When polio was the front line


Patrick Cockburn has reported from Beirut and Moscow, but his biggest story concerns contracting polio as a young boy in Cork, he tells Rosita Boland.

What name other than The Front Line would you give a club for journalists whose beat is war coverage? The Front Line Club, restaurant and rooms occupy a corner building of Norfolk Place in London, not far from Paddington. The steps up to the club are lined with original front pages of newspapers: Winston Churchill Dead - the Daily Telegraph, January 25th, 1965; Man is on the Moon - Daily Express, July 21st, 1969; Indira Gandhi Shot Dead - the Times of India, November 1st, 1984; US Attacked - the New York Times, September 12th, 2002.

War correspondent Patrick Cockburn (56) is in the upstairs club-room, where the photographer is coaxing him into various poses. The room reflects the postings of the community it hosts. There are kilims on the wooden floor and the walls are decorated with Middle-Eastern woven tapestries. One entire wall is taken up by books - reportage, photography, guide books - and cabinets in which are displayed members' tokens of overseas assignments. There is a piece of the Berlin Wall; an Osama bin Laden T-shirt; two inflatable Yasser Arafats; a Nicolae Ceausescu business card; a Sarajevo number plate; and a destroyed mobile phone belonging to BBC cameraman Vaughan Smith, which saved his life in Serbia when the bullet intended for him lodged instead in the phone in his breast pocket.

Cockburn's childhood was divided between London and Brook Lodge in Youghal, an idyllic-sounding tumbledown Georgian house that has since been demolished. His mother, Patricia Arbuthnot - his father Claud Cockburn's third wife - had grown up at nearby Myrtle Grove, a Tudor mansion where Walter Raleigh lived for a time in the 16th century. It was an exotic family: Cockburn's maternal great-grandfather held posts as governor of Jamaica and governor of Ceylon, and his mother had gone to the Congo when she was only 22 to make a language map of the central African tribes.

The defining event in Cockburn's life, by his own admission, has not been his Anglo-Irish upbringing, or his exotic family, or his career, or his marriage to English literature lecturer Janet Montefiore or the two sons, Henry and Alexander, they have together.

It is the fact that at the age of six, he contracted polio when at the family home in Youghal, during the polio epidemic in Cork in 1956. The memoir he has written is entitled The Broken Boy, and the cover image is a photograph of Cockburn as a child, sitting in a wheelchair.

"It was 1998, and I was in Baghdad going around hospitals, and it struck me that it was ridiculous that I was always going around hospitals for stories, and although I had spent quite a lot of time in hospitals myself, I didn't really know much about that time," Cockburn explains, over a glass of red wine.

"At that time, I didn't even know the dates I had been in hospital with polio. I had sort of jagged memories about it. They were a child's memory. Vivid, but without much continuity." After he left Baghdad on that occasion, he became determined to research and write about the Cork polio epidemic. "People in Cork should read this book, because it's part of their history, and one that has rather amazingly been ignored."

Cockburn got polio at six. He was taken first to St Finbarr's Fever Hospital in Cork and then transferred to St Mary's at Gurranebraher, which he describes as "a horrible place". He spent several months there.

When he left there, he had callipers, a corrective waistcoat, and needed to use a wheelchair. He had to spend a long time lying down flat, as it was thought the disease spread when muscles were active. Later, he progressed to crutches. He sits a little awkwardly in his chair in the Front Line; the polio left him with a permanent limp. He cannot run and has never driven.

In pinstripes and immaculate white shirt, Cockburn is quite formal in a way that has nothing to do with the suit he's wearing; it's more an innate, almost formidable, self-possession. He looks into the distance when answering questions, and the tone of his voice rarely changes: everything is delivered in the same clipped, controlled manner. At one point he remarks laconically: "In some ways, if you're going to cover conflict and war the whole time, you have to sort of mute your emotional reactions to things."

The only time he seems genuinely animated and unguarded is early on in the interview when, surprisingly, he asks if I have read The Broken Boy. I assure him that yes, I have indeed read the book - all of it. Cockburn smiles, suddenly and fleetingly, as if he cannot quite believe that someone has read his memoir of what it was like to grow up with polio; that he has really written the book he spent 50 years thinking about. Later I realise that this is the only time in two hours he smiles.

A Broken Boy is described as a memoir, but this is rather a loose definition. True, it is a memoir in that it recollects a part of his life, but the focus of the memoir part of the book is almost exclusively Cockburn's experience of polio.

