John McGhie, Senior Lecturer in Journalism in the School of Media, Art and Design, published his debut novel, White Highlands, in April this year. The story, partly set in Kenya, explores the controversial reaction by the British authorities to the Mau Mau uprising in the 1950s. Inspire talks to John about his career, his belief in investigative journalism and what prompted his choice of theme for his novel.
Prior to joining the University, John had a long and successful career as a journalist, working first in print media before later working as reporter for television documentaries and news programmes.
As he recalls: "I was a journalist for a very long time and started off in the normal way, on a local newspaper. I then worked abroad in Australia, for the Sydney Daily Telegraph, before joining Associated Press. I next worked at The Observer, first as a general reporter before becoming a political correspondent in the House of Commons, where I covered some of the big political news stories of the day as well as major events like the general election."
John’s passion, however, was for investigative reporting which could "use my journalism skills for some kind of good" and so he joined the BBC’s documentary series Public Eye, as well as working on Panorama and other documentaries. He eventually ran the investigative unit for Channel 4 News.
While working for the BBC, John first encountered the allegations of brutality, repression and human rights abuses of Kenyans by the British security forces during the 1950s. A campaign for reparations had been started by Kenyan victims in order to draw attention to the abuses and John went to Africa to investigate: "I remember, at the back of my mind, there were rumblings from Kenya about this reparation campaign from the colonial days that I thought were very interesting, but which received very little publicity in this country. So I travelled to Kenya on a couple of research trips to find out whether or not some of these allegations were correct. Quite a few weren’t and you had to use your journalistic expertise to sift through the stories, but it turned out, from my point of view, that many of them were in fact true – a lot of things happened that were really shocking."
John’s investigations in Kenya led to an award-winning documentary for the BBC that screened in 2002. But even as a veteran reporter, what he had uncovered proved particularly haunting: "The film was well received and won a special Red Cross international award, which was amazing for a journalist like me to receive and to be given that type of acknowledgement - not from my peers but from a very well-known humanitarian organisation. But, like most journalists’ work, it just disappears. Of course, it’s understandable and just the way the world works. But the story never left me and the images I saw were some of the most powerful images I’ve seen in my life. I’ve covered some terrible stories and seen some bad things too, but this really stayed with me."
John then decided to combine his investigations with his long-held desire to write a novel and so has adapted what he learnt about the sometimes brutal realities of colonialism in Kenya as the historical basis for his book. He hopes that the novel will increase awareness of Britain’s past and even aspires for a screen adaptation so that his story can reach the widest possible audience.
While the novel is set partly in Kenya in the 1950s, it also has a contemporary storyline and therefore explores the elusive nature of memory, something which has also been a feature of the reparation claims: "The book is a literary thriller - it’s quite exciting and has some dark passages. There are two love stories set across the two time zones – in contemporary times and in the 1950s – and the stories merge. It deals with the theme of memory. It’s very interesting because in the reparations world, the British Government has decided who to pay and who not to pay, and there have been some false claims – and people remember things differently."
John believes that the current crisis of British national identity in a post-Brexit world makes the themes of the novel even more pressing. He feels that we need to be more honest and to better educate people about the historical realities of Britain’s colonial past. He hopes that the book can make a small contribution to changing this: "It seems to me that there is a terrible situation in this country where we don’t teach British Empire in the way that we should. You may have been shown a huge map covered in pink or have heard about the division of India, but you don’t hear about the darker side of imperialism. We need to have a much franker discussion about who we were and what we did, especially in the current Brexit landscape, where a cosy false glow about the past is often perpetuated."
White Highlands is published by Little, Brown and is available now from www.littlebrown.co.uk (RRP £14.99) or the University Bookshop (£10). See Summer 2017 Books section for more details.
Images: courtesy of Little, Brown