Friday, 29 January 2010

The Hostage Handbook - Anthony Grey

I have written a feature for Let's Talk magazine's March issue about Anthony Grey's new book The Hostage Handbook Also posted feature below

The Hostage Handbook

Anthony Grey cut his journalistic teeth on the EDP in the early 1960s, before heading behind The Iron Curtain as a Reuters correspondent, covering The Cold War in East Berlin, Prague, Warsaw, Bucharest, Budapest and Sofia. He went further east in March 1967 as the only UK correspondent in China at the height of the Cultural Revolution. But Anthony soon fell foul of worsening diplomatic relations between Britain and China, was imprisoned by The Red Guards for more than two years in a tiny slogan daubed room in his house, and became the first modern western hostage.

During his confinement Anthony managed to keep a secret diary, composed in shorthand, chronicling the day-to-day psychological battle to survive in his 8ft by 8ft prison. He also managed to write a series of short stories and created crosswords, playing a vital part in his ongoing struggle.
Following his release in October 1969, he wrote Hostage in Peking in six weeks. "Everything was so fresh in my mind then, that I scarcely needed to refer to the diaries in writing the book. I did quote from the text of the entries in a few places to add immediacy to the story," explained Anthony.
Hostage in Peking was published in seven countries and sold well, fuelled by the international publicity surrounding his experiences in China. The short stories appeared as A Man Alone, republished in 2008 as What is the Universe In? and were soon followed into print by the crosswords.
The diary was eventually transcribed in 1971 and placed in a deed box and deposited at Anthony’s bank. Meanwhile he developed his writing career, initially producing espionage thrillers, before embarking on a series of historical novels in the 1980s and early 1990s. Saigon, Anthony’s flagship novel, has sold an estimated 1.5 million copies worldwide in nine languages and 15 countries. The San Francisco Chronicle described it as ‘The War and Peace of our age’.
He came home to Norwich in the late 1990s and launched The Tagman Press, a publishing imprint focussing on books that challenge convention. The writings of the exiled Iranian Dr Fereydoon Batmanghelidj, including the best-selling Your Body’s Many Cries for Water, became Tagman’s lead publications. Then a merger in 2006 with the CLE Print Group in St Ives, Cambridgeshire, gave Anthony the opportunity to republish his novels under The Tagman banner.
His thoughts turned to the original diary. "I hoarded the secret shorthand diaries like a miser in the deed box at my bank. I always felt instinctively they might be of value one day if they were transcribed into an entire book."
Publishing the diaries has not been an easy experience for Anthony. The project has taken three years to come to fruition. He added a commentary, interpreting his entries and agonised over the book’s value to a 21st century audience. Raking over his past led to periods of deep depression and Anthony was forced to seek professional help to confront his 40-year old Chinese demons.
"I always felt there might be some inspiration or insights in my diaries which readers would see – and above all I hoped with my added commentary that they might be found uplifting, despite the awfulness of two years in virtual solitary confinement. So at long last on the 40th anniversary of my release, they are finally in print….And it does feel good in a way I can’t define."
"It’s a bit like a second freedom for me too. The experience now feels like some kind of delayed action privilege – a great reminder to me and perhaps to readers too, about how precious is the freedom we often take for granted, and how greatly we should always appreciate and enjoy every second of it."
The Hostage Handbook is a remarkable publication. It is a gripping drama. You are with Anthony all the way as he wins his little victories over the guards – moments of great triumph and celebration. The joy of getting a fresh apple to eat, or the return of his cheque book, receiving post from home or being able to send cables or cards to the outside world.
Then there are moments of classic British understatement and humour and longing for sex and booze…and the plans and plans. Anthony made lots of plans to keep him going by the day, week and month. Trying to control his relationship with the guards, learn yoga, keep fit with a regular exercise regime, write his diary and short stories and compose the crosswords.
He often castigates himself for reading too much into slight changes of routine, thinking that his release was imminent. This plunged him into deep despair. Difficult meetings with British diplomats, allowed by the Chinese to check on his wellbeing, hugely frustrate both hostage and reader. But the order and the personal plans return – Anthony’s mechanism for coping with his very difficult circumstances.
Moments of great excitement, especially in the final months when conditions changed and Anthony was allowed out of his tiny cell to go upstairs to his study, are wonderfully uplifting. His radio works and he soon hears The Beatles new single Get Back and news about the American flight to The Moon.
These were the sounds of freedom, tantalisingly near and soon to be in his grasp. Anthony Grey’s survival teaches us to appreciate the senses of freedom – the walk along the beach, the trips to the pub, friends, family and laughter, autumn colours, sunrise and sunset. The rhythms of our lives that we should never take for granted.

The Hostage Handbook is published by The Tagman Press, price £12. Available online at, tel. 0845 6444 186. Also on sale at Jarrold’s Norwich and The Book Hive, London Street, Norwich.