IT’S fairly well known that some of my journalist colleagues have dubbed me “the international man of misery”. Yes, that’s right, it is a play on the character from the American spy comedy movie Austin Powers: International Man Of Mystery. Hilarious, eh?

As I’m sure regular readers of my articles will agree it’s, ahem, an iniquitous epithet. There is, after all, very little to be cheery about when writing about war, famine, pestilence or disease day in week out, the current pandemic being a point in case.

That said, if you really want to see a misery guts, then look no further than the foreign correspondent unable to dash around the world to cover stories.

My long-suffering wife, who has grown accustomed – one might even say welcoming – of my often prolonged absences these past many years, has taken to ascribing another epithet to me given my current enforced hiatus.

The Victor Meldrew of international reporting she calls me, adding a new chapter to the imaginary Victor Diaries she is writing as I daily fit the role of the archetypal grumpy old man from the sitcom One Foot In The Grave. Yesterday saw two new chapters, Victor Does Pasta and Victor Hates Jeremy Vine.

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Speaking, however, of real writers, it was the great William Howard Russell, an Irish reporter with The Times, who covered the Crimean War in the 1850s and who is often considered as having been one of the first modern war or foreign correspondents. It was also Russell who described those within our profession as a “luckless tribe”.

Our species, he concluded, verges on the obsessively curious and are part nomad, voyeur and masochist. We are also, he observed, invariably resourceful, prone to be selfish loners and almost always cunning and pushy.

I’d like to disagree with Russell’s character take, but I can’t. In many respects he’s bang on the money. What’s more, so many of these distinguishing traits are ideal in the time of Covid-19. Call them war correspondent survival instincts or coping mechanisms.

Certainly from a voyeur’s perspective it means one never tires of watching from my flat window the battles between seagulls and pigeons that right now appear to have taken over the streets of Glasgow’s Merchant City where we live.

The selfish loner bit, too, comes in especially handy right now when you’re stashed away indoors alongside your tonne of bog roll and bottles of gin. Then there’s the cunning and pushy bit, which is particularly handy during those once-a-day forays out into the no man’s land of the pandemic to requisition said bog roll and bottles of gin. Where things do get tough though, and the foreign correspondent’s guile and resourcefulness are just not enough, is in making sure that nomadic and storytelling desire is fulfilled.

Like the best pub raconteurs you see, foreign correspondents, like most reporters, love the power of the yarn and instinctively know that the quirky or human detail, which says “I was there”, is what makes stories come alive for the audience.

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All of which got me thinking in these times of self-confinement about the many wonderful places, inspiring people and bizarre experiences I’ve encountered during almost 40 years of journeying to locations most people would avoid for good reason.

Always such adventures of course begin with a journey, something which, after the best part of four decades on the hoof, I never thought of myself pining for ever again until these self-isolating, self-distancing days.

Isolation and distance, after all, are near meaningless to the foreign correspondent. The world of international news coverage is no respecter of standing still, mileage, time or circumstance.

I recall once, while on the last days of a holiday in Spain in 2006, getting news of the sudden eruption of a war between Israel and the paramilitary forces of Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Within hours of getting home from holiday an alternative set of bags were packed, complete with body armour and helmet, and I headed off almost immediately.

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Given that Beirut airport was shut down because of Israeli bombing, the journey ended up being somewhat circuitous. Early on, too, colleagues already in Lebanon had warned me that the banks and ATM’s in Beirut were closed and that I should bring all the money I needed for the duration of my stay.

Having been in Spain just prior to my departure for the Middle East, including a day trip to Morocco, I had over the course of a week withdrawn cash from ATM’s in Tangier, Tarifa in Spain, Glasgow, London, Vienna and Damascus in Syria, before arriving in Beirut to a telephone call from a rather concerned representative of my bank.

“Even by your standards Mr Pratt this activity seems quite unusual,” he observed, before pausing briefly and asking only half jokingly: “Are you on the run?”

So many of such journeys over the years, often to the remotest places, have been memorable and invariably involve flying.

Flying – remember that? Already it seems like and age since I last stepped aboard a plane, not that I ever imagined missing air travel. Early in my career I confess to being a little anxious about flying, but later I grew to love it despite some of the crazier moments.

Moments like that time in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) when I went to cover a story on the legal and illegal gold mining trade that flourishes in some of the remotest bush and jungle territory in this vast, resource-rich country.

For weeks I found myself in the hands of two bush pilots – Chris “Peppersteak” Laidler and Paddy Hyndman. For the best part of seven years Laidler and Hyndman had worked as bush pilots flying in and out of one of the continent’s most politically volatile areas – the Great Lakes region that straddles Uganda, Rwanda and the vastness of northeastern Congo.

In that time Laidler,had picked up – along with a few furrows on his brow – the Peppersteak nickname because, as Hyndman pointed out, it doesn’t matter what kind of restaurant he goes to – Thai, Italian or Indian – it’s always the same order – pepper steak.

