The London director of Human Rights Watch since 2006, Tom Porteous has also worked for the BBC World Service, the Guardian and the British Foreign Office, from which he resigned over the invasion of Iraq. He tells David Jenkins about the seven wonders of his world ...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE MAGAZINE, Summer 2009
HOTEL: THE ALETTI, ALGIERS (now the Safir)
I arrived in Algiers on the day of a coup; there were tanks in the street and the taxi driver said, “Oh, you’ve got to stay in the Aletti (above) ”—it’s where the journalists covering the war of liberation used to stay and where the Algerian government played host to the Black Panthers, the PLO and the Tuareg rebels. And while I was there I got that terrifying knock on the door at four in the morning and was taken away by the police in an unmarked car and interrogated for 12 hours. So, mixed memories, but a very atmospheric place. Quite comfortable, too: big rooms, big windows and a huge dining room with a picture window overlooking the bay of Algiers. And Algiers is beautiful; it’s got this intense, crystal-clear light.
BEACH: TALISKER, ISLE OF SKYE
I’m not one for really hot beaches, and I love the beaches in the west of Scotland—they’re so wild. One I like particularly is Talisker, on the isle of Skye, tucked underneath the Cuillin Hills. It’s this bay with huge cliffs on either side, a vast expanse of black stones, a sea stack, a bit of sand and the rolling Atlantic crashing in; it’s just gorgeous. Even if the weather is overcast, I insist on swimming. Once you’re in, it’s exhilarating. Just above the bay, there’s a delightful manor house, and also a distillery—if you get really cold, you can go up and have a really good whisky.
BUILDING: EMPIRE STATE BUILDING
It’s the most thrilling building. Even from close by, you look up and it’s there, soaring, with its tapered lines—it was designed from the top down. It was finished right in the middle of the Depression, so it wasn’t profitable for about a decade and a half. It was known as the Empty State Building, which goes to show we do get over a depression, eventually. It’s actually a very spartan building, very simple, but I love the little art-deco details in the lifts. It happens to be where Human Rights Watch has its HQ, and when I’m in New York it’s remarkable to go up there to your job.
I lived there for six years, and it’s like peeling back an onion: modern Cairo, colonial Cairo, the various eras of Islamic rule, the Coptic thing, the Pyramids and Pharaonic Cairo. My favourite piece of Islamic architecture is the vast mosque of ibn Tulun, with its Babylonian minaret. At first sight, the city can seem horrendous, but if you go into the Old City, where the streets are too narrow for cars, there are charming little cafés, with tables outside and very pleasant courtyards. It’s a very voluptuous city, but that combines with a real religious devotion that borders on the fanatical. Alaa al-Aswany’s novel “The Yacoubian Building” brings it out well.
VIEW: FROM THE LONDON EYE
The London Eye is important to me for two reasons. One is that there’s a lot of autobiographical material—I can see where I was born, where I went to school, where I’ve worked. But for someone like me who’s working as a lobbyist, it’s also a great place to contemplate who runs Britain: laid out in front of you is Parliament, Whitehall, Scotland Yard, Church House, MI5, MI6. And if you’re plotting a campaign, you can go, “Well, we need to target those people there and those people there.” And, of course, it’s a magnificent view in itself—Hampstead, Crystal Palace, the Downs on a clear day.
WORK OF ART: GOYA’S “THE THIRD OF MAY 1808”
I first saw this in the Prado when I was quite young, and it made a huge impression on me. It’s the greatest work of art that depicts a war crime—Manet’s “Execution of Maximilian” doesn’t come close to it. It shows the Bonapartist troops of Murat executing citizens of Madrid who had risen up in the civil war. It’s a very powerful picture. So much art about war is about heroism or nationalism or romanticism—this is just about the horror and brutality of war. And it’s very immediate: it looks as if he was there and did the picture on the spot, though he actually painted it years later.
JOURNEY: FROM WEST TO EAST BERLIN
I was living in Berlin in 1988-90, covering East Berlin, so I used to go across very frequently. There were these two parallel universes, and crossing from one to the other was rather thrilling and pregnant with possibilities. In East Berlin there was an atmosphere of fear; if you got close to anything politically sensitive, people would clam up. In West Berlin there were people protesting, lots of anarchists, an extremely hippy-type life—an intensified Western life on an island in East Germany. West Berlin was much wealthier, while the East was rather decrepit and smelt terribly of this very strong disinfectant. It was like crossing a border in the mind, all within a journey from Bank to Notting Hill, in London terms.