Me by Martin Patience
BBC Middle East Correspondent Martin Patience (MA 2002) is normally to be found reporting from some of the world’s most conflict-ridden regions, but the pandemic reduced his global wanderings to a minimum. Avenue caught up with him as he made a visit home to Glasgow.
You’ve lived in several different cities in your career, many of which have a reputation for unrest and violence. What attracts you to working in places like these?
It’s definitely not the violence and unrest! They’re often beautiful places, with a rich cultural heritage – Afghanistan, Beirut, Damascus – but they're also places going through great change. As a journalist, it's that change that fascinates you. You see societies at their very best but also their worst, and that can be incredibly compelling. It throws up remarkable stories of people's resilience.
You’re currently living in Beirut. What stories from Lebanon do you feel it’s important to tell?
Lebanon has been in the headlines more over the past year or so than perhaps the last decade. First of all, there was the economic collapse of the country, which is ongoing. Then of course there was the Beirut blast. I think, with or without the pandemic, Lebanon would be facing serious problems. It’s got a long, hard decade ahead of it.
"You have to have curiosity to be an investigative reporter – to always be asking questions. You need the ability to analyse the situation too, but I think it always comes back to people – people with compelling stories.
Which story are you most proud of having covered?
It's probably the Boko Haram insurgency in North-East Nigeria, because that wasn't getting very much coverage. I felt that if I hadn't prioritised that story as a BBC correspondent, it wouldn’t really have been reported, so I at least tried to put it on the radar.
Your work can be risky and dangerous – how do you rationalise it to yourself and your family?
I do go into dangerous places, but I certainly don't take excessive risks. I think it's important for journalists to go into these places to see what’s going on, in order to report it back to the rest of the world. It’s just part of the job.
You often report on harrowing and upsetting subjects. How do you cope with that?
I’ve seen a fair amount of trauma and it's very difficult – long term, it does take its toll. Some of my colleagues are fine; others aren't, to be honest. For me it's got harder since having a son; when you see children dying in front of you, it's not easy. If it doesn't have an impact on you then I think something is wrong. It changes you; of course it does. But I think you just have to always be thankful for what you have.
Which story that you’ve covered has left the biggest impact on you and why?
Probably the Afghanistan conflict. I was there for two years, and it's the most beautiful country I've ever lived in. But even back here we're still living with the legacy of the conflict. As you walk through the streets of London and Glasgow, you see homeless people, a lot of whom will have been soldiers who fought in Afghanistan and Iraq. That's the legacy here.
You’ve described yourself as “a wandering Scot who will one day return home”. When do you see that happening?
It’s great to have lived in different countries, but my son is growing up and I think giving your kids a sense of place is very important. We’ll have to make a big decision soon about whether it's Scotland or America – my wife is American Bangladeshi. If it is America, well, once he's grown up, I'm coming home.
"The thing I miss most about Scotland is the landscape. I also miss the damp air, the tablet, fish and chips and the humour. It's amazing living all around the world, but it's not home – Glasgow is home.
What do you like to do with your time off from reporting?
I read a lot, and I like going to the cinema or taking my son out for a bike ride. Sometimes we go away for weekends in Lebanon up into the mountains. It’s lovely to get away from the heat. I love nature, and just getting away from it all.
What is your most treasured possession?
My grandfather's books. He was a headmaster and it’s a set of leatherbound Charles Dickens books. I haven’t actually got them yet, but Mum’s earmarked them for me because I’m the reader. He died when I was three, so I never really knew him, but people say I’m the most like him out of all our family members.
What always lifts your mood?
A walk along the Corniche in Beirut – you see the whole strata of Lebanese and Syrian people there. I walk for about half an hour and there's a little tea shop where I sit, have my cup of tea with mint in it and look out on the Mediterranean. It's magic.
Where’s your favourite place in the world?
The most beautiful place I've ever been was the Himalayas. I've done a couple of treks, one up to Everest basecamp, another called the Annapurna Circuit, and it was just magnificent. I felt like a mouse in a cathedral – the size and scale of the mountains was awe-inspiring.
What is the most-played podcast in your earphones?
I'm a sucker for Desert Island Discs. What I love hearing about is not people's successes, but their formative experiences – what motivated them as a kid, or why their life went off on a different track. Often what I've found with remarkable success is that there’s been a tragedy there, a real tragedy.
How would you spend the perfect day?
A beautiful house, big windows overlooking the sea. After breakfast, we’d pack up sandwiches and head off to a beach. It would be empty, and a glorious day with no rain. We’d spend a few hours on the beach, my son would make sandcastles and then we'd head back, maybe stop somewhere for a spot of dinner. Put the wee fella to bed and then maybe watch a good film or some Netflix. Actually, I think I did it with the family, on holiday on the west coast of Scotland.
Memories of Glasgow
I was a pretty conscientious student. I would put in my four or five hours a day, which was a lot more than some of my fellow students! I just realised, “When am I ever going to get the time again to just sit and read books for three or four years?”
I loved the quads. I had English Lit there, in room 666, up a spiral staircase, and the whole building was remarkable. Glasgow is stunning – I think it's the most beautiful university campus I've seen.
I realised pretty early on that I wanted to be a journalist, and I saw history as complementing journalism because I think the skills you learn – the ability to write, marshal the facts for an argument and tell a story – are relevant to journalism.
I’ve always loved trying to understand how we arrived at the present and obviously that means studying the past. It’s that curiosity about the world – what makes people and countries interesting is their histories and how they develop.
Working for the Glasgow University Guardian changed my life. I was very fortunate to win student journalist of the year and got a placement at the Glasgow Herald off the back of that; then I went to Columbia University in the States, and they gave me a scholarship to study Arabic in Syria. So it was transformative.
Martin’s future ambitions include doing bigger and better investigations, more documentaries and more long-form work. He'd also like to do more writing and hopes that his first thriller will be published, ‘The Plot Against Scotland’, set against the backdrop of a second Scottish referendum.
This article was first published April 2021.