Mark Simpson reviews Another Bloody Love Letter, by Anthony Loyd

Independent on Sunday, 11 March 2007

‘People have on occasion asked me to reveal the most shocking sight I have ever seen,” writes Anthony Loyd, Times war correspondent, ex-Army officer and ex-heroin addict. “They want a little vicarious hit off a war correspondent’s memories.” Another Bloody Love Letter is full of this vicarious, possibly vicious, pleasure – and not just a little hit either.

This memoir is a great big bloody bong of horror, chaos, gallows humour, loss, boredom and self-loathing – followed by slack-jawed self-medication. For much of the period covered by the book, Loyd is struggling with his heroin addiction: when he isn’t covering the shooting abroad, he’s shooting up at home.

Senseless destruction? Check. Dying men pleading for their lives? Check. Wild-eyed women and children who have seen what they should never see? Check. Mutilated, decomposing dead bodies? Check. Mass graves? Double check. All the horror and madness and desperate, thoughtless, random injustice and, even worse, random justice, of war is present and incorrect. From the killing fields of Bosnia, to Kosovo, to Afghanistan and Iraq, to scoring smack in London, Loyd gives it to us straight, both nostrils.

Inhale deeply at your own risk, however. Loyd makes us pay for the hit by cutting it with pathos, personal suffering and a certain amount of maudlin introspection about what kind of peculiar person becomes a war correspondent. For once, the promise of the publisher’s blurb – “Anthony Loyd spares us nothing in this moving and painfully honest memoir” – is more than fulfilled.

My own favourite horror story is of Loyd’s own capture by psycho rebels in Sierra Leone, armed to their gold-capped teeth and off their heads on pills and palm whisky. While waiting for them to decide whether to kill him or torture him first, he notices two men cracking open AK47 rounds and snorting the gunpowder. Perhaps the most shocking thing about this image is that it represents Loyd’s, and our, relationship to war – though slightly less mediated.

Sometimes, though, the most shocking material here is his overambitious sentences. A particularly harrowing example: “We had crawled through the dark underworld of Europe’s belly, enmeshed in the cataclysmic breakdown of a terrible, pointless and preventable war, and emerged at its last conclusion to return to our respective homes, smashed-teeth romantics in a street-party where no one cared.”

Mercifully, this kind of purple ambush becomes less common as the book progresses, and Loyd is almost as gifted a writer as he is loquacious. However, Loyd, as is the modern habit, occasionally tries a little too hard to be as interesting as the wars he has seen. Unfortunately, there’s nothing very interesting about heroin addiction, even for the addict. It’s synthetic narcissism.

Politically, the book is something of a mess too – a liberal imperialist mess. The author is an enthusiastic interventionist who wants NATO to bomb the Serbs and put troops in Kosovo to protect the Albanians, but when they do is appalled by their failure to protect the Serbs from mass killings by Albanians – despite himself repeatedly caricaturing Serbs en masse as evil, stupid, thuggish, racist killers. One of the bloody sequels he favoured, the invasion of Iraq, has also turned into a sectarian bloodbath, though on an even more terrifying scale. Loyd admits many of his errors with refreshing candour but you are left wondering whether his gung-ho spirit was sometimes less down to his idealism or naivety than his serious gunpowder habit.

What works best is the central narrative and relationship, possibly only relationship, of the book – his hero-worship of an older, more experienced, self-assured American correspondent called Kurt whom he shared many assignments with, and his attempt to make sense of his death in Sierra Leone. It is Kurt’s mutilated, partially decomposed body and face that is the sorry answer to the voyeuristic enquiry about the most shocking thing he’d ever seen.

So strong was Loyd’s affection for, and admiration of, Kurt’s toughness and invulnerability, as someone who “could smile under bombardment and hitch his thumbs under his belt”, that his death seems inconceivable. He was almost as shocked by Kurt’s confession to crying while watching the elaborate ceremony marking the handover of Hong Kong by the British to the Chinese in 1997.

“Because it was a goodbye,” Kurt had said, explaining his tears to a puzzled Loyd, “and in this game you don’t often see any goodbyes… War isn’t about goodbyes. It’s about unnatural and sudden severance… All those hundreds of times I saw for myself people who had no time to say any goodbye, who were just signed away in a splatter, they came back to me when I saw it being done in a ceremony with such perfection.”

This book, in its best parts, is Loyd’s goodbye to Kurt. His posthumous, bloody love letter. It isn’t perfect. Often, like war, it’s messy. But it is occassionally moving.

And if this is just another vicarious hit of a war correspondent’s memories, well, in that respect it’s seriously good shit, man.