To people of a certain age, especially journalists, Denis Horgan's fourth book, "The Bangkok World," evokes memories of a misty distant past: when his home, Boston, had six daily newspapers (Hartford had two); when newsrooms ran on cigarettes, coffee, and whiskey; when the type was hot (molten lead) and being a reporter was not. Newspapering was viewed as a rung above riding shotgun on a garbage truck (maybe).
Horgan confesses: "I did not set out to become a newspaper guy any more than someone sets out to become an alcoholic or a drug addict; it happens that many of us might end up that way but no one starts out with that as The Plan."
Happenstance, it turns out, isn't always terrible, and the author's love for his lifelong calling is vivid, even moving. After leaving Thailand, he enjoyed a distinguished career at The Washington Star and The Hartford Courant, where he was an award-winning columnist for decades. His writing is crisp, conversational, and insightful. He can turn a phrase on a dime.
His book focuses on the years 1966 to 1971, when the Vietnam War was getting bigger but not better. Horgan began that period serving in the U.S. Army, stationed in Thailand, and he sometimes squired journalists about. But when his tour ended, he stayed on to become, at age 26, the editor and publisher of The Bangkok World, an English-language daily. His most significant previous journalistic experience was as a copy boy at The Boston Globe.
The book is richly illustrated with three dozen black and white photographs by William Harting, the author's colleague at the paper and the author of several books of photography. Words are not enough to describe Thailand in all its glory and chaos circa 1970, and Harting's wonderful vision closes the circle.
Horgan's love for Thailand is unbounded, even if his paper's newsboys came after him once with malice aforethought (and a knife). The kid from Boston became a newspaper man in a mystical and tumultuous land far away, and he is eternally grateful: "Just getting off the plane in Don Muang, the sense of the place had embraced me like a beautiful fog. I had read a little on what Thailand was supposed to be like but I was not the least ready for the warm loveliness, the sharp colors, the smells and sparkle in the air, the niceness of the people. Simply, it made me feel happy."
Horgan, who lives in West Hartford, answered questions about his new book.
Q: Do you ever wonder how long you might have stayed in Thailand with your family if The Bangkok World hadn't merged with its archrival?
A: I do. I did have sort of a vague plan to come home after five years because America was changing so much. But Thailand is so beguiling and woozily alluring that it wouldn't have surprised me to look up at some point to find that I'd been there for decade after happy decade. But Connecticut has provided its own vital allure for me. Truly, it worked out just as it should have.
Q: You have been back several times since 1971. How has it changed?
A: Everything is so much bigger and louder and faster. Bangkok has grown enormously, with skyscrapers and traffic jams and all the other "benefits" of progress. There is more opportunity for the Thai people, and maybe some still for free-booting expatriates, but the rough air and congestion and cookie-cut restaurants and mall stores detract some from the true charms that made it such a fairy land in our times there. And of course we've found other places to fight our unending wars so the American military presence is gone.
Q: What hasn't changed?
A: That is exactly the key to my love of the place. The great beauty of the people and their culture, the essence of their faith and traditions, the great wise, happy spirit that defines Thailand remains as vibrant as always. Development has been huge but it exists side by side with the glorious temples and exotic markets and the river life, rather than replacing those fascinating, welcoming jewels. We could find pretty much all of what we loved so much, even as we had to look harder to locate it. Because the people and culture don't change, you can ignore the progress.
Q: Does Thailand still make you happy?
A: Oh, yes. Very much so. It's not some Asian Brigadoon for me, but a place combining rich old memories and vital new discoveries. I know I couldn't find the same adventures as are reflected in the book, but I know that the people and their great sense of joy are always there.
Q: Did Thailand's support of America during the Vietnam War have repercussions for it when the war ended?
A: Less so than was anticipated, or feared. The "Domino Theory" was always a fraud even while there were true risks of forces hostile to the Thai world getting stronger nearby. The only domino that fell was Laos and, I've been there, you'd never know it. The Vietnamese were fighting with the Cambodians barely months after we left. The Thai society, economy and nationalism are very strong so even with the usual huffing and puffing from the Vietnamese, the Thai have followed their own path. And there were true benefits to the American link that contributed to that stability, too.
Q: What is Thailand's role in the current geopolitical situation in Southeast Asia?
A: Thailand's a huge player there. It is an economic powerhouse. It has a largely united people, bound in respect to Buddhism and the king, and this carries it through the important social challenges it faces. Vietnam had to rebuild itself and work out its own problems so the Thais were in a good position to assume leadership where possible. There are amazing ethnic and cultural flashpoints always in Asia, but Thailand is particularly able to meet them.
Q: Were the 1970s and 80s the heyday of American journalism?
A: Not to sound like some "those-were-the-days" geezer, but I really do believe that. There was wonderful newspapering before and grand journalism since, of course, but those were the seasons when, on the broadest scale, journalism flowered. Not just in the "Watergate" mode but in exploratory coverage, deeper local news, opening up of whole new fields — science, religion, education coverage. It was great fun, and very important work was done, and high expectations were raised. Lots of that has been lost to change and the economy and the grim corporate culture.
Q: What's your take on modern, digital, blogospherical, up-to-the-second journalism?
A: I love it. Sure, it has wrinkles but we had wrinkles long before this. The speed of reporting, the range of information available through the Internet is amazing. There's a lot of downside — with sloppy reporting and attitude disguised as information — but the knowledge world has opened up extraordinarily. The depth may have shallowed-out, but a smart reader can find everything somewhere in the web. It is very exciting, even as it is killing off my beloved newspapers.
Q: What advice would you give someone contemplating a career in journalism?
A: Do it. Do it fast. In the old days, a young person would have to work through years and years of clutter to advance. Today it's there for the grabbing. It took me forever to land a column, for example. Now, people start with columns. And burn out in a flash. It's so important a calling — and I don't exaggerate to think of it as a "calling" — that people should be fighting to get into it. Sometimes I wish I were 30 years younger to find the new Bangkok World adventure in this kind of journalism.
Q: You write in the book regarding the Vietnam War that other than the people in the upper echelons of the military, you never "met anyone who thought things were going well or that the Vietnamese political leaders were even distantly worth a dime." Do we need a better way of deciding when we go to war and against whom?
A: The "rules" for going to war are already pretty good; it's just that they're never followed. Not ever. We've pretty much always been at war with someone since Concord and Lexington so I don't have any hope that we'll ever stop that. You'd be hard-put to find 20 years when we weren't fighting someone. It would be nice if we could find ways to get out of wars as easy as we've found ways to get into them. Wars go on and on for long years because the politicians and diplomats can't figure how to get out — they'd rather lose lives than lose face. Maybe politicians and diplomats should be made to actually fight the wars. They'd end pretty quickly then.