Jeremy Bowen on addiction to danger, facing loss and battling cancer
June 10, 2020. Series 1. Episode 1
Jeremy Bowen is a man who has spent most of his professional life in the company of crisis. As the BBC’s Middle East Editor he has reported from more than 90 countries and conflicts including Iraq, Bosnia, Kosovo and Lebanon. In this first episode, Jeremy talks frankly about his addiction to danger – how and why he repeatedly put his life at risk in pursuit of a story. And he details how that addiction turned to deep anxiety and grief when his friend and fixer Abed Takkoush was killed while working alongside him. Jeremy talks openly about mental health, and his good and bad experiences with counselling. And how, ultimately, he conquered his demons, only to face down an altogether different challenge when he was diagnosed with bowel cancer. Throughout the episode Jeremy reveals the tools he’s relied on most to manage those moments of crisis. A revealing and thought-provoking conversation to kick off the series.
Jeremy’s Crisis Cures:
1. Quotidian, humdrum things: ‘I was working in Damascus, the war was going on, you can hear the war through the window, you could see the smoke rising from the suburbs…but it was quite nice putting an edited story together about the Syrian war with the sound of the washing machine in the background.’
2. Exercise: ‘The natural anti-depressant. In Sarajevo I used to take a skipping rope, I used to skip in the stairwell of the hotel. In Baghdad I would jog around the streets – they thought I was insane.’
3. Old World War II movies: ‘Often John Mills is involved in some way, and Jack Hawkins. I find those quite reassuring to leave on in the background. Maybe even past crises…those reminders that you do get out of them in the end.’
Bowel Cancer UK: https://www.bowelcanceruk.org.uk/
Look UK: https://www.look-uk.org/
I’ve known Jeremy for about 15 years but this was, as is the nature of us blokes, the most intense conversation we’ve ever had. The utter authenticity of Jeremy’s storytelling was inspiring.
For me, the key insights came when we discussed how, having been a crisis volunteer, he suddenly found himself to be a conscript. Facing the possibility of death – not from a sniper’s bullet (which he had narrowly avoided in Sarajevo) but from bowel cancer.
His approach to getting through that challenge was clearly influenced by what he’d witnessed so frequently as a reporter. One of Jeremy’s great skills as a broadcaster is to explain how the terrible things we are witnessing on TV are happening to people who, not that long before, were living lives similar to our own. Jeremy has spent more time than most with those families.
“I think you can see people who are sometimes better able to get through crisis than others,” he said.
“To survive in a war zone you’ve got to do a lot of small things to get through each day. Don’t get overwhelmed by the big picture – that you’re in a horrendous situation. Chip away at the problem.”
An analysis that echoed later in the conversation when we turned to his cancer.
“You’ve got to do one little thing at a time. Get through the day, get through tomorrow and then have a horizon for when things will be better. In my case – get out of hospital, get through the chemotherapy, then the first scan and the next scan.”
Just. Keep. Going. As Jeremy himself said, sometimes clichés are clichés for a bloody good reason.
Music: Allies by Some Velvet Morning