An evening with Jonathan Dimbleby
Last week we celebrated the book industry’s support of our work with a very special event with eminent journalist and broadcaster Jonathan Dimbleby.
Over 70 guests from many publishing companies joined us at Hachette UK’s stunning rooftop venue. Here, Jonathan was interviewed by Fiona Campbell, Controller BBC News Mobile and Online, who had worked with him on his An African Journey and A South American Journey travel documentary series. Jonathan captivated the audience with stories of his experiences and insights from reporting and film making around the world over the past four decades. He also shared some of his favourite books and writers.
Jonathan originally studied agriculture with the aim of becoming a farmer but his father’s death when he was just 21 led him to re-evaluate his chosen path. He decided to study Philosophy at university and over the course of his studies, his aspirations changed as he became more politically aware. Upon completing his degree, he followed in his father’s footsteps as a journalist. Not long into his career there came a defining moment: When sent to report from Ethiopia, he was shocked to discover a country gripped by famine, which the international community was unaware of. He returned to the UK with the first footage of the unfolding disaster and his film The Unknown Famine brought news of the country’s plight to the world stage and was the catalyst for the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie. Africa, its people and in particular Ethiopia have remained important to Jonathan ever since and he has continued to report from the continent throughout his career.
Since then, Jonathan has covered many crises as a reporter. It is possibly these insights which make him so passionate about the importance of books. He spoke of how, when visiting communities who didn’t have access to books, it was as if people had swathes of darkness around them:
“You can live without books, but your life is diminished without them . . . if you were read to as a child, you know how much that enriches your life.”
“I long for people who don’t have the time or inclination [to read], to understand how much they would relish reading . . . because it is a joy to read.”
On the topic of books and his own love for the written word, Jonathan shared some of the books and authors that have kept him company on his travels. William Boyd and Graham Greene are particular favourites for comfort reading while away from home. He spoke of how, while filming A South American Journey, he couldn’t sleep one night and wanted to read Greene’s The Power and the Glory. Even though he was in the Amazon at that point, he was able to download it onto his Kindle and read it through the night! Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, in particular War and Peace, kept Jonathan company while travelling through Russia to film his BBC series about the country.
Jonathan also spoke of his particular love of 19th century novels. Books by Thomas Hardy and George Elliot’s Silas Marner and Middlemarch are particular favourites.
When asked to recommend three books which everyone should read, after acknowledging what a difficult task it was to choose just three, he decided upon The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John le Carré and Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy.
Johnathan was the most interesting and insightful speaker. We are delighted to count Jonathan, who has seen first-hand the challenges that many communities in sub-Saharan Africa face, a firm supporter of our work:
“I have no hesitation in supporting Book Aid International because I absolutely believe that what it contributes to is beyond value . . . Books really do transform lives and I can think of nothing, other than healthcare, that can better ensure the talents of the people of Africa are realised.”
Many thanks to Jonathan Dimbleby, Fiona Campbell and Hachette UK for their generous support.
Jonathan Dimbleby presented our BBC Radio 4 Appeal in January 2015. You can hear it again here.