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BBC war correspondent spins tales to Toledo Club audience

Updated Nov. 13, 2013 at 10:59 p.m.: Corrects a verse from Mr. Bell's poem, to read: “Prime Minister Anthony Lynton Blair, with messianic zeal and force of will, marched the queen’s soldiers up the hill, and then he left them there.”

The man whom the BBC — his former employer — once described as “among those who defined the term ‘war correspondent’” offered a sketch of his life and times in verse and prose Tuesday at the Toledo Club.

Among them, the pitfalls to poetry about current events, Martin Bell explained to his audience, members of the Toledo and Michigan branches of the English Speaking Union of the United States. When writing verse about the banking crisis, for instance, “if you’re looking for a rhyme for banker, you can take some serious wrong turns,” he said.

Mr. Bell in his 35-year BBC career reported from 80 countries and covered the Vietnam War and conflict in the Middle East, Nigeria, Rwanda, Northern Ireland, and more than a dozen other spots around the globe. In the 1990s he was seriously wounded by shrapnel while reporting from Sarajevo. His former employer also said he was “one of the most distinguished foreign affairs reporters of his generation.”

His reporting tour including a stop in Washington for the BBC — “mid-Jimmy Carter through mid-George Bush, Sr.,” Mr. Bell said — that included the presidency of Ronald Reagan, “who had the best grasp of the powers of communication” of any before the current president.

Mr. Bell was the first independent member of the British Parliament in nearly 50 years, and is a UNICEF ambassador from the United Kingdom. Out of his experience covering the Balkans war, he has testified five times before the war crimes tribunal in the Hague.

“My life has been a soap opera in five acts,” Mr. Bell, 75, said. “I’ve been a soldier, I’ve been a war reporter, I’ve been a member of Parliament. I was and still am an ambassador for UNICEF, and late in my life I became a writer and indeed a kind of a poet or versifier.”

He wrote his first poem as an Army lance corporal at age 19 and his second 51 years later.

“And I can’t stop,” he said. “If you feel things deeply, and as a journalist and an ex-journalist I do, it’s much better in poetry or verse anyway than in prose.”

The cover of his most recent book, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Light and Dark Verse, is a caricature of Mr. Bell, a widely recognized figure in the United Kingdom, astride a barrel-shaped pony, with a cooking pot on his head, a garbage-pail lid as his breastplate, clutching a burning candle in one hand, the other buried in a pocket of his trademark white suit.

In white suit, but sans armor, Mr. Bell recited his verse about a recent prime minister, “who was probably more revered this side of the Atlantic than the other. He got us into a war in Iraq on what turned out to be false pretenses, which was the existence of weapons of mass destruction.”

“Prime Minister Anthony Lynton Blair, with messianic zeal and force of will, marched the queen’s soldiers up the hill, and then he left them there.”

The application of armed force generally fails to deliver the outcome expected, he said.

“If there’s a lesson, we need wiser counsel at the top and not go to war at the drop of a sound bite,” he said. “I’m a peace guy. I’ve seen too much of the other side.”

Mr. Bell’s stop in Toledo was midway through a nine-city tour in the Sir Evelyn Wrench Speaker Program, named for the English Speaking Union’s founder.

Contact Mark Zaborney at: or 419-724-6182.

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