Oliver Holmes

Old Bedalian 2004

The new and the familiar merged into one for Oliver Holmes when he first arrived at Bedales. The product of a mother who was a teacher and a father who was a journalist, Oliver had spent his formative school days in an assortment of international schools as the family caravan travelled around Europe.

“I’d landed in a typically British institution, set in a rural English environment, with lots of strong English accents around me, which was very different,” Oliver remembers. “On the other hand, I was immediately made to feel welcome and there was a similar mentality to the schools that I was used to. No uniform and the informal relationship between teachers and students had already been a part of my education.”

Joining in the last term at Dunhurst, Oliver immediately tested the Bedales curriculum to its fullest extent. “I embraced it all,” he agrees happily. “Going to the barn or baking bread was as enjoyable as sport, which I loved. I wasn’t exactly a gifted sportsman but I really did enjoy it and I did plenty of it. There was also theatre, which I was quite into when I started at Bedales, but which lost its place in my priorities as I played more and more football.”

As he progressed through the school, Oliver’s future ambitions seemed to be settled on life in the business world. “That would have had a lot to do with John Scullion, who was a fantastic economics teacher. John wouldn’t let students mess him around and was much wittier than all the self-appointed class comedians. Colin Prowse, my geography teacher, was another great mentor, but my interest at that point was really in macro-economics, which was what led me to apply for business courses at various universities.”

I embraced it all... going to the barn or baking bread was as enjoyable as sport, which I loved

 

His year off after leaving Bedales was sufficient to convince Oliver that his future lay in a different direction: “I went to New Zealand with about eight Bedalian friends to visit our friend Jeremy Walker, making our way back via Australia and South East Asia. By the time I returned, I had realised that my main passion was for politics. I went to Leeds University to study politics but it turned out to be an almost complete waste of time.”

Oliver goes on to explain his jaundiced view of university life. “When I arrived, I looked at what other students were doing and thought that I’d had done that three years ago,” he reflects. “I’d already gone out and got drunk, I was used to working independently and managing my time at Bedales, where an eye would be kept on you but you were basically allowed to get on with things. At Leeds, there was never a real bond with the tutors. Looking back, I’d say that I would have skipped university altogether.”

Leeds hadn’t been entirely bereft of worthwhile experiences for Oliver, however. It was there that he had worked for the student newspaper and developed a radio show, paving the way for the multi-media career that he would eventually make his own. “The problem was that I graduated in 2008, the year of the economic collapse, and there didn’t seem to be any jobs around. Having learned no skills at university, I thought I’d go and get some.”

The immediate answer was to take himself off to Syria, where Oliver learned Arabic in Damascus. Here was a life-changing six months, during which Oliver lived in an ancient house in the middle of one of the oldest cities on Earth, surrounded by walls that had existed since Biblical times. “Syria is the most extraordinary place,” he confirms. “I was living right next to the Umayyad Mosque; I travelled across the country, saw the great fortress of Krak des Chevaliers – what boy hasn’t dreamed of seeing a Crusader’s castle? I went back to the UK but after a few months of indecision, I decided to look for another experience.”

Off to Yemen went Oliver, this time for two years. “I’d heard the most incredible things about the place and they turned out to be true but it was very different from Syria,” he says. “In Damascus, the President’s grip on power seemed so strong that you could never have foreseen a time when it was going to be contested. In Yemen, the President may have been in power for more than 30 years but there was a sense of change in the air; the economy was floundering, water was running out and people were out on strike the whole time. You could feel the discontent.”

I was used to working independently and managing my time at Bedales, where an eye would be kept on you but you were basically allowed to get on with things

 

Oliver had begun his time in Yemen as a language student but he was soon writing endless letters to as many publications as he could think of and eventually developing the editorial relationships that would lead to a fully-fledged career as a freelance journalist. “I ended up writing three articles a day for different publications and sending television footage back to different media organisations such as Channel 4.” School life had turned out to be excellent preparation for a freelance existence, as Oliver explains: “Opportunities were made available to you at Bedales if you wanted them but they weren’t spoon-fed to you; you had to go and seek them out for yourself. Freelance journalism is a bit like that.”

Back in the UK in 2011 to attend a hostile environment course, Oliver found himself in immediate demand when the whirlwind of the Arab Spring began to take shape. “My editors at the Wall Street Journal and Time magazine told me to get myself back to Yemen, where I reported on what was happening for three weeks. The place had started to get extremely violent – the Government was now shooting protesters and it wasn’t too keen on foreign journalists. One day, an army officer came to my house, had some of us driven to the airport and said: ‘You’re leaving.’”

Once again leveraging as many contacts as possible, Oliver now temporarily switched his base to Libya, where he worked as a contract reporter, before landing a more permanent position in Beirut with Reuters. By now, the brutal civil war in Syria had erupted and Lebanon had become the centre of one of the largest mass population migrations that the world has ever seen. “It’s been an astounding thing to see,” Oliver observes. “Between 2012 and 2014, a million people have arrived in Lebanon from Syria, which means that one fifth of the country is now made up of refugees. Every week, you hope to have some good news to write about from Syria and Lebanon and every week, things remain profoundly depressing. In some ways, I’m surprise at how shocked I still feel when I report.”

It has also been a war in which the safety of its reporters has been held cheaper than at any time in the history of the profession. “At times, reporting in Syria has been like standing on a dart-board and hoping that you don’t get hit,” Oliver admits. “Managing your own safety is next to impossible; you have to think very carefully about it and doing my job now would have been a non-starter as a freelancer. Even the big agencies are cutting back on their reporting teams so if you’re on your own, the dangers are just too extreme.”

As he approaches his 30s, Oliver is realistic about how long he intends to remain at the sharpest possible end of his trade. “I’m not addicted to adrenaline and right now, I’m thinking that I don’t want to do exactly this forever,” he says. “I certainly don’t envisage myself as some grizzled old war hack years from now. I’m thinking about different options – maybe in the Middle East, maybe not – and I’d like to think that I can continue to combine my love of video and radio work with my writing. As long as I’m reporting on people and their stories, I’ll be happy.”

Oliver Holmes was interviewed by James Fairweather in February 2015.