Terry Waite: Life of a humanitarian

Terry Waite
Terry Waite
  • Terry Waite helped free Western hostages before being kidnapped himself. Now he does charity work and has just written his first novel. Chris Bond talked to him.
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“GOOD MORNING, how are things up in Yorkshire?” a polite, kind sounding, voice says down the line.

“It’s a bit blustery,” I reply. “Yes, it is here, too.” The voice belongs to Terry Waite who is speaking from Cornwall where he’s involved in setting up a new centre to help homeless people. His work as patron of Emmaus, which helps the homeless back into community life, is just one strand of his charity work that takes him all over the world.

It is nearly 25 years since Waite emerged from captivity emaciated, bewildered and dazed by the glare of the world’s flashbulbs. As the Archbishop of Canterbury’s envoy he had been sent to Beirut to negotiate the release of Western hostages back in 1987.

He had enjoyed successes elsewhere, including Iran and Libya, but on this occasion the father of four disappeared, captured by Hezbollah militia, and was kept shackled and blindfolded in solitary confinement for more than four years. He was interrogated for a year, suffered vicious beatings on the soles of his feet and even endured a mock execution.

His final months of captivity were spent caged with hostages he had been trying to release – including John McCarthy and Brian Keenan from the UK and the American Terry Anderson.

For many people in this country Terry Waite remains bound up in their minds with the man they remember seeing on the TV news during the 1980s. Since his release he has kept a lower profile but continues to carry out humanitarian work particularly with Hostage UK, the charity he set up to support families of hostages.

He has also carved out another career as an author. He has talked in the past about how he came out of his incarceration with his first book Taken on Trust almost fully formed. Now, he has turned his hand to fiction with his debut novel The Voyage of The Golden Handshake.

His book is a gently rolling comedy that revolves around the recently retired Albert Hardcastle, who decides to take his wife on a cruise on board The Golden Handshake, captained by Sir Benbow Harrington, a former Royal Navy officer. It charts the ensuing adventures as their journey descends into chaos and farce.

Waite is in Harrogate this week where he will be attending The Yorkshire Post Literary Lunch to talk about his new book. So what made him decide to take a foray into the world of fiction? “I have always felt it is important to find humour in the world. Not everything in life can be laughed at, but the ability to laugh is part of our humanity,” he says.

“A lot of modern humour doesn’t make me laugh; there’s so much cynical humour – which there’s a place for. But I felt it was no good complaining and that I should try and make myself laugh, so I wrote The Voyage Of The Golden Handshake.”

It’s often said that fledgling writers are best sticking to what they know and for a long time Waite has been much sought after as a guest speaker on the cruise ship circuit, which he felt was the ideal backdrop to his genteel caper. “I have visited a lot of ports over the years and some of the events in the book are based on reality. I’ve found that with comic fiction you’re lifting reality a couple of inches so that it becomes ridiculous.”

He says his novel is a form of escapism which he found different from writing non-fiction. “With this book the characters are in my head. I’ve created them and put them on paper and what I found as I went on was they began to take on a life of their own, which I’ve heard people say before.”

However, there was little in his formative years to suggest he would go on to become a dab hand at comic writing later in life.

The son of a policeman, he showed an interest in Christianity as a boy and spent his early career in the Church Army. Waite was in Uganda as a Church of England adviser to the first African archbishop when Idi Amin seized control of the country and found himself negotiating with the volatile dictator.

“I was thrown into an environment where I faced difficult situations. I found that I had some sort of ability to deal with these situations – I wasn’t overawed.”

Through his work in Africa he was recruited by Robert Runcie, then Archbishop of Canterbury, as an adviser. “It wasn’t specifically to do hostage work, it just so happened that almost as soon as I joined we had the Iranian and Libyan hostage cases and I became involved in both.”

He was able to negotiate the release of Western hostages and his success made him a household name. During this period he found himself dealing face-to-face with the Libyan leader Colonel Gaddafi. “I’ve actually got one of his famous golden watches with his face on which he used to give to people as gifts,” he says. “But he was a very difficult character, there’s no doubt about that.”

When Waite was captured in 1987 he was trying to secure the release of another hostage, but had been warned about the risks involved. “I was the one who took the decision and I was the one who got captured. I can’t blame other people,” he says.

He has been described as courageous but he seems to shrink at such a word being attributed to him. “If I didn’t go and try to get him released I would have had to live with my conscience for the rest of my life. It wasn’t because I’m full of altruism.

“For me there’s a sense of trying to prove something to yourself. I’m always a bit suspicious when I hear someone say ‘I’m doing it for other people.’”

In many respects the 76-year-old’s life has been irrevocably shaped by the time he spent as a hostage, and it’s interesting that he traces the development of his creative imagination back to those dark days of incarceration.

“When I was in captivity I realised if I was going to survive I had to keep my mind active,” he says. “I couldn’t do much physical activity because I was chained to a wall, but even though I had no pen and paper I created a world of imaginary characters who I had conversations with.”

He points out that although it was a harrowing experience he has been able to put it to good use. “It was a very difficult time and very unpleasant. But one of the benefits of all those years of isolation is I’m now able to write books and I also learned how to deal with terrible situations, and now I can help others who unfortunately find themselves in a similar situation. So you can take positives from what appears to be a completely negative situation.”

Terry Waite is appearing at the Yorkshire Post Literary Lunch this Thursday, at the Majestic Hotel, Harrogate. For more details contact Margaret Brown at mbrownevents@hotmail.com or call 07731 690163.

• The Voyage Of The Golden Handshake, published by Silvertail Books, is out now priced £12.99.