Worldly words

Veteran foreign correspondent and former Newsweek editor, Patrick Skene Catling talks to John Byrne about bribing his way through Guatemala, romancing Peggy Lee and kissing Billie Holiday


He was saved from a hostile black crowd by Billie Holiday in a ghetto jazz club in Baltimore. He covered the the CIA's covert operations in 1950s Central America and got drunk with the Duke of Windsor in the Bahamas. He flew planes for the Canadian Air Force, became a great friend of PG Wodehouse, and narrowly avoided marrying jazz great Peggy Lee.

All of which conspired, he says, to give a man a "terrible thirst".

Patrick Skene Catling, foreign correspondent, bestselling author, drinker, raconteur, former associate editor of Newsweek magazine and assistant editor of Punch, has been living in west Cork for 30 years and has just had his memoirs published in Ireland. They have been described by John Banville as "a glorious catalogue of travels and adventures, good living and good loving, scrapes and escapes, written with fluency, elegance and wit".

The title, Better Than Working, explains the reason he became a journalist. Born in Britain and educated in New York, after a quick spell with the Canadian air force during the second world war (during which he successfully avoided combat situations) he didn't know what to do with himself. His father, a journalist with Reuters, advised him: become a journalist, because it was "better than working".

"My career began with the Baltimore Sun – a wonderful, independent family-owned paper," he says. He worked as a police reporter, and later as a foreign correspondent, and travelled to the Middle East, Korea, Greenland and, most memorably for him, Central America.

"I covered the war between Nicaragua and Costa Rica in the 1950s. I attended the CIA-contrived revolution against Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán [then president] in Guatemala in 1954. At that time, the [US] State department was very nervous about any kind of Communism in their hemisphere. Guatemala was the most obvious case of interference in another country. Arbenz was mildly socialist. You could hardly call him a Red. I spent some time with the American Ambassador during the campaign. I remember the first time I interviewed him, he said, 'Let's go up on the roof.' He was wearing a kind of Churchillian siren suit. Every day the planes came to drop small bombs. I said, 'Is that wise?' He said, 'It's alright, the target is out there, the Aurora Gasoline Storage tank, so it's okay, we can go up on the roof.' And sure enough, that's what happened because it was all programmed."

In Guatemala, he found that the best way to get things done was through bribery.

"Part of my expense account was 'bribes to censor – $160'. The censor's job was to listen in to our phone calls and pull the plug if there was anything unfavourable to the regime being transmitted. His prices were not very high. He had a sweet tooth, he liked plenty of cointreau and strawberries and cream. I wasn't the only correspondent bribing him. He got very natty suits and pointed yellow shoes."

Did he have much of a sense of doing good in exposing the activities of the Americans?

"I myself have never done any good. I was rather self-indulgent. I wrote mostly features. Even when I was a foreign correspondent, I wrote in that manner. Obviously I covered the news, basically, but I embroidered. I don't mean I twisted it or bent it, but I tried to make it a bit more colourful."

Saved by Billie Holiday

After going to London as the Boston Sun's London bureau chief, he moved the to the Manchester Guardian (now the Guardian), then to Punch magazine as a assistant editor, where he wrote a weekly jazz column.

"When I was doing the jazz column Peggy Lee [the American jazz singer] came to London. She drank some bad champagne with us at a press conference and at the end I asked her for an interview. She said, 'Yeah, let's go to my place.' I said, 'Okay.' She brought me to her hotel where she was occupying a huge suite, very luxurious. And one thing lead to another. She was invited to Monte Carlo to do a charity concert for Princess Grace and took me along as her interpreter. My French consisted of reading menus and I managed to sound a little bit French late at night. So over I went, wrote her a 100-word speech."

They went to Beverly Hills, but their relationship was getting "rather suffocating".

"She announced that we were going to Mexico where I was to get an immediate divorce and then we were to marry the same day," he says. "She had told all her hangers-on about this but she had neglected to tell my wife. I resisted Peggy Lee's advancements and ran away. I was with her for about three months."

He had a more fleeting encounter with Billie Holiday in a Baltimore jazz club in 1958.

"It was this small, black club in the ghetto in Baltimore, just a year before her death. I got there fairly late in the evening and she was near the end of her performance. She ended each set, in those days, with a song called 'Strange Fruit' – a very evocative song [about racism]. I was the only white in the room. There was this strange atmosphere in the place. Nobody actually threatened me but I felt very intimidated. She must have been a bit out of it, maybe on heroin, but she was nonetheless quite sensitive and noticed my unease, and towards the end of the song she sat down and gave me a big kiss on the lips. The whole room exhaled and relaxed.

"She ordered a big bottle of gin and she sang at that table and we talked and talked and talked after closing time. I absolutely adored her. She was quite tough, good sense of humour, loved music, obviously. She had had a rough time. She was arrested on her death-bed for narcotics. But even at the end, when her voice had practically failed, there was still so much feeling in it."

He left journalism in 1963 after a stint as associate editor of Newsweek ("I don't know what I did there. There were so many associate editors") and pursued his real love: fiction. Since then he has written over 10 books, "which have been described as satire" and kept company with such literary giants as Graham Greene and PG Wodehouse ("The most content writer I have ever met"). His children's books are very successful, including The Chocolate Touch, which was published in 1952. It's still in print, is on school lists in the US ("Hallelujah. And the children have got to buy it") and has made his publishers 10 million dollars and him "seven or eight per cent of that. It's been my most regular income."

Since he moved to Ireland he hasn't had to pay any tax on his income because of the artists' tax-exemption scheme.

"I moved to Ireland because of the genes [the Irish mother], plus tax avoidance for so-called 'creative artists'. The revenue commissioners are very non-critical. They'd let anyone in. It's just a matter of recommendation."

Most foreign writers claim they come here for the inspiring scenery or the friendly people.

"Well, I do enjoy that as well. I live a mile from the nearest village, and there are very few disturbances apart from the occasional seagull flapping about. It's really quiet. If you can't write there you can't write anywhere." p