Subtitle: Imagination taking power

John McCarthy on the captive imagination

John McCarthy is a journalist, writer and broadcaster who works for the BBC and has written several books.  He became a household name in the 1980s when, on his first foreign assignment in the Lebanon, he was kidnapped and held captive for just over 5 years.  This was, as he puts it, “my curious claim to fame”.  He spent some of his time in captivity in isolation, and some with fellow hostage, Brian Keenan.  As part of my research on imagination, I was intrigued to know what happens to the imagination in such a situation. Does it shut down? Does it take over? I met John in a cafe in Teddington, where we had a fascinating conversation on what happens to the captive imagination.

From what I know and what I’ve read about you, you were someone who, before you were taken hostage, your imagination was a big part of what you were doing, and it is now, afterwards. But I wondered if you might share your experience of the journey that your imagination went through during your captivity and out the other side?

Certainly going into that experience, initially one was in a state of shock. Not surprisingly, terrified. I was kept in solitary confinement for the first 3 months. I had no idea who’d taken me or why, and therefore what was going to happen next. I was living in fear of my life. One’s imagination can take off in all directions.

Every noise you hear – I was in an underground cell – means that somebody’s coming. Are they coming to get you, or one of the other prisoners, who I didn’t know who they were, mainly local Arab people? What does that mean? But weirdly, your imagination is playing furiously in captivity. Anything can mean anything, everything is significant in some probably crazy way. That’s probably because in a solitary situation like that, not only are you hyper aware, hyper tense, but also you’ve got no-one to bat ideas against, or share ideas with, so you’ve got nobody else giving you perspective. It’s just you, absolutely nothing else to relate to, and no communication with the people holding me, for nearly all of that first 3 months.

No idea of what was going on. So that was very intense. On the one hand I’m living in, almost like a fantasy world. Then the other fantasy world that is keeping me sane, is imaging that I’m released the next day, and I get on the plane that I’ve missed getting on because I was hijacked so to speak, and getting back to London, meeting up with my fiancée, buying the flat we wanted to. Then I would take that further, and we’d be on holiday, and this would happen, and this would happen…

You would play those as scenarios?

Yes. And the imagination on one level, which was not in terms of creating something new but actually creating something old, if you like. So being with Jill, my girlfriend, or going out to my Mum and Dad’s house in the country at a weekend as I often did for a bit of R&R, and going for a walk and then Sunday lunch at home. These were re-imaginings if you like: safe, wonderful places where I knew I belonged, and literally was home. Both home, if you like, the emotional home with my girlfriend, and emotional and actual family home with my parents and brother.

I would escape there. But, living in the real-time, although it seemed like a fantasy world in itself because it was so weird and spooky, there I was in this tiny little underground cell. And coping with that level of a sort of hyper-stimuli but with no stimuli. It’s a strange thing. There was nothing. It was just a completely blank little room, little concrete cell with a metal door, and a filthy mattress and blanket, and that was it, which I was let out of once a day.

That was that experience, and it became very twisted. Another prisoner was tortured, and I heard him being shot. You heard him screaming and all of that. One was constantly imagining escape, trying to work out how to escape. There was a disgusting toilet, bathroom at the end of the corridor, where we were all taken one by one, you’re blindfolded, so again you can’t see.

It’s like meeting you and thinking, “I wonder what Rob looks like? I saw one of the captors once when my blindfold fell off and it was just a nice young man looking at me, smiling slightly, like you. It’s a very strange way to be, living in a different dimension sort of thing. You’re dreaming of that. Your imagination is running over time.

Who is this man, why are they killing him? Why wouldn’t they kill me? What is happening to get me out of here? Always thinking about what is going on. Who are these people? There were air vents which came down, this was underground in the southern suburbs of Beirut under some big building, whether it was a mosque or a warehouse, who knows. Every now and then you could hear, very early in the morning, if there was a power cut these little fans weren’t working, you could sometimes hear like a Vespa or motorbike start up. It was regular, and you thought, “That must be Ali, or Hari, or whatever his name might be, going off to work.”

That was a rather pleasant connection, and that happened again in other places when I wasn’t on my own, happily, but was again above ground. You’d hear kids talking, or something, quite nearby suddenly because you were in an apartment block somewhere. You couldn’t see anything because everything was metal shutters everywhere, but you could hear the world around, and that was sort of reassuring.

