For Whom The Bell Tolls –
Light and Dark Verse
By Martin Bell
Icon Books – £9.99
Best known for his regal reportage from around the world, Martin Bell is the personification of considered calm. As a BBC reporter he has covered assignments in no less than eighty countries – which when you think about it, really is quite something in itself – and eleven wars, including Vietnam, Nigeria, Angola, Nicaragua, the Gulf and Bosnia (where as millions watched, he was wounded by shrapnel).
For Whom The Bell Tolls – Light and Dark Verse reveals an altogether different side to Bell the reporter; a side that must surely lurk just beneath the surface of many a war correspondent and reporter of strife. The difference herein being, he’s actually put (occasional poignant) pen to paper, thus revealing his thoughts on a variety of misfit notions and acts of abominable behaviour.
From an all-consuming media to duplicitous politicians to the curse of celebrity culture, these 154 poems traipse a thin line betwixt that of trenchant satire and an almost forgotten humanity – perhaps the most perfect example of which is ‘Haiti’:
Of course they show concern and sympathy;
Compassion is part of their stock in trade.
They will impress with their sincerity,
And if they can fake that, they’ve got it made
In such a scene a journalist at large
Once wrote a script that was a pack of lies;
The judges called it vivid reportage,
And then awarded him their highest prize.
With media reputations to be made,
Some would prefer the rescuers to fail;
Bad news is a commodity for sale,
And journalism is the cruellest trade.
I remember when the devastating earthquake hit ‘’the poorest country in the hemisphere’’ in January 2010, and I also remember the inevitable swarm of the world’s media descending on the country – all too late to save yet all too early to truly, truly care. A dire cacophony of a situation, which, as Bell concisely writes, evolved into nothing other than ‘’a commodity for sale.’
And while said cacophony of death was measured in the appalling screams of far too many orphaned children, England continued its vile lap-dance of venal vacuity; that again, Bell has captured all too well in ‘Cheryl’:
I see the nation is entranced by Cheryl
And ask, is she a singer or an actress?
A princess, patron saint or benefactress?
A businesswoman, owning many factories?
An editor perhaps or a redactress?
And am I ignorant of her at my peril?
Like music, verse and poetry is one of the few mediums that can connect both immediately and succinctly – which so many of these poems clarify. From ‘Vukovar’ to ‘Holiday in Sarajevo,’ from ‘New Labour’ to ‘Absurdistan,’ For Whom The Bell Tolls is a brave and altogether candid collection of verse from one of Britain’s finest news reporters.