The Moon At The Bottom Of The Well
By Justin Stares
Publisher’s notes – Revel Barker
Author’s notes – Justin Stares
By Revel Barker
It takes balls to tell a world-travelled, world-weary, cantankerous foreign correspondent that he’s missed the point of the story he’s writing.
But Justin Stares didn’t shirk from the task.
He put it straight to Derek Wilson (Reuters, AFP, BBC) that his book could – not to put too fine a point on it – be better.
‘OK,’ said Wilson, eventually. ‘You write it.’
So he did.
Justin, son of two greatly experienced journalists, collected the notes, diaries, letters and draft autobiographies and sat down to write the proper book.
It’s called The Moon At The Bottom Of The Well.
That’s an Italian expression to describe something that appears reachable, but isn’t.
And it’s the story of the life – not of Derek Wilson (which had been the original plan) – but of his mainly unwilling lover, Ennio Iacobucci, a former swineherd who became a celebrated war photographer, nominated for a Pulitzer for his work from Vietnam.
It’s a rags-to-riches tale with a dark twist, set in seven countries and covering the three-and-a-half decades of Ennio’s short but exceptional life.
‘Ennio’s sensitivity showed through in the photos he sent back from Vietnam and Cambodia,’ said Justin. ‘The first exhibition of his work took place recently in Rome, and I’m sure that in time he will be considered a towering figure in the field. Unfortunately for him, this sensitivity meant he suffered.’
Justin wrote the book while freelancing for national newspapers in the UK, covering the European Union from his current home, Brussels. Before arriving in Belgium he was the Lloyd’s List correspondent in Rome, Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires.
‘The sexual incompatibility made the story for me,’ said Justin, who teased the details of the relationship out of Wilson over many years of wining and dining, mostly in Rome. ‘Derek’s sexual antics were legend in Italy. I was impressed that his appetite never faded; he was propositioning prostitutes right up until the day he died. But when he admitted that Ennio was not gay, that he was in fact a rampant heterosexual, I was taken aback. Just think how desperate Ennio must have been to throw himself into a gay relationship…’
Justin merged Derek’s firsthand accounts, including his recollections of Paris in the 1960s, homophobia in London, the Vietnam Tet offensive and the razing of Cambodia, with Ennio’s own autobiography: a chilling account of childhood abandonment and depression, written at the age of twenty.
The result is a poignant tale that, in all probability, only an impartial observer could tell.
The Moon at the Bottom of the Well, is published by Revel Barker Publishing at £9.99 and is available on-line from amazon, Waterstones, and (with free postage worldwide) the Book Depository. Or on order from any half-decent bookshop.
Over the moon
By Justin Stares
Telling Derek Wilson he had missed the story was going to be a delicate exercise. He had been working on his autobiography for the ten years I had known him; he was a hardened former BBC war correspondent who had been everywhere and done everything; and he was twice my age. To a large extent he was my mentor and an avuncular figure.
‘I'm going to flatter you,’ he had said, handing me the completed draft. I was the first person to read it.
I decided to break it to him over the main course, after the first litre of Frascati.
‘I think that instead of writing about yourself, you should write about Ennio,’ I said as gently as possible. ‘The real story here is Ennio's life: the illiterate monastery slave who became a famous war photographer. It's a Dick Whittington-style tale with a dark, depressing twist.’
At first, Derek took it well. ‘Dick Whittington...’ I saw him write in his notepad.
Then he took it badly. Who was I to pass judgment on his news sense, he no doubt thought. He didn't say as much, but I felt him bristle with pride and indignation whenever the subject was mentioned. He was determined to write a traditional set of memoirs based on the diaries he kept over decades. It was to be his swan song, all of it fact.
He did indeed have a story to tell. The late BBC heavyweight Brian Barron, a close friend, listed his achievements in the obituary he wrote for The Times. ‘For 20 years Derek Wilson was a frontline reporter who covered the disintegration of Aden, the Vietnam War and the Argentine junta,’ Barron wrote. After spending his national service ‘debriefing suspected communist spies and former Nazi officials in occupied Germany’, Wilson joined Reuters, then AFP. The French agency posted him first to Aden, then to Saigon. ‘He came into his own in 1975 when South Vietnam collapsed to an armoured column from Hanoi,’ recalled Barron. ‘By then he was the SouthEast Asia correspondent of the BBC World Service and, like the handful of BBC journalists still in Saigon, he ignored instructions from the BBC governors in London that everyone had to evacuate.
