Are We There Yet?

Are We There Yet? a new book by Ben’s mother, Rosie Whitehouse, invites readers into the unseen space of a frontline family as it copes with whatever world politics can throw at it. It is an illuminating and intimate account.

A War Reporter's Wife Reports from the Family Frontline

It is 1992 and the road from Belgrade to Sarajevo. Bosnia is about to secede from the rest of Yugoslavia. A journalist approaches a roadblock, manned by unidentified soldiers. In such situations there is a certain protocol: certain things that can be said, and others that are best avoided. The following remark from a small voice in the backseat fits into the later category: “Great! A roadblock! I like roadblocks. Look at his gun Dads! Is he going to shoot us?” Ben is almost four and does not know much about military etiquette.

All too often the standard accounts of lives of foreign correspondents and war reporters miss out the families. Despite their lone-wolf image, many journalists do in fact have them. If not spouses or children, then siblings or parents. Are We There Yet? a new book by Ben’s mother, Rosie Whitehouse, invites readers into the unseen space of a frontline family as it copes with whatever world politics can throw at it. It is an illuminating and intimate account.

Whitehouse is married to Tim Judah, a freelance war reporter who has covered every major conflict since the Balkans in the 1990s for the Economist and various other newspapers. Occasionally she floats the idea that the life of her family is not really that different from anybody else’s. There are nappies to change and difficult teachers to navigate around. But chapter titles, such as “Housework and Ethnic Cleansing” will confirm most readers’ pre-conceptions that life in the Whitehouse-Judah household is distinctive, notwithstanding the universality of the kitchen-sink commonalities. The, war, where ever it is, comes into the home and jostles for attention alongside the unpaid bills and piles of dirty laundry.

“There is not a parenting book in the world which tells you: you have just discovered that your husband is a frontline war reporter,” Whitehouse says. “There is nothing that tells you how to explain that to the children.”  Whitehouse hopes that her book will remedy this, by acting as an informal primer for future journalist parents.

Judah can be away for three-month stretches at a time and the absences are particularly hard both for her and the children.  “There is always an edge of tension to everything we do,” writes Whitehouse. “It is like a little twisted ball at the back of my brain that I can’t get rid of. I know it is the same with the children.”

While Tim was away in Afghanistan, Whitehouse received a phone call from school telling her that Ben had passed out, while giving a presentation in class, and had collected a black eye on the way down. Nobody at school had guessed the cause: on the way there earlier in the day Ben had walked past newspaper billboards trumpeting the headline: “JOURNALISTS KILLED IN AFGHANISTAN.”

Effecting a simple separation between work and home would be unthinkable as well as counter-productive, Whitehouse believes. “Journalism in our house is a bit like running a shop,” she says. They make a point of speaking almost every day. The children need to know what their father is doing when he is away just as he needs contact with them to help alleviate the stress he is under.

“The kids know all about what he does and they are right behind him,” she says. “When he comes home even the tiny little kids in our house want to say: ‘What was it like dad? What was it like in Afghanistan?’” Being less than frank can leave a parent wrong-footed. In the book her eight-year old daughter, Ray, overhears that her father has picked up a stomach bug in Afghanistan.  Ray secretly concludes her father has contracted the anthrax she had heard about on the news.

Keeping the family support network running is costly and a particular burden for freelancers, who have to finance their expenses up front. In fact the Bills are so high that the family frequently faces the aggravation of being disconnected by a computer that is convinced that their line must be subject to phone fraud.

Make no mistake: although, the book is open about the difficulties, it reads primarily as a celebration of bringing up children in unusual circumstances. A lot of it sounds fun.

When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, Whitehouse was a stay-at-home, who had given up a promising career at the BBC to have her first son.

“When the whole of the Balkans and Eastern Europe suddenly opened up in this magical way, it gave us a wonderful opportunity to move.” Rather than be stuck at home with first one child and then a second, she decided to follow.  “Maybe it is just me, but I couldn’t wait to get there,” she says. “And I couldn’t wait to show it to the children.” 

