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Clive Myrie: ‘You see the very best and very worst of human nature in a conflict situation’

Prior to covering the Ukraine crisis, Clive Myrie spoke to The Big Issue about his early life, his influences, and his passion for reporting from war zones.

Clive Myrie was born in Bolton, Lancs, to Jamaican immigrant parents. After a law degree at Sussex University, he joined the BBC as a trainee reporter, kicking off a career as a foreign correspondent that would take him to more than 80 countries and to some of the world’s most volatile regions. In 2019 he became news anchor, then in 2021 also became the latest host of Mastermind.

Here, in a Letter to My Younger Self, he talks about how watching Alan Whicker as a child fuelled a love of travel, and how telling stories from far-flung places was all he ever really wanted to do.

I was a gangly teenager, all elbows and legs. I loved playing sports – football and cricket – and I’ve been a Manchester City fan since I was about seven or eight so I’ve known the lows as well as the highs.

I’m one of these weird Leo/Virgo mixes. I have all the Virgo traits – I’m very fastidious and tidy, I have a good organisational brain and I pay attention to detail. But at the same time, I am all Leo. Loud, mouthy, don’t mind being in a crowd, don’t mind being the centre of attention. I was always the one at school with my hand up to perform if we were asked to read out loud. It’s interesting that that’s pretty much the career that I have now, reading out loud. 

Independent / Alamy Stock Photo

From an early age, I had an ambition to be performing in the public eye. Not necessarily as an actor, although I toyed with the idea a few times, but probably as a journalist or a lawyer. I grew up as the typical second generation immigrant son. You understood your parents didn’t leave everything they knew behind to better the career prospects of their children for you to do something that wasn’t professional. The idea of being a doctor or a dentist or a lawyer was very much instilled in me. When I was studying law at university my parents thought everything was going well. Then I turned around and said look, I think I’d rather be a foreign correspondent. They were not initially happy. Let’s just put it like that. 

Identity is such an important thing. We all think about it consciously or subconsciously; who we are, where we belong. And I suppose for my parents, yes, they have British passports and they are British to all intents and purposes, but of course they were born many, many miles away in Jamaica. It’s not like moving from France or Germany – we’re talking about a very different lifestyle, a very different climate, a very different culture. And as a result, that sense of feeling part of Britain, but at the same time, feeling slightly different– particularly being black of course – perhaps meant that my horizons were always going to be a little bit broader, a little bit wider. 

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I was always aware of my parents’ roots. I remember in cold, snowy Bolton, we would always have the cricket on the radio listening to West Indies games. And whenever Dr No came on TV and it came to the famous scene when Ursula Andress came out of the sea, my mum would say, they filmed that on the beaches of Negril, in the same parish my family are from. I first went there when I was about seven, on a family trip. My parents were going back for the first time to their village, in Westmoreland on the western tip of Jamaica. I remember really missing my friends and really missing football. I was hot and sweaty and getting eaten by mosquitoes. But the flight and experience of travel I remember enjoying. And the idea that my parents came from a place that was far away, yes, maybe that did sort of subliminally sink in and make me feel like I wanted to get out there and see the world, experience different foods and cultures and all that kind of stuff.

I think the 16-year-old Clive would be shocked by my success. I don’t mean the success of being on national television. I mean in terms of once watching Alan Whicker go to all these places and dreaming of going there myself – I’d be shocked to find out I actually do manage to get to Vietnam, or live in the Far East. My first posting was to Tokyo, and I remember Alan Whicker making a film on geishas in Kyoto [in 1966]. To be able to link those two moments – watching Whicker in black and white and my first posting in Japan as a foreign correspondent, it’s still slightly shocking to me that I was able to do that. I’m very proud and happy I did.

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I’ve been in some dangerous situations but I don’t think I ever thought about the danger. I just thought, I want to be in a war zone and experience and tell the story of conflict in a particular place. It’s interesting talking to soldiers, and to those who do go into battle. You never ever think, really consciously, that you’re going to be the one who gets shot or blown up or killed. Something has to present itself to you that makes it clear that you could be the one. For instance, when I was embedded with the Royal Marines going into Iraq in 2003, we all had to write goodbye letters to our families, just in case we didn’t come back. That process, saying goodbye in letter form, does remind you that you might not get back.

There is an adrenaline rush in being a journalist on the frontline, something that makes you want to go back for more. Although for me I don’t think it’s the sense that I’m potentially in danger. It’s just about telling stories from incredible places. And usually you see the very best of human nature and the very worst of human nature in a conflict situation. Those are the best, most fascinating moments, when you’re going to get the most interesting human stories.

Reporting from Westminster, 2016 PjrNews / Alamy Stock Photo

I didn’t want to come off the road as a reporter and sit in a studio and read out loud. It was the BBC that said, we think it would be a good thing for you to do. And I was like, hmmm, I don’t know. In the end I agreed. I thought I would miss jumping onto planes every week and I think maybe at the beginning I did. But I don’t miss it now at all. I think after more than 30 years of being a foreign correspondent I’ve finally got it out of my system.

Some jobs have been hard. I was based in South Africa for about a year in 2000 and that was a hard posting, covering the whole continent. It was difficult for my wife. Although she wanted to live in Johannesburg, and experience what post-apartheid South Africa was like, there were high levels of crime in Joburg itself, and it was suffering that very public trauma of the previous 40 or 50 years of apartheid. And every single story I did was just sad; war in Democratic Republic of Congo, or famine and food problems in Chad. Looking back on it, I’m really glad we were there and I love going back to South Africa now. But it was very tricky for my wife. Otherwise, I’ve just been so lucky and I’m really blessed to have been able to lead the kind of life that I have, with a wife who’s been so understanding. 

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One of the best things I’ve ever done is marry Catherine. I think that would be top of the list. She is way more sensible, smart and cultured and interesting than I could ever hope to be. And I’m very, very proud to be her husband. We met through a friend who was head of publicity at a publishing house which did a lot of books on things like cookery and crafts. She introduced me to Catherine at a launch of a book on Swiss cheeses, would you believe. And I hate cheese! Which is interesting. And Fiona ended up being the maid of honour at our wedding.

If I could travel back to any moment in my life… I do remember being in Vietnam in 2003, in a little boat being paddled up a river with my cameraman following. We were going to a remote part of some jungle area where the militia were clearing poppy fields or something. There were all these helicopters buzzing overhead and it was hot and sweaty. I distinctly remember thinking, this is exactly what I got into journalism for. I’m in some amazing place, somewhere Alan Whicker or Trevor McDonald would have been, telling the world interesting stories from far away. It wasn’t Paris or the White House. It was just a little river journey on a boat, heading into the jungle with a camera to tell a story. But it was what I’d always wanted to do.

Mastermind is on BBC Two on Mondays at 8pm and on iPlayer
@Janeannie

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