discovered James Mossman while researching Indonesia’s civil war (1958 to 1961). Mossman covered the conflict, and wrote a book about it: Rebels in Paradise. He wasn’t content to stay in Jakarta attending Sukarno’s press conferences. Instead he made his way through Sumatra to link up with the rebel forces and report on the government’s invasion of rebel territory. The book is lively, insightful and often funny.

He also reported from Saigon, and was deeply affected by what he saw there. Later, in a Panorama interview, he attacked British Prime Minister Harold Wilson for supporting America on Vietnam. This, plus another interview in which he questioned the Prime Minister of Singapore about human rights abuses, resulted in his transfer to arts programs. Listen to his Vladimir Nabokov interview here – the meeting of two remarkable minds.

Mossman was a handsome, charismatic man who made a deep impression on those who knew him. When Nicholas Wright was writing The Reporter, a play about Mossman, he spoke to Mossman’s friends and colleagues: “Many described his passion for truth, but he also emerged as a raconteur whose stories were packed with exaggerations.” Young researchers at the BBC “couldn’t talk highly enough of the way he brought them on.” But the most common factor, according to Wright, was a sense of distance. “He was different from the rest of us … There was a shell that one couldn’t penetrate.”

Nicholas Wright’s play is a detective story that asks, “What is ‘it’ in the suicide note?” The play begins with Mossman in his house in Norfolk in 1971, holding the note, wondering what “it” is. We then travel back: the trauma of Saigon; Mossman’s lover Louis Hanssen, who died in 1968 of an accidental overdose; the Panorama interviews; film-making in San Francisco; and his intense friendship with the novelist Rosamond Lehmann.

[Spoiler alert!] In the end the search for “it” is abandoned by the fictionalised Mossman. “Was this just another spy story, one where layer after layer is stripped away in search of the truth, only to reveal a question that can never be answered? … Or are the layers the true reality? Is the centre empty? Is the story all there is?”

In his Seymour Biography Lecture, Robert Dessaix (see previous post – link here) reaches a similar conclusion: “A well-told story of a life spirals like coils of smoke around an emptiness, giving shape to that void.” Story-telling is a way to “stave off nothingness.”

Is the story all there is?

[Note: I purchased the text of The Reporter through Abebooks, and have not seen the play itself. Rebels in Paradise is also available through Abebooks.]

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