You would hear a man, so you created a story for this guy. Who he was, and somehow that he was friendly. If you could only get out and maybe nick his motorbike, you could get back to somewhere safe in another part of Beirut. But then you’d also hear, when these fans were on, there would be a “Whoo-ssh” or whatever noise. And then sometimes your mind would take that over and start composing music.

John with Brian Keenan.

You’d begin to hear, obviously sounds that weren’t actually there, but your brain would start rearranging those bits and bobs of sounds until there was some majesty playing. When I was moved from that solitary prison, I met Brian Keenan, the Irish guy, we were together for the next four years – and we talked and it turned out he was in that place too. He’d been taken a week before me.

He talked about it just that way, about that. In fact, we worked on a film together about it. There was a great scene of the actor playing Brian, dancing around in a cell to this music, you know, which of course is only in here. We both shared that sort of strange thing of playing with the world. And that can become more neurotic. You begin to think, “When that chap comes, he’s dangerous and he’s going to kill me.” Based really on nothing at all. When we were together we could then have that sense of perspective about what was going on, and that was very reassuring.

Also there was just somebody friendly you could actually see, obviously, because you didn’t have to wear a blindfold with each other, most of the time, so that was good. But then I think the imagination took off, because we were fucking bored most of the time. Simply that. Because we didn’t have books. Very rarely had books. Very rarely maybe allowed to watch a film.

You know, they might show us a film. Normally some godawful Rambo-style war movie that they would like. They would sit behind you with real guns. You know, like I used to watch Westerns with my Dad on Sunday and I’d have my little pistol, hide behind a cushion shooting the Redskins. These guys were behind their hostages watching Rambo. This is too bonkers. Anyway, quite, quite eccentric.

There was a way of escape, which was to let the imagination take over. We would imagine scenarios, and this is to entertain ourselves, but also it worked to defuse the sense of those guys out there with their guns, and their chains and God knows whatever. You’d make up stories, or I would often sort of mimic back one of the accents or the way they spoke English, or sometimes French. You’d then create a story based about what these guys did at home, how incompetent they were. You were diminishing them somehow, and slightly taking away the terror of them, with comedy, effectively.

Kind of improv, sort of.

It would be improv stuff. I remember there were times when we had enormous fun doing it, in really shitty circumstances. Really bad circumstances. Getting the giggles, and just roaring with laughter. You know what it’s like when you smile at somebody … just sharing something, and that warmth, and whatever laughter does to the body.

You know, it just makes you feel good, so being able to do that under those circumstances was phenomenal. And then to do it for each other of course was extra good. But it would mean that we would sometimes be in a freezing cold, very tense place, so physically uncomfortable nearly always, and physically very tense too – we didn’t know what was going to happen next, a move, or a dangerous guard threatening us or beating us or something – but if you could then make a joke out of that, and find yourself rolling around, it was like an inspiration.

You’re thinking, here I am, maybe bruised from a beating, frightened from a move, chained up, freezing cold in winter wearing a pair of shorts, haven’t shaved, not allowed to, no idea where I am, who these people are, no word at all from the outside world, but I’m roaring my head off and enjoying this mad moment. So you look at that and think, if it’s that good, here, well of course we’re going to hang on a bit longer together, you know, and that was easy to do.

I remember Brian was particularly brilliant company, because he was funny, obviously, but also a very intellectual, intelligent man, and feisty, and a bit bonkers. You know, so it was remarkably lucky… I was just blessed really. I still am, to have him as a good friend. But then, I could have had the most appallingly boring person or somebody…

Your release is documented in Gordon Turnbull’s book ‘Trauma’…

Yeah, he was at that point still in the RAF and he was leading the team that was the vanguard of whole school of PTSD. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. He and his colleagues were using the services as a way of saying, “These men and women who are on the frontline, they may get shell shock but it doesn’t mean they’re screwed. And they don’t need to lie on a couch forever.” It was a very good military way of saying people just need a bit of help. They just need to talk things through and then we’ll get them back to business, so to speak.

