All the Wrong Places – adrift in the politics of Asia – by James Fenton

I began this book with some misgivings, expecting it to be outdated and overtaken by events, since it was written about Fenton’s experiences as a foreign correspondent in South East Asia during the 1970s. My misgivings were well founded, in one sense, but in ways that are interesting in themselves.

Fenton’s accounts seem almost quaint, actually, and they generate a feeling of nostalgia for a time when the rough diamond western journalist could, clad in sweat stained khaki and clutching a notebook, hang out with the Viet Cong and the Khmer Rouge and report from an exoticism that has no equivalent today. Video clips of missiles striking buildings in dusty, sun baked villages in Afghanistan or Iraq just don’t seem so intriguing. Perhaps the politics are missing. Fenton was a proud socialist and saw the wars of the 1970s in SE Asia very much as US imperialism being beaten back by a morally superior, popular cause. That in itself seems very dated to us now. Can one imagine a journalist being politically ‘committed’ (a term of praise for the 1970s left) now, in Pakistan or in one of the African conflicts? The left/right dichotomy has all but disappeared, leaving only confusion and relativism.

So Fenton’s book seems to take us back to a time in some ways simpler. He writes brilliantly about the fall of Saigon, portraying for us the empty hotels and the select band of foreigners remaining and living a sort of postmodern colonialism, denying while at the same time enjoying an intrinsic advantage stemming from race and wealth. None of them would ever be in the same position as the desperate Vietnamese, trying to escape from the advancing Vietcong.

And that is one of the ambiguities of Fenton’s account, the occasional uncertainty about whether he is an observer or a participant. I suppose in this book he is the latter and in his reporting very much the former.

I found it interesting having travelled in SE Asia in the early 1980s, when people like Marcos were still in power. Without that background, however, I think I would have found it too much out of time.


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