John Snow: Journey with Maps

As Jon Snow hurried into the Savile Club’s lavish dining room for this English PEN event, having taxied over directly from another evening presenting the Channel 4 news, the correlation between Graham Greene and twenty-first century correspondence could not have been more apparent.

‘I come to you tonight fresh from the Graham Greene moment,’ said Snow. ‘News today involved: skulduggery, secrecy and spectacular collusion between the US and the UK over Guantanamo… a delightful moment of Graham Greene.’ It seems the intervening years since Greene’s heyday have done little to diminish his ubiquity: ‘I met him in Uganda, El Salvador, Mexico, South London and last week in Columbia… he is everywhere in correspondence. In a globalised world, Greene was a truly globalised writer.’

Snow’s affiliations with Greene do not end there. While the novelist famously worked for the MI6 during World War II – which clearly informed his work Our Man in Havana – Snow is not only able to lay claim to ancestral links with the Secret Service owing to the fact his grandfather Sir Thomas Snow helped to establish the Naval Intelligence Department, but also thanks to his own personal dealings with the SIS. He recounted a remarkable story of how, when on a trip to Ireland to report on an IRA siege, he contracted hepatitis from a water supply in a cow field. During his subsequent stay at an isolation hospital, he received a highly confidential letter – clearly labelled ‘strictly private’ – from her Majesty’s Service, which his flatmate had delivered. However, by the time it reached him, the letter had already been opened; curiosity had clearly got the better of his personal messenger. The letter read: ‘Dear Mr Snow, I’m engaged in some work I think you could help. Please ring or destroy and do not discuss its contents.’

This surprise offer led to a meeting at Horse Guards Parade, which Snow later discovered was a Secret Service headquarters. Acutely aware that this letter was his only evidence and fearful of the fact it was soon to be swiftly removed from his possession, he took it to Waterloo Station to duplicate on a platform photocopier. The move proved potentially disastrous as the letter first stuck, then started spewing reams of copies unexpectedly. ‘This very private information ran rapidly into threat of getting into public hands’, Snow explained. Thankfully, he managed to retrieve all traces of evidence and the copy remains a memory for Snow to this day. In the interim, it transpires that Snow was eventually offered a job in the security services but turned it down.

On a more personal level, Snow affectionately alluded to the fact that both his father and Greene’s were headmasters – incidentally, as Snow mentioned, ‘Greene writes beautifully of his experience of public school, the strange customs and inexplicable cruelties’ – and both were far from vertically challenged (Snow exceeds Greene’s 6′ 2″ by two inches). However, while Greene was a Catholic – although famously he loathed to be labelled ‘a Catholic writer’- Snow’s father was a bishop. He described the chapel as ‘a savage country’ and recalled how as a child he had been dragged there by his father when he had desperately wanted to stay at home and listen to ‘Children’s Hour’.

For all the striking parallels between Greene’s world of correspondence and contemporary journalism, there have been some, perhaps inevitable, changes which Greene may not have deemed for the better. The internet is one such phenomenon that, in Snow’s view, has created a barrier between the modern day and Greene’s personal relationship with writing and journalism. ‘The internet marks an extraordinary cross point; Greene would think it traumatic,’ said Snow. ‘There is more guilt, romance and opportunity than he could cope with.’

Today it is also becoming increasingly difficult for journalists to gain first-hand accounts, something that Snow experienced when he stood on the Wall of Shame – the very last point from which one could see what was happening in Gaza. ‘Of course, the Israelis had cut off capacity for journalists. It was just a catalogue of horror but you couldn’t see what was happening,’ he lamented. ‘You needed people where the action was. It’s an awful breakdown if you don’t witness, it opens the world to propagandists.’ He continued: ‘Nothing will result in life until people become engaged. For Greene the human factor was the true essence of global understanding and if we strip our witnesses we lose something critical.’

Report by Alexandra Masters

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