It was ideal for the likes of me, because I just thought, “I’ve dealt with this situation as a captive” because we were there long enough, luckily, to cope with a lot of it. So one could think, “Yes, I can deal with this. I don’t want to have to talk about that anymore but…“ Anyway, so when we came out, I actually thought, “That’s all that done. All I’m worried about now is getting back to work, getting back to life, getting back to my relationship if I can.” Etcetera. Whereas obviously it wasn’t quite that simple, but his attitude was, “Well, you don’t seem to be mad. Anything you want to talk about, about the captivity? No? Okay, alright. So from our experience of this sort of thing, captives returning, these are the sorts of problems. This might happen, that might happen.”

So it was like, “Oh, bingo. The practical stuff.” It was very good. His team looked after a number of POWs. So service people as well as they were then in position to help the hostages and help one of the Americans.

I was with this person who was quite demanding, in an extremely good way. You know, he would decide he was going to go on a dirty protest. Brian was from Belfast. He’d grown up in the Troubles, so he knew all about left of Irish nationalist politics in Belfast. So knew about the whole situation of the dirty protests and hunger strikes and all that stuff, which he sort of brought merrily into our situation in Beirut.

He was like “I’m not going to put on the clothes you’re giving me. I’ll wear mine until they fall… I’m not going to wear the clothes of a prisoner.” And I’d say to Brian, “I don’t think they really give a flying fuck about what we think about anything really. We’re just here, so we might as well stay…” So we would have these conversations. That was making me think about stuff that I didn’t know, didn’t understand really, beyond headlines. But then it was working out how we dealt with each other. That was fascinating.

But it was interesting doing things to keep, not exactly the imagination going, but the brain ticking over. We would play all sorts of silly games. I say silly, you know, basic games. Say we happened to get some sugar for something, for some reason. Then, “Ah, white, brown, that’s two teams”, you know, so we can play throwing games, or whatever sorts of games it might be.

We had a chess set. This was particularly with one of the American guys who taught me to play chess, which I couldn’t play. It was just extraordinary, and also Bridge we played as well. People chained up playing Bridge, ludicrously funny at the time. But anyway I found that the chess thing was fantastic, to the point of completely taking over my head.

I remember at that point, say, we may have had a book every now and then, with perhaps three or four of us were sharing and reading. So the idea of chess, I mean, I can go like that, I can go like that, and then obviously it’s a brilliantly complicated game, but you can go from just knowing that that goes like that, to working it out. I was thinking throughout the day and the night how I was going to beat this lovely American who was teaching me. He was sort of Grade 30, whatever it is, compared to my grade 0.2. He was always going to beat me, and initially he gave me three pieces, and then it was gradually, “Oh no, you can have one.” Then, “I’m not sure you can have any pieces anymore,” because I was catching him up, which was great.

The games would go for days. But it was that wonderful thing of my brain just going, “Well if I move that one there, and that one there,” so it’s not exactly imagination, but it was imagining, and reordering the world. That was something I played albeit as a man, if you like as an academic element to my character, I was mathematically stupid. I never really got Maths.

My brother was even worse. My dad was hopeless too, even though he was a Royal Engineer. I don’t think he built any bridges that fell down, but anyway. So that wasn’t there, but I would always be playing some maths games in my head about, “We’d been in this prison that long, we’d been in that prison that long. Therefore that means that this, and now if I divide that by that, how many prisons… that would mean we’re going home in five weeks.” You know, and Brian would say, “Oh no.”

He had this great phrase. He’d go like this, “Roll it up, and put it away.” Because he was like, “I’ve been going home for the past three years, every three months, and I haven’t gone anywhere yet. So fuck off.” That was very funny…

Some of the stuff you read about people who are put in solitary, in the US for example, who just lose their mental faculties completely, because… My reading of it is that they don’t come into that situation with the ability to do that. To be able to piece stuff together and entertain themselves.

No, I think if you don’t have that, then that would be a nightmare. Terry Waite had four years of solitary, and I don’t know how he managed it. I mean, we did get books occasionally but they were hard fought for, you know. And always stressful and lonely. Of course it was the loneliness which he suffered from as well as the tedium, much more than the rest of us did in fact.

But yes, it was keeping the brain going, and that was really important. It did mean that at times you would just imagine the horrors of what was going on. When we were moved in a new way, we were taped up like Egyptian mummies. If you imagine, they made us stand up, we were taped from head to foot with packing tape, and then we were put in what we can only imagine were – didn’t see them – but were metal boxes underneath trucks to be shipped to another location. It was unbelievably uncomfortable. I actually thought we were going to be killed.

