Terry Waite: ‘People were surprised I had a sense of humour’

Waite, who was released from captivity over 25 years ago, on Islamism, Trump and his lost years

By his own admission, the one thing that most people don't expect of Terry Waite – once hostage negotiator turned hostage, and now an author, lecturer and humanitarian – is that he has a sense of humour.

Along with his bestselling 1993 memoir Taken on Trust, and a book of poems (Out of the Silence, published last year), there has also been a comic novel set on a cruise ship, The Voyage of the Golden Handshake.

“People were surprised to find that I had a sense of humour, but I do,” he says.

"When you're in difficult times, not many funny things happen, so I had to make myself laugh by writing amusing, nonsense, ridiculous stories in my head like The Voyage of the Golden Handshake."


That "not many funny things happen" is something of an understatement in Waite's experience: he is a former envoy for the Archbishop of Canterbury, and travelled to Lebanon in January 1987 to negotiate with Shia jihadis Hizbullah for the release of four hostages, including journalist John McCarthy and Irish academic Brian Keenan. The hostage negotiator – who had previously met successfully with Idi Amin and Gadafy – soon found himself in captivity.

“When you do a dangerous job, you weigh up the risk and realise there’s a real danger of being killed or captured, and I soon found myself in an underground cell,” Waite recalls.

He was held in solitary confinement for four years and had to wear a blindfold when his captors entered his cell. He was stapled by both hands and feet to the wall, and was allowed one bathroom visit a day. He found a handgun in the bathroom, accidentally discarded by one of his captors, during one of these breaks. Deciding against resorting to violence (thanks in part to his strong faith), he returned the handgun to his captors and spent four more years in captivity.

It's a startling story, and an extraordinary life, by anyone's yardstick. Waite has spent the past 40 years lecturing around the world and writing about his experiences in Lebanon. In 2012 Waite returned to Beirut to reconcile with the men who held him hostage for close to five years. He also founded Hostage UK (soon to become Hostage International), a nonprofit organisation dedicated to supporting the families and associates of hostages, as well as providing support to hostages post-release. Working alongside these families has also offered Waite some insight into the experiences of his own family during his five-year imprisonment.

‘I kept my mind alive’

“My wife and family were fortunate insofar as they were cared for by my employers [the Church of England],” recalls Waite. “But the reason I started Hostage UK was because I know for a fact that when a person is taken hostage, it’s not just the individual that suffers. And family and friends need that support and care. I recall one instance recently where [a hostage’s] wife has been looking after three children, and the firm [that was providing financial support to her] went bust. It’s one thing the psychological effect of the situation, but add to that the practical considerations, like not being able to pay a mortgage.”

Waite has heard several experiences of hostages who, kept in similar isolation, had “lost their mind”.

“That didn’t happen for me because I kept my mind alive,” he recalls. “When I speak of my experiences, what I’m often trying to say is that suffering needn’t destroy creativity. One thing I had to do was to learn to live from within and write in my head, with no paper and pencil. You soon learn that good language, like good music, has the capacity to bring harmony to the soul.”

And with no endpoint to his experience in sight, Waite learned something else: “You have to live for the day,” he says. “Life is precarious when you have this extra threat, so you live as full as you can, even if circumstances were as precarious as they were.”

Waite’s life has brought him closer to the mindset of the Islamist jihadi more than most: “One needs to try and understand why it is that people are behaving the way they do,” he says. “Many of the countries in the Middle East were formed by colonial powers with disparate understandings and beliefs, and were expected to form one country. The only way the country could be managed was with some form of control, and that led to dictatorship. The rise of fundamental Islam is in part a desire to find a form of unity and association under the religious banner of extremism.”

Power in the balance

Waite is talking to me on a rather eventful morning, the day after the UK general election. The bauble of political power, as we speak, still hangs in the balance, and the aftermath of terrorist attacks in London and Manchester still loom large.

"In the West, politicians generally have a lack of understanding of the dynamics of the Middle East," says Waite. "I remember saying around the time of the Iraq war, if you remove a dictator, you then release forces that you can't control. A lot of our [political] actions are geared by economic intentions, and where we've done that, it's been at the expense of understanding the dynamic of the religion. I don't think these problems can be resolved by warfare – they will be resolved by diplomatic means. But a much deeper understanding of the region is required by politicians."

I think Donald Trump would do better to think a little more and speak a little less

And what of Trump’s grasp on world affairs? Ever the diplomat, Waite thinks for a moment before choosing his words.

“I think he would do better to think a little more and speak a little less,” he says.

In many ways, Waite notes, he can relate to the experience of refugees currently fleeing the Middle East.

“One thing that captivity did for me was to be able to change sympathy into empathy,” he says. “Sympathy is feeling sorry for someone, but empathy is knowing how people feel. I can understand what it’s like to be totally dispossessed and having nothing. These people have been forced away from their home, and they have found themselves in an extreme situation with nothing. Having been held captive, I too have been virtually treated as worthless.”

All changed

In the five years that Waite was held in captivity in Lebanon, the world underwent seismic changes that he noticed acutely on his release in 1991.

“One of the things I did notice was a gradual drift and change in society towards giving everything a monetary value,” he says. “I also notice more people frustrated about the way sectors like teaching and nursing were subject to a quickening of bureaucracy.”

What of the changes in his family – his wife Frances and four children, in their teens and early 20s at the time – when he returned? As one might expect, there was an arduous period of transition. Overwhelmed by both emotion and the company of others, Waite would get up in the middle of the night to have a meal by himself. He had to put his family to the "back of his mind" when he was in captivity, and in his release, he took a fellowship at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, and lived on campus during weekdays, returning home for the weekends. In his first year of freedom, Waite refused to make any public appearances, instead committing his memoir, Taken on Trust, to paper. The arrangement meant he, and his family, could return to so-called normality at a suitable pace.

“I was told to take the return home as though I was coming up from the sea bed,” he recalls. “Come up too quickly and you get the bends; take it gently and you will be fine.

“What I underestimated was the resilience of the children. I thought my being in captivity, I’d have destroyed them, or they’d become depressed or drop out of uni, but they got their degree and are reasonably settled, or as settled as anyone can be in this life.”

Are his three grandchildren – the oldest of which is 17 – aware of his past experiences?

“We don’t discuss much these things in the family nowadays, but they’re good kids and I’m very fond of them,” he says.

The fast lane

Life for the 78-year-old, who lives in a 15th-century cottage in rural Suffolk, happens at a brisk clip.

In addition to his work with various prisons, homeless shelters and overseas development charities, and his dedication to Hostage UK, he has found the time to indulge his passion for music as the president of the Llangollen International Music Festival.

I know for a fact being alone takes time to get used to, but young people would do good to be able to find some centre within themselves

"Books and music are the two big things," he says. "My house is coming down with books. I'm just back from Guernsey, where I went to Victor Hugo's house, so I'm reading Les Misérables. I'm also reading a new book on quantum physics. I find it very difficult to understand, but I insist on pursuing subjects until I have a glimmer of understanding. Coming to Irish writers, I like the classics like Ulysses [by James Joyce], even if it takes hours to understand just one sentence."

And in a world soaked with social media and smartphones, Waite has learned to understand the value of solitude more than ever.

“You have to have time to be by yourself and be alone and develop your own thoughts,” he says. “I don’t think the world today allows for it. I know for a fact being alone takes time to get used to, but young people would do good to be able to find some centre within themselves. A creative use of silence is something we should all cultivate and develop.”

That said, there’s no chance of Waite breaking momentum now.

“I suspect if I put my feet up now, I wouldn’t be able to get them back down again,” he says, laughing. “That’s why I keep going, really.”