‘His coverage was near-legendary, filing a mix of the straightforwardly dramatic and political analysis of America’s lost crusade. He saw the lead North Vietnamese tanks sweep into Saigon and smash through the gates of the presidential palace.’
After Saigon came Buenos Aires and a six-year stint as the BBC Latin America correspondent. Derek was then posted to Madrid, where he chronicled Spain's post-Franco resurgence. It was, all told, a star-studded career, but upon retirement, in Rome, Derek was wracked with loneliness and guilt.
Ennio's suicide (a reference to which was mysteriously subbed out of the obituary) obsessed him to the day he died. For long periods you would find him in his rooftop apartment near Piazza Santa Maria Maggiore hunched over his diaries in a fruitless attempt to unearth a clue, an explanation, for Ennio's decision. His favourite theory was based on class; one should not look to lift people above their natural station, he concluded. Ennio was a poor humble boy; it was wrong to seek to create a sophisticated photographer out of him.
But there was more to it than that. Journalists can get too close to their story. Derek could deconstruct world events and explain them to the man on the street, but he struggled to make sense of his own life.
He was in reality living an Italian version of Pygmalion with a sinister sexual backdrop. He had transformed Ennio, the shoeshine boy he met at a bus shelter in Rome, into a Pulitzer-prize-nominated photo-reporter. But he did not fully understand that Ennio carried psychological baggage he could never overcome. Derek was gay but Ennio wasn't. It was only out of desperation that Ennio agreed to a gay relationship. When the two met Ennio was a male prostitute. But given half a chance he was chasing skirt like a stereotypical Italian. This contradiction was bound to ruin their relationship.
Around two years later, shortly before he died, Derek came around to my idea.
‘If you think it's such a good story, you do it,’ he said, sending me both his own work and another autobiography – Ennio's.
Amazingly, at the age of 20, Ennio typed up the chilling story of his childhood using Reuters stationery while living here in Brussels. It was, Derek explained, a ‘lobotomy job’. By putting down his tale of neglect and abandonment Ennio hoped never to have to think about it again. He showed it to no-one. Derek only read it many years later.
‘I feel duty-bound to get the story read in any way,’ Derek told me after sending me his package.
‘OK,’ I replied, ‘I'll give it a go…’
Justin Stares is a freelance journalist based in Brussels. His book, The Moon at the Bottom of the Well, is published by Revel Barker Publishing at £9.99 and is available on-line from amazon, Waterstones, and (with free postage worldwide) Book Depository. Or on order from any decent bookshop.
The Moon At
Of The Well…
What makes a war photographer want to put himself in the line of fire, at risk of being captured, tortured and perhaps killed?
The Moon at the Bottom of the Well charts the real life of Ennio Iacobucci, from abandoned child in dirt-poor central Italy, through hustler on the streets of Rome to his rise to become an acclaimed photo-journalist.
At the heart of the story is Ennio's relationship with a gay older man, himself a BBC news reporter, and the very different demands the men make on each other.
Justin Stares fills this book about everyone's search for love and fulfilment with a strong sense of yearning.
It's tragic, funny and fascinating, like all the best life stories.
- Rodrigo Antes
And what a privilege it is to enter the world of the infant Ennio Iacobucci, especially when he has become such an articulate adult.
His description of childhood abandonment is heartrending in its sincerity.
The early days of his later friend and lover, Derek Wilson, are not described, but we can presume they were equally complex.
The author treats the material they have bequeathed to the world with great respect and sensitivity.
The reader becomes involved in the urge to explain and justify the story.
Such stark honesty is rare and revealing. Well done.
- Bronwyn Hughes
A beautifully written exploration of two intimate and extraordinary men from their own diaries and writings. Their story speaks for itself. The first book for years that has held my attention from start to finish with both the story and the author's writing ability. Started one evening, it was soon 3am when I turned the last page. A worthwhile read about two unusual lives and their intertwinings giving me an insight into hitherto unknown aspects of the human psyche and its expression.
- Alex Boswell