I couldn’t believe we were dealing with human beings anymore because they were treating us like that. I remember my brain just going completely wild, thinking, “They’re going to do this… We’re in some…” I imagine I was thinking of those trucks, with the rubbish, and they tip the chute, and they go “Gulp” and I thought, we’re in a garbage truck. So not a good imagining.

Then we started moving and I realised that this wasn’t happening immediately. But then I thought I was going to be sick, and choke, because I was completely covered in plastic. Die, on my own vomit, all that sort of mad stuff. I remember starting thinking, “Right, supposing I were to have a business. And what am I doing? I’m running a warehouse, and I’ve got to work out a way of cutting costs, but I don’t want to fire anybody. So if they all work, how many days in a week, how many working days in a week… “ So your brain is completely fucked. Right? I can’t really think.

But I think, “No, come on, come on. Let’s say a 60 hour week. Is that right? Is that normal, a 60 hour week? How many days is that? Okay, so say it’s five hours a day, five fives are… it doesn’t matter. Okay, so each of them has to take an hour off their week…” Anyway, sort of mad calculations, but desperately trying to keep my head going rather than letting it just go “Ke-dong”.

I suppose that’s what I was doing, rather than just thinking… Because I thought I was so close, albeit Brian was there too, somewhere in these boxes. But I was thinking, “I’ve got to hang on. I cannot let go because…” Actually I haven’t thought about that moment for a long time. I’ve thought about the taping thing because I refer to it in speeches.

But it was that thing of, “I must not let go too much here. I’ve got to hang on.” And the only way I can hang on is by taking myself completely out of this situation and imagining I’m at some meeting, some thinking outside the box ha-ha situation, where I’m going to work out a new way of something and I’m going to say, “Sorry chaps, we’re all going to take a cut but nobody’s going to be laid off. It’s just going to be a bit, you know, we’ll all earn £5 less a week.” Whatever it was in the end. God. Actually, so that was really helpful.

It was playing games. Literally. The fun of winding each other up was quite good. If we did have a book… I remember Brian’s French was minimal. If my Maths was bad, his French was even worse, but we were occasionally given very bad novels in French. Like Mills and Boon I think they were. Which we sometimes got in English, which didn’t really help us, but anyway, it was something.

There was this one story, I was reading it to Brian. I just thought, “Well he has no idea” so I just made it all up. And there was another one, Madame Bovary. I’ve only bad A-level French so my French wasn’t up to reading it. I was fascinated trying to understand what it was all about, but I gave Brian, day by day, who couldn’t read it, the story. Which I sort of could get some of it but mostly I just remembered that shortly before we were went to Beirut I’d seen the BBC2 dramatization of it.

On another one I read a bad novel before Brian but this was in English. I said, “Oh, it’s not very good Brian. Obviously you’re going to read it. It’s just a little thriller.” I said, “I don’t want to give anything away. I don’t want to spoil it for you. But whatever else is leading you and you’re thinking this, and the detective’s thinking that, and this guy… just keep thinking about the Roman Catholic priest.” You know, “Alright, alright,” and he forgot about it.

Then two days later, “There was no fucking priest!” “Oh sorry!” And it was just stupid, really stupid. But it was good for our relationship because it was just like talking nonsense to each other. Winding each other up a bit and entertaining each other at the same time.

Did you feel like you came out of the process with your imagination intact, or did you feel that when you got back and you got back here, that it was something that you needed to give some attention to?

Not consciously, no. It was certainly, the imagination if you like, was overrun by the reality of the stimuli. Imagine being in blank room, for five years effectively, even if with other people, but only ever men. And suddenly you’re in here (points around the café). Literally, just even in a quiet little café like this. There’s just so much going on, and you’re listening to every single conversation at the same time, which is very odd.

Because you’re hyper vigilant?

Yes, you’re hyper vigilant anyway from the experience. You’re going into a pub, apart from drinking too much, which happened understandably I suppose, but also because you think, “What are they doing? That’s fascinating. Who are they?” Everything was going on.

I then had to use the imagination when I started writing the book about the captivity with Jill, my girlfriend had been campaigning for my release. I had to sit down and try and use the imagination to describe the scenario, the captive scenarios as they were.

