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A Letter from Your President

By Bertil Lintner

I am never quite sure what to answer when people in Asia ask me where I studied journalism, what courses I attended and what university I went to. In Asia, it is taken for granted that young people have to struggle to get college and university degrees to prove that they know what they are supposed to know. Feebly, I usually try to explain that I never went to university, apart from a short stint at Classical Greek in Uppsala. I left my native Sweden at age 22 in June 1975 carrying a pack on my backand with a monthly budget of US$ 100. 1 had decided to travel overland through Asia down to New Zealand. Six months later, I reached Wellington. I had taken buses through the deserts of Afghanistan,crossed the Indian Subcontinent by train, stayed at the Malaysia Hotel in Bangkok, detoured via Borneo to Indonesia and hitch-hiked across Australia, from Perth toSydney. It was at that time I decided to become a journalist. My daily journal became the basis for a series of articles which I sent off to a local newspaper in my hometown in Sweden. One of the first stories I ever did was about Calcutta. I was fascinated by that vibrant city from the moment I arrived. The city resembled a weird mix of East London after a World War Two air raid and Lancashire at the time of the industrial revolution. There were high factory walls,smoking chimneys and cobbled streets teeming with humanity. Not even the old, imperial buildings in the city centre seemed to escape the effect of the press of people around them; they were crumbling to rubble ringed with human excreta and makeshift shelters raised by the thousands of pavement dwellers who were resolutely squatting in their once spacious colonnades.

An Indian weekly once described Calcutta as more a state of mind than a city: "It epitomises all that is magnificent and all that is squalid about urban India, its people, its theatres, its coffee-houses and its bookshops set against some of the most depressing slums, the most wretched pavement hovels, the most noxious pollution, the most irreparable decay in the world. It seems a city without hope, a sootand-concrete wasteland of power-cuts, pot-holes and poverty; yet it inspires some of the country's greatest creative talents. To the true Calcuttan, there is no other city quite like it; if one tires of Calcutta one tires of life."

The city also inspired a 22 year old boy from clean, sheltered Sweden to become a writer. I stayed in my dormitory at the Salvation Army Red Shield Guest House on Sudder Street for 8 rupees a night, bed and breakfast. I had three bouts of severe dysentery and lost more than 20 kilograms. But I gathered whatever strength I had left and went to see Major D. J. Gardiner, a former British Army officer who had shifted to the Salvation Army and ran a feeding program in Calcutta's slums. Everyday, his minitrucks picked up leftovers from the canteens in central Calcutta's office blocks, and then distributed the food in the shanty towns.

He was an impressive character, and I rather preposterously introduced myself as a " freelance journalist from Sweden "He was proud to show me his work and I took copious notes. The story was never published.Instead, my local Swedish newspaper settled for an account of how I had hitch-hiked through the Khyber Pass, and a colourful piece about the holy city of Benares. But if there was any doubt about my credentials, I now had articles in print to prove that I was indeed a journalist.

I spent another five years on the road from Istanbul to Bangkok, from Tokyo to Denpasar, before I settled in Thailand in early 1980. My university had been the Frontier Mail in Pakistan, the Hyderabad Express, the slums of Calcutta, the jungles of Burma and the wilderness of Borneo- and today I want to share this experience with other people who are dreaming of becoming journalists. It's your experience rather than your formal education that makes you a good, investigative reporter. This is not to say that formal education is meaningless, but in order to become a truly crazy journalist, it's your own life that matters the most - and in order to become a good journalist, you have to be a bit crazy, or as the classic American foreign correspondent H. R. Knickerbocker put it: " Whenever you find hundreds of thousands of sane people trying to get out of a place and a little bunch of madmen struggling to get in, you know that the latter are newspapermen."

Thank God we have the FCCT to retreat to. Our clubhouse may not be perfect, the food isn't all that great and it's certainly not cheap. But where else in Bangkok can you relax in the company of good friends? Our friendly staff, our Monday film nights, Wednesday night programs, cheap drinks on Fridays and documentaries on Saturdays all make us a unique club. Join us, and help us make the FCCT an even better club for madmen like myself as well as for associate members who want a hassle-free place to go for a beer and a chat.

This article first appeared in Dateline Bangkok, First Quarter 1994, Foreign Correspondents' Club of Thailand (FCCT)

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