— Ivan Rendall, first paragraph of the introduction, Reaching for the Skies, 1988.
Welcome to my Home Page.
This website is about me. I find writing about myself difficult. However, if you want to be a full-time writer, and I do, and you don’t have an on-line alter ego, then you are doomed to live in a literary limbo or you may already be stumbling towards the underworld.
Here goes. I’ve worked in television, radio, newspapers, magazines, and photography; I have written several books, including a few best-sellers, and I’ve written some poetry. I’ve interpreted people and events from warfare to live music and from homelessness to the Royal Family. I’ve worked for broadcasters and publishers and always tried to please their audiences and readers, in Britain and abroad. I’m sixty-seven. I want to be a full-time writer now because four decades of producing, narrating, writing and travelling has left me with a bucketful of ideas about where, why and how the world has changed and where, why and how many things have stayed the same.
My first brush with global change came in April 1962. I was fourteen and on a school exchange with a family in Berlin. The Berlin Wall had been built the previous August and I’d seen it from the West including the flowers and crude wooden crosses placed where people had been shot dead trying to escape from the East.
I also discovered from my German hosts that while they could not cross the wall, I could because I had a British passport. So I did, on a bus with other British and American visitors. I talked to carefully selected East Germans in schoolboy German. I took photographs of antiseptically clean East Berlin with its somewhat deserted streets which lacked the hedonism and urgent bustle of West Berlin. Back in the West, the bus driver took us via the ruins of the Reichstag and Hitler’s bunker where men were erecting a hoarding facing the East using six-foot high letters to spell out the difference between the two systems: “Freiheit Kennt Keine Mauer” (Freedom Knows No Wall).
That night I related the experience in a long letter to my parents. They were apoplectic, clearly believing I could have been whisked off to the gulag. However, for me, the trip across the walled city, “behind the Iron Curtain”, the gun-toting guards, Checkpoint Charlie, the piles of rubble and bombed out churches preserved to remember the dead of the Second World War, standing where Hitler had died, gave me a taste for getting close to the centre of historical, international events. I enjoyed the stark symbolism of competing political ideas cast in concrete; I enjoyed feeling the physical clash between tyranny and freedom.
I went back to Berlin in 1985 to make a film about the British army. I travelled in a sealed army train which stopped at every station for officials, guarded by huge Red Army soldiers, to inspect my papers. A year later, on a snowy night, I photographed the Russian human rights campaigner Anatoly Sharansky, and three Western spies, as they were swapped for Karl Koechner and four Eastern spies, reinforcing my sense that Berlin was a place where real history happened. However, I missed the main event: the destruction of the wall in 1989. I did not see the people hacking at the colourful graffiti while the guards looked on. It was the end of the Cold War and the beginning of a new age, of change, internationally, politically and economically. The difference between 1962 and 1989 was that I didn’t have to be there to believe it and understand it. I could watch it on television.
The greatest changes of the 1990s were arguably cultural: people were able to swap thoughts and ideas unimpeded by walls. Ironically, they did so using technologies first developed to fight the Cold War and for the Space Race. Digital systems transformed the creative industries in which I worked. The separate disciplines of television, newspaper, magazine and book publishing, music and other media which had developed separately, each with their own culture, began to meld into each other; I had a ringside seat as computers blurred the lines between them. I saw them evolve into the beginnings of a single, integrated circus of internet delights, a vast, digital, information and entertainment machine that energised lives and ideas, a machine fuelled by ever greater awareness of people, texts, events and landscape and how they interacted with each other and were connected to history.
The intrusion of technology into history had been going on in Britain at least since the Coronation of our present Queen. My family did not have a TV in 1953 but I remember standing to attention with my father and brother in a neighbour’s house during the event, as if I was actually in Westminster Abbey. Variations on that theme took place in most homes that had a television; now it’s history. Walking on the moon was the future then; now it’s history too. When Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins returned from the moon and went into quarantine, they spent part of their time watching recordings of what they had done and the scenes of excitement, celebration and earnest discussion that was the reaction on Earth. Moved by it, Buzz Aldrin pointed to the screen and said: “Hey Neil, look at that, I guess we just missed the whole darn thing.”
Today, the idea that nothing has really happened unless it has happened on television has taken a firm hold of our historical imagination. In the last twenty years, the same thing has happened with the web, posing a new existential question: does something exist if it’s not on the web?
We can only guess where this powerful machine is taking us. It has already begun to synthesise individual cultures and beliefs as creative ideas and national treasures mingle in one, global, cultural parliament. We can be sure of one thing: the future will be forged where new ideas clash with the past to produce history, and history is an essential tool of human survival, as important as all the sciences. Getting to the future depends on understanding narrative history and shaping new big ideas based on facts rather than on abstractions.