Interview with Rose George

I found Rose George’s website by googling for “Fabrica student”. It’s the number one search result right above those of ours (this is as of July 2006). Her article about our legendary Olivero Toscani drew me in and an hour later I was still reading the rest of her website. Intrigued by her writings in both the old COLORS issues and her own articles, I decided to interview her. Rose was never a Fabricante, but spent three years working for COLORS magazine as a senior editor and writer until 1999. Now she is a freelance journalist whose articles frequently appear on the London Review of Books. She has published a book about refugee lives titled “A Life Removed: Hunting for Refuge in the Modern World” and is working on another book about human waste. Luckily, I caught her over email before she jets off to the East for research.
Rose George
Rose George, freelance journalist & author
b.F: When one picks up an issue of COLORS magazine and read it from cover to cover, one can sort of get a sense that this magazine is run by a liberal-minded, progressive and worldly group of people. What was the atmosphere like for COLORS magazine office in the late 90s?
RG: it was an intense and brilliant experience which was periodically maddening. but it was the best first job anyone could dream of – we were a bunch of young people, all under 30 and most under 25, working in a series of stunning offices (from a crumbly old building with a fountain in Rome, to a gorgeous maison particulier in Paris, to the little house at Fabrica with a view of mountains). we got to spend our lives calling people whereever we wanted to, to ask them what they had for breakfast or how many babies Thai police delivered. we got to go on a day trip to Treviso morgue for the Death issue. And there was, compared to most magazines, incredible freedom. Toscani would impose his will when he wanted, of course, but for the first couple of years, we were left well alone. I know it’s really annoying for people to wax lyrical about the good old days and how wonderful it was back then. there were days when it was so intense and infuriating, i’d have to march around the street/garden/wherever for a while to calm down. But in retrospect, it was an incredible introduction into journalism for which I’m very grateful.
b.F: Do you have a favorite COLORS issue?
RG: I have a few favourite issues. I like Touch, because I think it’s philosophically interesting. I liked Time, for all sorts of reasons. I liked shopping for the body, because it shows the mad diversity of the world and I like Toys for the line “this is a controversial duck.”. I liked the Death issue because it looked head-on at something people spend their lives not looking head-on at, and did it creatively. We had not much shame – me more than others, being a puritan Brit – and we got away with astonishing things, being unshackled by advertisers and Benetton.
b.F: Olivero Toscani is somewhat of a mythical legend around Fabrica now since he is no longer here but everyone knows he created this place. On one hand he sounds crazy, on the other hand he seems to be somewhat of an outlandish genius. What was it like working with him?

RG: He is not crazy. He is infurating and a very clever man. He’s probably a genius, though I think his geniusness was helped by the situation he was in at Benetton and his relationship with Luciano Benetton. Sometimes Toscani drove me mad. Often he intentionally tried to drive me mad. He liked to get a rise out of people. I had a picture on my noticeboard of OT (as we called him) surrounded by 3 of his favourites, who – of course – were all male, with the caption “Lest we forget the limits of emancipation.” That said, I learned a lot from him. I admired the fact that he had this old-fashioned view about discipline; he used to send out memos to Fabrica students in cracked English, trying to get them to turn up on time. But when he wanted, he was a very good source of wisdom. I wrote one caption on pain for the Touch issue, and he happened to be around, and I found it very difficult to write – the usual Colors thing; sum up pain in 200 words or less – I had to rewrite it 3 or 4 times before he was happy with it, and I was cursing him, but he was right. He did the same thing with a story in Time, which is just words on a page. We wanted to set it out like a newspaper; he refused and said it should be plain words on a plain page. Again, he was right. He wasn’t always right, though. He was a great teacher in some ways, and I’m very lucky to have had him as my first overlord. I think Benetton lost a lot when he left.
b.F: Did you also live in Treviso? Any favorite memories from here?
RG: I lived in a flat we called the Ghetto, by the weir in piazza something or other. it had a huge long corridor and horrible furniture. from the roof you could watch the weir. I hated the flat, and stayed there for over a year. My fond memories of treviso are Gigi’s, obviously; swimming in the Benetton pool or later in the tennis club in the industrial estate near catena – where they made great pasta with pesto and potatoes; Villa Fana and its weird parties; the guy in the alimentari underneath my flat, who was as bemused as most Trevisans – at that point – at foreigners like me, but adapted brilliantly. I liked what we called the ‘ethnic shop,’ run by an Italian man and his Filipina wife, where you’d find on a Saturday all the Africans and other immigrants who you’d never see during the week. What I loathed about Treviso were the fur coats, the snobbery, the totally shameless obsession with shopping and consumption and la bella figura, and the fact that immigrants didn’t dare show their faces during the week, though their labour was contributing to Treviso’s wealth. I was there the year the Mayor removed the benches so that immigrants couldn’t sit on them. I hope things are better now.
b.F note on this: There are still no public benches anywhere in Treviso, and they also removed any flower pots that people could lean on in Piazza Signori. After a year of being here, you notice the rise in the immigrant population, but they still exist as if on the sideline. The fur coats will probably never go away nor would the shopping….
b.F: How did you get started as a freelance journalist?
RG: I got started by doing an internship at the Nation magazine in New York. again, I was lucky, because it is a magazine staffed by thoughtful, helpful people who want to help young writers. I was allowed to publish two editorials, which was a huge deal back then, and I made some lifelong – I hope – friends. then i found myself unemployed, decided to do an internship at AP in Rome; didn’t like it, as it was as unfriendly as the Nation had been friendly, and in a fit of uncharacteristic chutzpah, phoned round all the English-speaking journalists in Rome, asking for work. Someone mentioned Colors. I’d never heard of it, but ended up being one of the writers of the first non-Tibor Kalman issue, on war. And stayed 3 years.
b.F: How do you choose the topics you write about? Are they assignments or do you come up with the topics/location? Could you describe your average work routine?