Much of the break-up of Yugoslavia, like the conflicts in Northern Ireland or Israel-Palestine, could be covered from “the family saloon car”. When Judah was not stuck in some besieged city, his journalism was informed by his family’s experience of living in post-communist society. The children would notice things that adults missed. Observations from trips to empty supermarkets, pool-side afternoons spent inadvertently bathing alongside gangsters’ molls and school-yard war-games with Serbian children all informed the family’s collaborative journalism.

While dad is working and mum’s battling to keep the family ship afloat, the children are soaking up influences from the territories they are moving through. Their identities are works in progress. For much of the book Whitehouse is not sure where her children come from.  Esti’s first words are in Romanian, and Ben, like all Serbian school children, can recite the story of Prince Lazar’s martyrdom on the Field of Crows as if it had happened yesterday rather than in 1389.

“They talk about the English as though they were a race about which they know little,” worries Whitehouse at one point. “They pick up the array of cakes that my mother serves up when we visit her in Yorkshire with nervous fascination.”

Indeed one of the book’s great strengths is the affectionate portrait it paints of five children, all growing up enviably multilingual and wiser than their years. But such apparent advantages bring their own pressures. Like other types of unusual children - one might think of child-carers and the gifted - Whitehouse’s children often feel misunderstood by those who lack the same insights.

History and geography lessons can be a minefield. The children have been told off for telling teachers that the countries that they are being asked to colour in no longer exist. Ben, who has grown up with an instinctive understanding of the mechanics of ethnic-cleansing, has a low tolerance for teachers unable to match his grasp of politics.

It is worse, of course, if dad is away somewhere dangerous.  During one of Judah’s trips to Afghanistan, his daughter Esti is upset that most of her classmates do not know where it is and do not want to talk about it. “You can feel terribly alienated, when it is something that dominates your every waking thought,” says Whitehouse, and much of the time, when in London with other parents, she feels the same herself.

She recommends parents in a similar situation to write individually to every teacher with responsibility for their children. Having talked to a teacher who himself grew up in Algeria during the civil war, she thinks she has cracked the current school. She finds that teachers tend to either become fixated by the trauma-word or blithely dismissive of the possibility that the children might be affected by their father’s work.

During one bleakly comic passage, Whitehouse gets hauled into school, after the school’s speech therapist assumes that Ben’s hyper-realistic drawings of medieval battles are prima-facie evidence of advanced traumatisation. “His father is a war correspondent so he’s interested in war. What is so odd about that?’ she protests. “My father was an obstetrician so I spent all the time pretending my Cindy dolls were having sex and giving birth.”

Being asked what it is like to be married to a war correspondent by a curious mother is one of Whitehouse’s pet dreads.  She feels people expect her to say that it is terrible and uniformly traumatic. “She wants me to say:  ‘I’ll divorce him if he doesn’t become a chess correspondent.’ What she doesn’t expect me to say is: ‘Actually, I’ve always wanted to go to Afghanistan. I’m rather jealous.’”

Nevertheless she does not dismiss the possibility that their father’s work could be having an effect.  Just recently after the book’s publication,  eight-year-old Jacob has started asking her when Alan Johnston, the BBC correspondent kidnapped in Gaza, will be coming home. “There are all these little subtle things,” she says, “and I don’t know whether I am happy about it or not happy about it. Why is he always talking about Alan Johnston?”

“If Tim was a crime reporter the obsession in the house would probably be about drugs and vice. At least I don’t have to talk to them about that. “

Are We There Yet? is not a manifesto for change, but Whitehouse’s next publication may well be. She is annoyed that many employers do not sufficiently recognise the role that families play in backing up their correspondents. British army and diplomatic wives all have forums where they can air grievances and exchange advice. But currently nothing exists that is primarily aimed for frontline families.

The book in itself will be a resource for anybody embarking on a similar life with their children. Whitehouse’s choice of a title reflects a hidden enthusiasm that some parents might find odd: she loves long car journeys with children. “When you have all had a good shout and you have all thrown up and you have done all the things that everybody always does on car journeys, if you carry on driving, the car becomes like a wonderful little bubble and you can have the most intimate conversations.” Traveling in a car, cut off from distractions and not quite of the place you are passing through, but entertained and enriched when you stop off, is an apt metaphor for the life of a journalist’s family and the closeness that brings.