Even, well, tell you some of the stories I’ve been sharing this morning. Then you’re suddenly doing that. “How do I phrase that?” So then you’re getting the muscles going again, rather than just in the normal way thinking, “So how do I do that? So how am I going to express this?” Which was very cathartic, but also good fun in terms of the purely creative side of it.

If we are in a scenario where our collective imagination is a weakened thing, do you have any thoughts about how we might rebuild it again? Is there anything that you would draw on from your experience?

What you said, a little while ago, before we started recording, about what can you do with this pepper pot? I remember at one point, this is interesting… I’m glad you asked the question because it’s taken me back again. I remember at one point I was very depressed in captivity. Losing it a bit, probably, and Brian was very worried about me.

I don’t really remember this totally, but he remembers it. Occasionally we’d close down. You’d just go into a blue funk, and we would leave each other for a couple of days, and then he would start saying, “Hello. Hi Rob. How are you Rob?” Just determinedly out to lunch so to speak, and then you’d eventually get through to each other, which was alright.

But you’d let each other have a calm, quiet couple of days. It was this sort of emotional overload, you’d close down a bit. But I remember he was telling me, he said he had this thing about, “John, you’ve got to start thinking about something.” I’d seen my mother do a video appeal that they showed me, which was emotionally devastating.

Afterwards I was probably in a very low state, and he was saying, “You’ve just got to think about something else.” And I said, “I can’t” you know. He said, “Alright, alright, alright. Imagine, you’re in a room. Not this horrible little room, but you’ve just arrived at a cottage somewhere on a hillside and it’s pouring with rain. Luckily the front door’s open and you got in. There’s nobody there but in this one room there’s just a fireplace with some ashes in the grate, and there’s some orange peel just beside it, and then there’s one shoe over there in the corner, looks quite new. What’s happened? Tell me what’s happened? What’s the story?”

So I said, “What are you on about? What are you talking about?” He said, “I’m not talking about anything. Just tell me. Put that thing together. Whose shoe was it? Who? Why?” And eventually, I said, “Oh, alright, alright. So let’s see. Well obviously it was somebody who was eating an orange. He’d been there not long ago, so peel’s not too dried up yet. So okay, but he’s gone off without a shoe. Well maybe he had to run out in a hurry. Yeah, could be. A bit of a fire going. Who was it?”

So suddenly you’re off. But the thing that took me back to that was your question about how do we re-find or rediscover imagination. It’s by, in a sense, taking ourselves somewhere where there aren’t these stimuli, and giving ourselves the task of creating an imaginary scenario. Or understanding something by putting a few things in there, like starting a story. Like Improv, if you like.

So okay, “I’ve got this, this and this, how do we do that?” Instead of just doing it with all the screens that we are all rather dominated by, whether by watching an actual film, or doing our research. It becomes impossible I find to concentrate on research now because there’s always another webpage that’s looking interesting too, and there’s another one… You know, you know, “God, leave me alone. I can’t read this one!” So you collect sixty thousand words that you’re going to read to maybe write a paragraph. It’s sort of bonkers.

Or my daughter, who’s 12 years old, will be doing homework using one element of her mini IPad, so it’s not a big screen in the first place, whilst she’s got a tiny corner eye at some TV programme, and she’s also got her phone. So you have to say, “switch that bit off, concentrate on that, do your writing.” But it’s interesting, how on one level how she can be spinning all over the shop, but it is kind of controlled.

I’m thinking, “No, take all that away. And then just make something up. Whether it’s a story you’re writing. Or if you want to draw something. Don’t get some cartoon version and then copy that. Just imagine a tree.” In a way it’s taking away the stimuli that we have so much of, and literally, as I suppose we did, it’s a cliché, but thinking out of the box, so that you’re suddenly nowhere.

A question I’ve asked everybody while I’ve been doing this research is, if you were elected as the Prime Minister, if there was an election in a year’s time, and you ran on a ‘Make Britain Imaginative Again’ platform, not ‘Make America Great Again’, but ‘Make Britain Imaginative Again’, so you said, it is a national priority that we make this the most imaginative nation it could possibly be, what might you do in your first 100 days in office?

