Chancellor's Dinner - A fantastic evening
Powerful stories about war, love and forgiveness from Britain’s longest-held hostage in Lebanon, John McCarthy, held the audience enthralled at the University of Portsmouth’s Chancellor’s Dinner.
Brutality and moments of extraordinary kindness and humour peppered the conversation between Chancellor Sandi Toksvig and her long-time friend, and journalist, writer and broadcaster.
The black tie event at Portsmouth Guildhall was the third of it's kind and was attended by around 340 guests, including senior staff from the University, city-wide friends, alumni and current students.
The evening began with guests enjoying drinks and canapes with live background music in the form of a jazz band before making their way to the main hall. Dinner was then served and with the drinks and conversation flowing, Sandi took her place on stage to firstly present the first Chancellor’s Award. Awarded to the students’ union’s boxing club for being the most inclusive of all students clubs and societies through the previous year, president Cain Bradley received the award from Sandi on the club's behalf.
Sandi then welcomed John McCarthy on stage who began his story. John was just five weeks into his first foreign assignment in Beirut, in April 1986 and aged 29, when he became the-then youngest Western hostage to be abducted by Islamic fundamentalists.
He said: “When I was first taken I was in denial, in a bubble. It was almost like being in a scene on TV. I was held in a cupboard-sized cell for about three months. There was no natural light, no connection to the outside world. This was Beirut, there was a war on and the power often failed, plunging the cell into darkness and the fan to stop circulating air.
“Though, at that time, they didn’t hurt me, I could hear others nearby being tortured. I heard someone being killed. It was hell on earth.”
About 18 months into his capture, he was taken from his cell and brought to the guards’ room where they gave him a small birthday cake, put the film Rambo on a video player and let him watch a grainy, poor quality video of his mother making a television appeal.
John spoke movingly about how captivity stole more than his freedom, it also eroded the memories of his family and friends and he had struggled to remember what his mother looked and sounded like.
It took more than five years to gain his release. Throughout, his then-girlfriend Jill Morell fought to keep his plight in the public eye and following his release, they co-wrote Some Other Rainbow, which became an international best-seller.
The evening finished with a huge round of applause for both John and Sandi, with Sandi announcing next year will be her final year hosting the Chancellor's Dinner.