LS1 Interviews: foodie and former war writer, Bruce Palling
Currently a prolific food and wine blogger and a columnist for the Wall St Journal, Bruce Palling doesn’t think it is a contradiction that he started his career writing about wars and conflicts. A failed student facing jail for refusing to fight in Vietnam, aged 21, he made his first commentary on Western interventionism. Later, he went on to become a young journalist covering conflicts for the BBC World Service in Indochina, leaving with the last US helicopters from Phnom Penh in 1975.
Ellie Parkes spoke to Bruce about Mali, journalistic morality and what he would order for his last meal on earth.
What is your opinion on Western intervention in Mali?
My prejudice would be for Britain not to get involved. I certainly don’t approve of the idea of Westerners rushing in because I don’t think ultimately good comes out of it. You skew things around so much by having foreigners involved in local conflicts. I think it really is up to the people themselves to sort that issue out.
You’ve got to remember in these situations the Heisenberg law of uncertainty. In theory you cannot observe a scientific experiment without becoming part of it. That’s what happens when you have combat troops going into an area allegedly for good – no matter what the motives are, the mere presence of westerners in a remote, simple society totally changes the situation and makes it far, far worse.
Has the technological revolution been beneficial to modern coverage of conflicts?
Yes, I think it has. I think that is the reality now. We’re in a visual, wired-up world so everyone’s going to have a mobile phone that can take pictures, and often they give you raw material.
But there are occasions when people will walk away if they think that their presence creates a scene that is done for the sake of the cameras. I had a friend that refused to film the massacre of some Bengalis in Bangladesh because it was just done as a media event.
How did the morality of war journalism sit with you?
I remember once I was told by the International Red Cross in Phnom Penh just before the end of the war, that the Cambodian Army were using Red Cross vehicles to resupply troops at the front line. So, in other words, they weren’t going there to pick up bodies or wounded people but to take ammunition there. But I couldn’t write it because I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself if that meant that every time an ambulance turned up in a conflict like that they were shot at or killed. You have to be careful what you do with information because information can kill.
You have covered conflicts in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Afghanistan and Southern Africa – do all the places and conflicts sometimes seem to blur into one?
No, they were all very different. It’s not as cynical as that; it’s not just a voyeur thing. You do develop a political awareness of what’s going on, but it’s too easy to assume that what’s going on is Capitalism vs Communism, West vs East.
What do you think of the media’s representation of conflicts abroad?
They’ve often got an ethnic, racist or religious element that you can report on as accurately as you like, but even so you won’t necessarily change the reality on the ground of what people do to each other. After 40 years of doing journalism in various ways, I am suspicious of the idea of doing ‘good’. I just think it is so easy for people to think they are crusading for a just cause.
Are there any books about conflicts that you would recommend?
The two best books on Vietnam are Graham Greene’s The Quiet American and The Cat From Hué by John Laurence.
How did you make the transition from writing about wars and conflicts to food journalism?
I don’t think it is a contradiction to have made the transition from covering conflicts to writing about food, because I have always been obsessed with food and wine as a hobby.
In the style of a death row ‘last meal’, what would you order on your final day on earth?
Roast chicken or grouse and any good burgundy. I enjoy simple food that brings out the nuances of an excellent wine.
Which is your favourite restaurant in London?
The Ledbury in Nottinghill, run by my friend, Brett Graham.
In the world?
There is a wonderfully remote restaurant in Sweden called Faviken.
For more of Bruce Palling on food, fine wine and Michelin starred restaurants, read his mouth-watering blog, Gastroenphile.