John McCarthy at the Union Club

At this recent event in London organised by London group convenor Jane Bennett-Powell DUniv (BA French, 1976) the journalist and broadcaster John McCarthy CBE DLitt ( BA Hons American Studies 1979) told of his experiences as a hostage during the 1980s in the Lebanon. John Dore (BA English, 1990) gifted the booking at the prestigious Union Club, Soho. John was part of the student campaign calling for diplomatic pressure for John McCarthy’s release, and for the naming of the still popular Students’ Union campus hostelry The John McCarthy Bar.

All photographs ©Katie Sunlay

John McCarthy CBE D Litt ( BA Hons American Studies 1979) held us spellbound, shocked, saddened and amazed with his account of five years of captivity in Lebanon. He contrasted the indiscriminate cruelty of some guards and the kindness of others; he explained how he and the other prisoners treated each other with humour and sensitivity when the horror of their plight got too much. John’s own resilience and resourcefulness were awe-inspiring. His wit was glorious.  (His first meeting with heavily bearded fellow hostage, Brian Keenan: F-me, it’s Ben Gunn! Keenan: Who’s Ben Gunn?).John’s “story” made us ask: how would we have coped? Could we have picked up our lives so successfully afterwards? He said that captivity forced him to look back, especially at his student days, and question how he could have used his opportunities more productively and how he was determined to do better when he was released, (“when”, note, not “if”).


Questioning the reasons soon after his kidnap, he couldn’t understand: What do they want with “little Johnny McCarthy”, a journalist on his first assignment in the Middle East, albeit with his whole career ahead of him? He wasn’t the acclaimed author and broadcaster he’s subsequently become. He wasn’t an ambassador or anyone important!

Listening to him at the Union Club, to the horror and the humour, the courage and the kindness, and witnessing the generosity of spirit and especially the energy in talking to just about everyone over the remaining drinks and canapes, it was clear he is a fine ambassador, especially for this University.


The 45 alumni and guests bought raffle tickets enthusiastically, not least because the prizes were particularly attractive, including two of John’s books written about his travels, You can’t hide the sun: a journey through Palestine, and Between Extremes: a journey beyond imagination, as well as several bottles generously contributed by alumni and a splendid array of University-branded goodies, kindly donated by the Alumni Office. £160 was raised for Freedom from Torture, the charity of which John is a patron.

IMG_0554Thanks are due to the Development & Alumni Relations Office for the ticketing and its contribution to the bill (five members of the team coming down to help host the event). Huge thanks go to John Dore, one of our alumni group who introduced us to John McCarthy and hired the drawing room at the Union Club in Soho for us.

Incidentally, according to research by Gordon the manager, the Club has a unique connection to Hull: one of its eighteenth-century MPs, George Crowle, leased the building from 1737 to 1752. We felt very much at home!

In the coming months, there are plans to hold several London-based events, including one highlighting “Hull 2017 City of Culture” and another to celebrate the remodelling of Holy Trinity in the Old Town, the largest parish church in England, being re-worked for both worship and performance: it’s already a venue much appreciated by the University’s Music Department.


© Jane Bennett-Powell DUniv (BA French, 1976)

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