Young modern men, these aviators might be. But despite their occasional penchant while airborne for listening on their iPods to The Killers, there still seemed something of a pioneering streak in their nature more in tune with the values of a bygone age; a time in history when enormous risk-taking was par for the course in exploring places like Africa, and shrugged off with insouciance and black humour only those confident enough in their own resourcefulness were able to muster.

Indeed, many of the pilots I met in Congo might have come from the pages of books like Wind, Sand And Stars by the French writer and aviator-adventurer, Antoine de Saint-Exupery.

The miners and engineers, meanwhile, often seemed like contemporary clones of characters out of old Humphrey Bogart films such as The African Queen and The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre.

Northeastern Congo has always looked and felt like the setting for a Boy’s Own tale of derring-do. At some of the bigger airstrip towns like Bukavu and Goma, on the banks of Lake Kivu, the runways are flanked by ancient Dakotas and Antonov bi-planes of the type any locations researcher for Raiders Of The Lost Ark would have died for.

And speaking of Indian Jones type moments, I all too vividly recall one take-off when a wall of jungle came hurtling towards us at a terrifying speed.

Not for the first time I could feel myself willing the plane into the air. “Up, up,” I heard the voice inside my head saying, as my body involuntarily bobbed up and down in the seat like a demented African meerkat.

It wasn’t just the roughness of the rutted dirt runway that was making me bounce. It was the desperate psychological urge to help propel our take-off safely over the trees into the humid air that hung like a saturated canopy above the rainforest.

Having cleared the tops with barely feet to spare, the aircraft suddenly banked so steeply that the horizon became virtually vertical and I felt my stomach lurch as gravity tugged at my insides.

Just as I was reassuring myself that the worst was almost over, the fuselage door at the back of the plane suddenly flew open, sending a deafening blast of air into the cabin. So powerful was it, that the heavy industrial harnesses used to hold the cargo of highly inflammable fuel drums we were carrying on board fluttered like celebratory bunting.

Next to me, our only “official” passenger – a Congolese gold mining engineer – was anything but celebratory. Having clamped his hands instinctively to the armrests of his seat, his eyes were full of fear and looked ready to pop out of his head. Glancing anxiously towards the cockpit, it slowly dawned on me that the plane’s co-pilot, Hyndman, was actually gesturing at us to try and shut the hatch through which the Congolese jungle could be seen sweeping past a few hundred feet below.

He had to be kidding. Already this was all getting a bit too Indiana Jones for my liking. Shamefully, I decided to remain seated and watched as my indomitable cameraman colleague, buffeted by the wind, edged his way back up the aircraft, before getting his shoulder behind the door and heaving it shut. Not surprisingly, the experience was enough to leave lesser mortals like my fellow passengers and I on the edge of mental meltdown. For Chris and Paddy, however, who sat grinning in the cockpit, it was all just another day at the office.

Right now it’s adventures like this that I yearn for. Well, sort of. Just as I miss the travel and freedom to move as we all do, so too do I miss engaging with myriad characters, soldiers, refugees, warlords, aid workers and, perhaps most importantly of all, ordinary civilians from around the world.

IT’S strangely reassuring right now to think of all those people and places encountered over the years. The remarkable indigenous Embera people of the rainforests of Colombia, for example, who I spent time with in their remote communities flanking the Rio Andagueda or “River of Butterflies”, as it is known. For them isolation is something they desire. Nothing makes them happier than being away from the destructive intrusion of an outside world that brings with it the illegal mining that threatens a way of life close to nature they have nurtured for centuries.

“When we remember our ancestors, we can see the future,” one Embera man told me when asked what he thought the years ahead held for his people. There is a lesson there for us all in these strange times.

Like so many people in remote and often difficult places, the hospitality of the Embera was a joy to behold. Hospitality and humour, these are the qualities I think most about right now reflecting on my travels. I once recall for a joke having my photograph taken alongside a village chief in South Sudan. He was the tallest man I’d ever seen and made the average basketball player look diminutive.

Short as I am, even standing next to him on a wall the best part of two feet high, he still towered above me. The hilarity of the entire village, especially the children, was infectious and left us all in bouts of uncontrollable laughter. It was a simple but marvellously wonderful instant of common humanity.

Over the years I’ve talked with voodoo priests and artists in Haiti, danced the gazumba with young Angolans in a basement bar in Huambo and been caught trying to illegally cross the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, disguised as a woman dressed in a burqa and sandals complete with painted toenails.

I’ve eaten sheep brain masala in a “restaurant” in the Khyber bazaar and guzzled beer through a gas-mask nozzle at an “Apocalypse Party” in a Tel Aviv nightclub, as Iraqi missiles fell on the city. These are the rich, warming and sublimely odd experiences that for the moment I miss.

I still have that gas mask, which only makes an occasional appearance now when I want to play the role of “alien” and terrify the children of visiting friends and relations. Come to think of it, though, now might be a good time to wear it while making those occasional forays for the bog roll and bottles of gin.

Yes folks, what you have just been reading has not been my usual look at the world. But I still remain that international man of misery, if only because, like so many of us, I’m missing the rich diversity of the world we so took for granted. I can’t wait to get back on the road.

Yours sincerely … a frustrated foreign correspondent.