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Making the best of it - Anthony Grey's China ordeal in the 'raw'

ANTHONY GREY - The Hostage Handbook: The Secret Diary of a Two-Year Ordeal in China - Tagman Press - 2009

Tony Grey’s 26 and a half months of solitary confinement in Beijing ended four decades ago, but the diary he kept in secret throughout his ordeal is highly relevant today as a gripping and inspiring story of how one man alone overcame isolation and harrowing physical, mental and spiritual torments. It is not merely a work of historical interest to Grey’s friends, fellow-journalists, and China specialists, recounting a then extremely rare experience, but also now an important document at a time hostage-taking has become so frequent as to be in some parts of the world almost commonplace.

Grey has chosen to present the diary - furtively scribbled in shorthand and carefully hidden from the Chinese guards keeping watch in his house day and night - unchanged as he wrote it at the time, without subsequent editing and complete with unexpurgated expletives, repetitions, and phonetic/unorthodox renderings of some Chinese names. In Reuters’ jargon, the diary is unsubbed, but that is precisely what makes it so vivid.

Grey subsequently added explanatory footnotes after some entries, and years later also inserted between chapters 17 “reflections” all written since 2006, looking back on his situation at the time as his narrative moved painfully forward.

Many of these so-called reflections are moving and beautifully written commentaries. They mix acute and incisive self-analysis with philosophical and even religious musings and provide a retrospective and often surprisingly detached and calm contrast to the grim immediacy and occasional extreme agitation of Grey’s 1960s diary entries. Some reproduce poems he penned in confinement and later; others mention the short stories he wrote when the guards were not looking and the hundreds of crosswords he composed.

He tells how for many years he kept the typed transcripts of the diary locked away, half-deliberately ignored. In the late 1980s his daughter Clarissa stumbled by chance on a spare copy in a bedroom drawer and eagerly read it through. As the concerned father of a then 13-year-old he worried about profanities and stark private thoughts here and there in the diary text. But she found it “raw” - meant approvingly - and very readable.

Her word “raw” was spot on, to my mind. Also, her father writes, her instant appraisal was an early vote of confidence for future publication.

Grey emerges from these pages as a man of extraordinary courage, resilience, and strength of character, but also of remarkable modesty. He describes how just the disciplined act of writing a diary became an important tool for keeping himself on an even keel, and in the reflections even attributes to his ordeal some of his own subsequent positive personal development, plus on the dark side some battles with depression even in recent years.

At the very end of this book, in the closing lines of an afterword, he says he could never for long see any point in being embittered or resentful and concludes that after an intensive review of his diary “I feel that, in the long term, the advantages, the experiential ‘profits’ of being cut off from the world as a hostage, have eventually far outweighed the costs”. 

That lack of bitterness was very evident to Chinese and foreign residents alike when Grey undertook a return visit to Beijing in 1988. I was then in the Chinese capital on my second posting for Reuters and was invited to accompany him to the various functions - some formal and others more casual but, after the post-Mao Tsetung sea-change in the country, all contrite - laid on for him by the Chinese government and news organisations. My first spell in China had been as Grey’s immediate predecessor from 1964 until his arrival in March 1967. I lived in the same house and knew everyone of whom he writes; even the pet cat slaughtered literally before his eyes when fanatical Red Guards burst in and subjected him to their peculiar form of torture had earlier belonged as a kitten to my wife. So I can vouch for the great accuracy of his diary descriptions of place and people despite the restrictions of his very limited view from first one then another single small room in which he was held for so long.

Some Chinese government officials whom I had first met as more or less normal people in 1964-5 reappeared in “revolutionary” Maoist mode and garb during the first violent phase of the Cultural Revolution in 1966-7 during my last few months in Beijing, then again later to read edicts to the imprisoned Grey on what he was and was not allowed to do, and finally yet again as rather urbane but more elderly gentlemen during Grey’s return visit a decade after regaining his freedom. The same people, swaying in the Chinese political winds!

After those personal lines, here are a few more: preparing this review, I filled three large pages with quotes from the diaries and page references for passages I felt I simply must mention. Not enough space for that, and as this review is anyway intended mainly for ex-colleagues and others connected with Reuters, it is surely enough just to say that this is a book you should read. You will not regret it! 

You will see that it can be taken in three ways. First, a testimony, a raw and straight account. Second, a profound psychological study - a self-analysis and, more broadly, a study of what the incarceration of an innocent does to, and implies for, himself and others (including his family and even those as distant as the UK government!). Third, it reminded me of those rare thrillers where you know the outcome in advance but remain riveted by the story and therefore cannot put it down. The best example is Freddie Forsyth’s “Day of the Jackal”. We all know de Gaulle survived, just as we all know that Tony Grey was freed, but the thrilling content is in the day-to-day detail and development. (Forsyth, incidentally, was a colleague of Grey’s on the Eastern Daily Press newspaper before they both left to join Reuters and he was also Tony’s predecessor as Reuters’ East Berlin correspondent in 1963).

The title of Grey’s book, not his own idea but proposed to him by a fellow-writer because of the diary’s potential importance for others who might be held hostage, is to my mind somewhat misleading and possibly ill-chosen. This is in no way a book of instructions or a manual on what steps one should take if seized. Whatever guidance it provides, and there is plenty, is more indirect and lies in Grey’s story itself and how it is narrated.

Vergil Berger was Anthony Grey's immediate predecessor as solo correspondent in China where Grey was held in solitary confinement for more than two years. He was in Beijing again as chief representative when Grey made his return reconciliation visit in 1988. ■