Seeing the funny side
PUBLISHED: 12:37 21 April 2015 | UPDATED: 12:37 21 April 2015
Catherine Larner talks to Suffolk resident Terry Waite about his life helping hostages and the homeless . . . and writing a comic novel
It’s hard to imagine there’s much to laugh about if you’re being held hostage, but Terry Waite insists that even as he endured almost five years in captivity in Lebanon, alone, chained and often blindfolded, there were some lighter moments.
“For years I had no books,” he says of his incarceration almost 25 years ago, “but eventually the guards brought me one – it was Great Escape Stories, by Eric Williams.”
His deep, warm and infectious chuckle is as distinctive as his physique – at 6ft 7ins and with his distinctive beard, he’s a bear of a man. In photographs and television footage he towers over his companions, and for many years he was a familiar figure by the side of then Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie.
It was in 1987, while Waite was taking on the role of special envoy, trying to facilitate the release of western hostages in the Middle East, that he himself was captured.
“There’s no point in trying to deny the past or forget it. It was a very difficult experience,” he says with understatement. “But suffering need not destroy. The experience can be taken and changed and used creatively. That’s not just about your own growth and development, but also for the benefit of other people.”
For Waite this has meant founding Hostage UK, an organisation working with hostages and their families in Britain and the US, supporting the work of Emmaus with the homeless, working in prisons, lecturing widely on humanitarian issues and . . . writing a comic novel.
“This is a totally different route to take,” he concedes. He has written other books about his life – Taken on Trust and Travels with a Primate – but this, he says, is total fantasy.
The book (published in April) is called The Voyage of the Golden Handshake and tells of retired couple Albert and Alice choosing to leave their home in Grimsby for a round-the-world adventure to celebrate a lottery win. They board their cruiseliner in Essex not realising that it is one of a newly formed fleet of passenger ships which are only just seaworthy. And so begins 500 pages of colourful characters, slapstick humour, and waves of triumph and disaster. It is funny, charming, innocent, confidently and lightly drawn.
“My editor has had to go through the book 12 times, and she tells me she still laughs,” he says. “I regard that as a positive sign, but we’ll have to see how it will be received by the public.”
He is already booked into a number of book festivals around the country, including Felixstowe in June, and hopes to revisit cruise ships to talk about the book.
“For over 30 years I have lectured on cruise ships,” he says. “Very amusing things happen on them. I think if you are going to write, you should write about what you know. For a comic novel, one takes that experience and heightens it and gives it a gloss which almost makes it ridiculous, to make it amusing and funny.”
But having seen and experienced so much suffering and hardship in his life, doesn’t this seem rather flippant?
“One should never be flippant at the terror and the agony that is suffered by people who have been through these experiences. But don’t forget that in the midst of tragedy, in the midst of despair, it is still possible to laugh. If [organisations like ISIS] are going to rob us of all humour and fun they have actually won a major battle. Life is for living and we should have a laugh,” he says. “I have seen so many people in my life weep.
“I don’t think I could have managed as well as I did in the years of captivity without being able to laugh, and to laugh at myself, to see the funny side of life. And life is very ridiculous at times.”
Terry says he wrote the book for his own pure enjoyment, setting aside time each day to complete the story while on his annual winter visit to New Zealand.
“I wouldn’t have had a chance in England, because there are so many demands, so many other things to do.”
Back in Britain, Suffolk is his refuge. Having lived in a village outside Bury St Edmunds for 20 years, he relishes the countryside, but also the community of which he is a part.
“The villagers accept me as I am,” he says. “They don’t over praise or over condemn, and I think other writers find this in Suffolk, too. They are in some sense protected by their neighbours.”
The next few months include a punishing programme of events for Terry, who is 76 this year, but he’s already completed the sequel to the novel and will have a book of poetry out in the autumn.
“One of the things I had to learn in captivity was to live a day at a time,” he says quietly.
“You can’t look forward in captivity too much because tomorrow you might be dead. We can’t always live fully in the moment because we are all subject to bad moods, depression, anger, but I try to live the days as they come.”