What I would certainly do would be revise completely the way we test children in school. I mean, having a 12 year old at the moment going through that… It’s sort of devastating, but it’s always working you towards just the ticking boxes, which I know is devastating for the teachers too, because it’s so undermining, so boring, and makes their work so much harder but without being creative, and you’re not seeing children shine in the way that they can do.

They’re always limiting them effectively because they’re not allowed to fly. That would be the first thing. I can’t answer it specifically but essentially we’d be saying, “Let’s free up the children not just to have to hit targets that somebody’s arbitrarily imposed.” Even if it’s just two lessons a week where they can just literally do art, slap paint around the place, or write stories. But they’re not allowed to use anything beyond their own imaginations. And they might have to do with one or two other people, three people, as a little group. That would be important.

Do you have a sense of the state of health of our collective imagination in 2018? If you were to dip your thermometer in, what’s your sense of what you see around you?

Well, interesting. I think creative imagination has become largely focused, apart from being wealthy, wealthy as any of us can be, whether that’s a child having more clothes than anybody ever had certainly when I was a boy, dreamt of, needed certainly, to all of us needing to own a home and all that stuff. Our imaginations are limited by what we think is the best thing to have, because it’s such a material world.

The way the majority of us tend to live, you know, certainly in the Western society I suppose. We’ve lost the spiritual outlet, whether that’s religious, or just an emotional or creative artistic connection with the world, and nature, as well as the creative visual, written world. But then also I think one of the key things is the word you mentioned there, which was fear. I think a lot of our focus is on fear.

When I look at what my daughter’s reading, or watching, she’s only 11 or 12, and she was explaining to me what The Hunger Games was about, because I sort of blanked it all off when it came out. I was thinking, “You’re reading stories about kids going off and shooting at each other with bows and arrows, because they’ve got to. Because this austerity world has gone mad.” “Yeah, it’s really good, Dad.” So she held my hand and made me watch the first film of the trilogy, or whatever it is, and I was impressed with the acting of it. It wasn’t as grotesque as I thought it might be. But the idea stands.

I thought, “Yes, this is all working about fear. And somehow that’s playing…” So the imagination is huge on one level, but it’s kind of a restricted level. And actually a negative one in many respects, that so much of the stories… I mean, okay, all kids stories focus on tension, Grimm’s fairy tales … absolutely terrifying stories. Some of the vampire stuff that’s on TV and literature is I guess just an extension of that. But it does seem, “God that’s an awful lot of that.”

The imagination is still there. It’s bound to be there. But it isn’t exercised enough. It’s very hard to sit down and do something. I notice that I need to be able to be quietly thinking and reading. And I’m not good, particularly if other people are round me. I’d be rubbish in a news room if I went back to work in one now.

Maybe I’m just not very clever. I can’t have more than 2 or 3 ideas going on in my head at a time. I can focus quickly on that, focus quickly on that, but mostly I think, “No I want to try and get my head around this idea.” So quite a slow reader, etcetera. But put me with a good novel, and I can just…. Whether it’s a Dickens, or a Maigret novel I can lose myself in that. Haven’t lost that ability to read, thank God.

Main photo: Anna McCarthy.


  1. Kitty
    February 8, 2018

    Well ,quiet an impressive story, i can feel the pain and lonlyness and fear. To have a mate in prison is ,when it is the right person, playing games with you and stimulate the imagination is a blessing. I’am a visitor for three prisons in France, not as horrorfull as in this story, but far below all civilised human support. The only way to change this “institutions”is working inside, to try to change the mentality of working force within these prisons, who are without compassion what so ever. The new build prison , had no garden, no yoga, no dutch/english/ german / arabic books. And yes all has been changed, in ten years time, because we can change even the prison environment, at least in Europe. Talking about the future what a prisoner could do when he is free , instead of staying in the old habits, making business plans like in this story, giving some hope of change. And develop the imagination.
    Impressive interview!

  2. Patricia Lee Knox
    February 10, 2018

    Dear John,
    Thank you for telling your story. Many could not tell. Thank you for revealing the mind games that kept you alive. Many could not reveal. You have a connection with, and give me a sense of connection with, those imprisoned. The feeling is humbling, the trauma large. And yet the human spirit kept its spark alive because you fanned it through inner strength. You bring new meaning to the resilience of imagination that can bring color to the darkest moment. I am moved by your story, by you. Thank you.

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