The first was David Loyn's Frontline, an account of the brief history of the Frontline camera agency whose work you will have seen without ever knowing it. Some of the very best footage from the first Gulf War, Bosnia, Chechnya and Afghanistan was filmed by Frontline cameramen, most of whom seem to have been former Army officers and all of whom Kipling would have recognised as men constitutionally disposed to play the Great Game. Loyn himself is a BBC foreign correspondent of no small standing who knows what he's talking about, having worked with Frontline cameramen on many occasions.
I first read the book a couple of years ago in a publisher's proof ahead of interviewing Loyn about it. He was a very good interview and when I saw that the book was finally in paperback I bought it and read it again, and it's an extraordinary account of what goes on behind the pictures we all see on television. Much recommended. The story of Vaughan Smith's epic journey into Iraq during the first Gulf War, dressed in his old officer's uniform - basically he conned his way to the front - is worth the price alone and is begging to be turned into a film.
Loyn mentions a lot of journalists in his book, and one of them is Anthony Loyd, another former Army officer who defected to the Street Of Shame, although in Loyd's case it was as a print journalist. His reports from Afghanistan, Sierra Leone and the self-evisceration of Yugoslavia are incredibly powerful. His Another Bloody Love Letter is a companion piece to his earlier My War Gone By, I Miss It So, and it's strong stuff. He speaks with enormous frankness about his heroin habit, the experience of losing friends in war zones. The section of the book about the conflict in Sierra Leone is a marvel, although the cost of that marvel is that two of his friends died. It really brings you nose-to-nose with the personal cost of those news articles we read over breakfast. Loyd sometimes tries too hard for the Byronic and misses, but when he relaxes and just lets himself go, as with the Northern Alliance fighters he met in Afghanistan shortly after 9/11, "who looked as if they were going somewhere bad to do something worse," I think he shows a marvellous eye. Once again, much recommended.
Both Loyn and Loyd have walked the walk and know what they're talking about, and I have a lot of admiration for their work.
On the music front, I've been listening to Blackmore's Night a lot recently, as you might have gathered, but my scouting trips to Zaavi (which is what the Virgin Megastore is called now, apparently) provided me with an opportunity to check out a couple of bands I only know from rave reviews in the papers.
The first of these is Tunng, about whom I know nothing. Tunng take a little getting used to; they're kind of folky, but not, and they're growing on me in a good way.
The second is Porcupine Tree, a band put together by Richard Barbieri, who was Japan's keyboard player. I like Japan's work a lot, I'd heard good things about Porcupine Tree, so I got a couple of their albums, and was pleasantly surprised. There's prog-rock there, there's nu-metal, there are interesting lyrics, there's impeccable musicianship, there are really good guitar solos. It might not be to everyone's taste, but I like them.
But the song I still listen to just before going to bed is Blackmore's Night's `Fires At Midnight,' from Past Times With Good Company. Listen to it if at all possible.