We don't learn much else about him, and virtually nothing about his older brothers, Andrew and Alexander, both also journalists. In fact, there is much more in the book about his nanny, Kitty Lee, than either of his brothers or any of his many half-siblings. There are also portraits of both his parents and quite long sections about his colourful ancestors, which are certainly interesting, yet rather disconnected from the rest of the text.

Cockburn, who was born in Scotland and brought up in Cork and London, has been a war correspondent for almost all his working life. After Oxford, he went to Queen's University Belfast to work on a PhD. He dropped out, and went to Beirut to report on the Lebanese civil war. That was in 1975. His first reports were picked up and run by The Irish Times and the Spectator. In 1978, he went to work for the Financial Times as its Middle East specialist. He stayed with that paper until 1990, and has since been with the London Independent. His postings include Moscow and Jerusalem, but in recent years he has worked most frequently in Iraq, based in Baghdad's Al-Hamra Hotel.

"I think I sort of partly fell into journalism. All the rest of the family were journalists. It seemed to be a pretty interesting thing to do, which was correct, it is. And it's probably the only thing I have practical experience of."

Cockburn had indeed first-hand experience of a journalist's life when he was growing up: his father Claud Cockburn, was the London Times's foreign correspondent before resigning as New York correspondent in 1933 to set up an anti-fascist newsletter, the Week. In 1947, he moved with his family to Youghal, and continued to contribute to various newspapers and journals, including a weekly column for The Irish Times. Claud Cockburn was a member of the Communist Party and thus shadowed by MI5 for most of his working life: in 2004, 23 years after his death, MI5 released an extraordinary 26 volumes of information on him to the British National Archives.

"I suppose I became aware as a small child that my father was a journalist," Cockburn says. "My father was always going into town to phone over pieces, because we didn't have a telephone, or to post them, and since I was very interested in going to town for a bit of a spree, it meant I could go with him. That's how I became conscious of it."

Was his famous father proud of his son's career as a journalist? "I think he was pretty pleased." Did he ever actually say so? "He sort of implied it."

Like many of the Anglo-Irish of his generation, Cockburn has a rather grand English accent. Of the Anglo-Irish today, he observes, "I would have thought they were more and more absorbed into Irish society now. Now, the children of the Anglo-Irish would all probably have gone to Irish schools and Irish universities in the South."

He corrects himself, "I mean, in the Republic. You notice more frequently that the parents might have English accents and the children will have Irish accents. It's just a question of where they went to school."

His mobile goes off a few times during the interview, and he takes the calls, apologising each time. One is clearly from a friend, whom he invites to his London book-launch party. "It's at Rosie Boycott's house," Cockburn says into his phone. He is clearly well-connected: Boycott was the first woman in Britain to edit a national broadsheet when she took over the Independent on Sunday in 1996, and she went on to edit the Daily Express.

Cockburn now spends three months every year in Ireland, based at his house in Ardmore, Co Waterford. He lives the rest of the year in Canterbury, when not travelling abroad for work. In the course of researching his book, he went to Cork and looked through back copies of the Cork Examiner to track the coverage there had been of the polio epidemic, when 50,000 people contracted the disease.

Not everyone who got it was crippled by it: the irony of the disease is that you can be a carrier and yet unaffected by polio. There was coverage in the papers, but it was subdued, and tailed off long before the epidemic had run its course.

"If you look up some obscure skirmish in Irish history in the 16th or 17th century, you'll find it mentioned, but this epidemic which had so much impact on people's lives, not a mention. Nothing has been written on it."

Cockburn wanted to write about his polio "because it was a big part of my life. One adapts to these things, but it shapes one's personality, almost everything one does, really. Like any disaster that happens to oneself, the most natural human reaction is not to think about it, to get on with life."

In the book, Cockburn is careful to set out the facts surrounding his contraction of polio.

Although he does not apportion blame to either of his parents for taking him from London to Cork, despite knowing the city was in the height of an epidemic known to strike children, he does admit in the book to be baffled by their decision.

"Did I resent it at the time? No, not really, because I didn't really know what had happened. Subsequently . . . when one is grown up, one knows there are lots of things in life one wishes one hadn't done at the time, but one didn't know what the dire long-term consequences were going to be . . ." He doesn't finish the sentence. There is a long silence, broken only by the arrival of lunch at our table, and the clatter of knives and forks being laid by the waitress.

The Broken Boy, by Patrick Cockburn, is published by Jonathan Cape, £15.99