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A great correspondent's insights: from waiters to world leaders

Great foreign correspondents, like great historians, are relatively few in number. Geoffrey Godsell, who passed on at Cambridge, Massachusetts, last weekend, was one of them. He shared with Dr. G.E. Morrison of the London Times, Australia's Alan Moorehead, Eric Rouleau of Le Monde, Colin Legum of the Observer, Henry Morton Stanley (of Stanley-Livingston fame), Peter Fleming, and a handful of others a searching curiosity about the tribes of mankind and their progress and tribulations.

More than most, he also shared the analytical bent of Herodotus, Gibbon, and Toynbee. And, even more than the latter, he tried to see history from the perspective of many cultures outside the Anglo-Saxon into which he was born and educated. But, unlike those tireless historians, he never produced a body of work that was bound between buckram covers and grew to the point of bending bookshelves. He analyzed for readers who wanted to know, day by day, what events meant and how they fit into the immense river of history. And he was far more interested than most in how thought swayed events. He believed that men need not be captives of habit, mistakes, misjudgment. That was part of a spiritual outlook that he felt was essential to mankind's progress.

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If these accomplishments sound rather portentous, their author was not. He was at his best chatting with (never down to) drivers, porters, and waiters - even as he rode or ate with foreign ministers. To dine with Geoffrey was to venture down Lucullan paths while acquiring detailed knowledge of local events from the waiter (usually in the server's own tongue, whether it was Italian, German, Arabic, French, or Brooklyn).

His penchant for finding the people who knew what was going on, in foreign ministry and taxicab, led to the building of a worldwide network of admirers. Ambassadors and ministers phoned him about his stories; his downscale sources beamed when he entered cab or restaurant.

He was working as Cairo correspondent for the BBC at the time of the Suez War in 1956. All Brits were supposed to be sequestered (interned) by the Egyptian government and their property was to be seized. Officials softened the action in Godsell's case. And his Cairene driver had so welcomed him into the family (Geoffrey was guest of honor at the driver's daughter's wedding) that the driver took care of all the correspondent's affairs and his car during the war.

Despite the warmth of such human ties, Geoffrey was at pains to understand what motivated each side in a dispute. When he explained South Africa's intricate politics to his readers, for example, he had talked at length to both Steve Biko (the Martin Luther King-like black leader, whom Godsell was the last white foreigner to interview) and to Gerrit Viljoen (leader of the influential Afrikaner secret society, the Broederbond). His coverage of Canadian tensions was the same, explaining the motives of both English-speaking Canadians and Quebec separatists. In Australia he mastered what the industrial and political leaders envisioned for that vast land and also spent long hours in empathetic conversation with an Aboriginal leader in Darwin. In Zimbabwe he lunched with white farm families; then renewed acquaintance with one of the major black leaders whom he had known for two decades and whose son and daughter he had helped see into American universities. In Iran he knew student rebels who had plotted the overthrow of the Shah and many of the main architects of the Shah's new Persian Empire. He knew also the tortuous (to Western eyes) ethnic background to the Afghan-Iranian-Kurdish-Iraqi-Turkish-Armenian-Greek intrigues.

This depth of knowledge sprang from that boundless curiosity mentioned earlier, disciplined by a thorough classical education. He was, as an early profile noted, ''a product of three British institutions - Cambridge University, the Royal Navy, and the BBC.'' During his World War II naval career he was attached to the British delegation which drafted the peace treaty with Italy in 1946. One of his favorite tales on himself described how he managed to lose the draft peace treaty and then find it again in the nick of time. After that he rarely misplaced anything - certainly not pertinent facts or a near endless stream of humorous anecdotes about important persons and distant scenes.

He received an MA from King's College, Cambridge, in 1947 and thereafter served with the BBC (in London, Paris, Washington, Canada, the UN, East Africa, and the Mideast) until he joined the Monitor as its Cairo correspondent in 1956. The two and a half decades of his Monitor career saw him shift from foreign correspondent to editorial writer, to overseas news editor, to senior roving correspondent. The latter role took him literally around the globe many times, usually to places where fireworks and faddish TV coverage obscured the real issues. One of the American hostages in Tehran wrote later that Godsell's coverage was one of only three instances of knowledgeable reporting on the Iran crisis. An Iranian student in San Francisco told an American friend that ''only one person knew the Iranian mind well enough to report accurately, and that was Geoffrey Godsell.''

Let us look, finally, at a scene which Geoffrey relished.

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He had been lecturing in Britain in the fall of 1973 when war broke out between Egypt and Israel. Boston asked him to get to Cairo to cover that side of the conflict.He took off immediately from Heathrow Airport, still clad in heavy tweeds. His plane got to Athens, then was diverted to Tripoli, Libya, because Cairo Airport was closed. Thence commenced a 1,500-mile desert journey in a rented Peugeot wagon. The other occupants, Egyptians returning to their regiments, deferentially let the distinguished Briton board first. The result was that the tweed-encased former naval person had to ride the whole trip in a makeshift rear seat set so high he had to bow his head. He longed, he said, for one of Montgomery's jeeps or Rommel's halftracks. But he still managed to winkle from his companions tales of their families and of life in Sadat's Egypt. He arrived to cover the seesaw campaigns in Sinai. And then, at war's end, he flew to Tel Aviv to cover, with equal perception, Israeli reactions to that rapidly changing world.

Off the road from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem there is a group of trees planted in his honor by the Jewish Community Council of Greater Boston. In Cairo he is remembered by driver and foreign minister alike. In Baghdad, the former president of the UN General Assembly always asks immediately after his friend Geoffrey. Generations of copy clerks at the Monitor learned from his always-humble lectures about foreign affairs.

The founder of this newspaper once described the human adventure as taking place in ''earth's preparatory school.'' In that context, Geoffrey Godsell must be described as one of its best teachers.

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