RG: I choose what interests me, mostly. Which is why I’m not rich. I used to get asked to write stuff much more often – ie as opposed to pitching stories to editors – but then I wrote a book and went off the freelance radar for a while. When I am asked to do stories, it’s usually stuff that I want to do. Editors get an idea of what you will and won’t do, and though it’s usually pretty inaccurate – I am the “serious one”, apparently – they will tailor their requests accordingly. I have written about gang rape, refugees, women’s suicide in prisons, but also about Slovenian beetle collectors, Dracula Park and – one of my favourite ever assignments – the alternative world cup final in Bhutan, between Montserrat and Bhutan. Tremendous.
I don’t have a work routine. I am spectacularly badly disciplined. I swim in the afternoon a lot. I spend far too much time in the very nice pub 100 metres from my house. Then again sometimes I end up working till midnight. Sometimes I get up at 6 to be able to file a story by lunchtime for some editor who says it’s very urgent and then of course as soon as you’ve filed it it’s not urgent at all. But it’s all fine. It’s a great job and despite the downsides – getting very sick of your own company, for one – I’m determined to stay freelance, 7 years on.
b.F: The latest article posted on your website is about your visit to the London sewers. What was the inspiration for that adventure?
RG: I’m writing a book about sanitation.
b.F: As a war correspondent, what inspires you to keep going to conflict places?
RG: I’m emphatically not a war correspondent. I have never been in a war zone, except when I was inadvertently in Kosovo the day of the NATO invasion in 1999. I spent eight hours in a traffic jam dying for the toilet, then nearly got shot at by Serbs, and that was more than enough war for me. I’m a coward. Anyway, I’d rather be thought of as a post-war correspondent. How a place knits itself together again after conflict to me is more interesting than the conflict.
b.F: Saddam’s birthday party, can you tell us about it?
RG: I was invited thanks to two Bulgarian Fabrica students, Georgi & Boris, who were invited by the Iraqi Society of Photography, because every year around Saddam’s birthday, there was a round of propaganda events, including the Baghdad Photography Festival of Love and Peace. All the non-aligned countries were invited. Boris & Georgi told me about it, I asked the Iraqi Interests Section, which was then housed in the Jordanian embassy in London, and they said there were delighted to have a Brit go along. It was an insane trip. We spent more time touring hospitals and bomb sites and being told about the damage that sanctions were doing to Iraq than doing anything to do with photography. Sanctions were undoubtedly doing damage, but so was the vile regime. I’ve never seen so many people living in chronic fear. Every day.
b.F: The picture you painted of Iraq is rather grim and full of misery from 2000, have you been back there and what are your outlooks for Iraq now with Saddam gone, replaced by the U.S.-led military forces and all that we know?
RG: I went back in 2001. I haven’t been back since. I was actually not anti-war in the beginning. I remembered how terrified people had seemed, and what a horrible place it was – though Iraqis are lovely, welcoming, hospitable people – and I thought that a regime change was a good thing. Since then, I’ve watched with increasing horror at the almighty cock-up that the Americans have engineered. I’ve never seen such blatant murderous thoughtlessness and military stupidity. Or presidential stupidity, rather. The outlook is very very grim. I feel guilty that I haven’t gone back. My excuse is that it would be suicide for a freelancer. When i was there the first time, I met Margaret Hassan, the CARE worker who was kidnapped and murdered. She’d been there 30 years and she was well loved. If she can get killed, anyone can. That said, what is going on in Iraq needs witnesses. It’s hard though not to feel completely impotent.
b.F: Can you tell us a bit about your next project and where you’re off to next?
RG: I’m writing a book about sanitation and human waste (except human waste should not be waste…). It’ll be published by Portobello Books in the UK and Metropolitan/Henry Holt Books in the US in 2008. I leave next week for China, to visit the world-renowned Institute of Biogas, and then for a couple of weeks in Japan, to explore the world’s most hi-tech toilets, then possibly to India, which has some of the most vigorous sanitation campaigners on the planet.
b.F: Could you recommend any summer-reading books?
RG: I just read Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. She’s a fabulous feature writer from the US. The book is about her attempt to find some peace after a horrible divorce and horrible romance. She eats in Italy, prays in India and finds love in indonesia. The first part is excellent, the second is turgid and the third is OK. It’s self-indulgent in places, but she’s such a good writer, and she’s clearly so nice, I’d recommend it.
Otherwise i can only recommend my old favourites – well-written crime fiction. Andrea Camilleri, Henning Mankell, Fred Vargas. Much under-appreciated. Fred Vargas is very odd and very brilliant.
b.F: What are your favorite magazines?
RG: There aren’t many. I like the New Yorker. I like the London Review of Books, because I write for them, and they’re very nice people who are happy to have the headline “Rose George travels in the sewers” on the cover. But also, it can be a brilliant publication. Other than that I read and all the goodies on artsandlettersdaily. The only magazines I’ll buy are Private Eye and the Economist. Which says a lot about the state of British magazines. The women’s magazines are a waste of print, mostly. Men’s magazines are soft porn. The political magazines are dull, and the newspaper supplements are currently far too celebrity-obssessed. So I read American mags instead.
Thank You Rose, and we’ll be looking out for more writing from you!
Referrence links
COLORS 28 Touch
COLORS 26 Time
COLORS 29 Toys
COLORS 24 Death
In the London Sewers
A guest a Saddam’s Birthday Party
Fat Man: Olivero Toscani