If you've never been shoved aside by a pensioner trying to get into a Writers' Festival session, neither had I - until I joined the queue for Robert Fisk's show at Wellington's Embassy Theatre last Friday evening.

It was Fisk's third appearance of four at the festival, a late add-on as the others had sold out, fast. Tickets for this session were snapped up within 55 minutes, meaning that in total 2960 people went to listen to him during the week-long festival. And, having waited impatiently for the doors to open, these fervent Fiskers were in no mood to be polite about getting a good seat. It was every man, woman, pensioner and punter for themselves. Almost like pushing into an exclusive rock concert, but with more grey hair.

Inside, the mood verged on breathless adulation as Fisk read from his massive tome, The Great War For Civilisation, showed a clip from his September 11, 1993, BBC documentary about a bombed-out mosque in the Balkans, answered a few questions, then was out, just 45 minutes later.

Earlier in the day, at a panel session featuring Fisk, John Campbell and Karl du Fresne, there was a sense of impatience when the latter two spoke. Boring! The people were there to see Fisk. The Independent's Middle East correspondent was the star - and he looked as if he was loving every minute of it.

It isn't every day you get to see a man who has interviewed Osama bin Laden three times, and Saddam Hussein; a Beirut-based journalist who has covered every conflict in the Balkans and Middle East over the past 30 years; who was nearly stoned to death in Pakistan, and who faces mortal danger almost every time he goes out on the job. Fisk scorns the concept of "embedded journalism" and doesn't work in a pack.

Fisk, flopping into a chair in his hotel a couple of hours later, also scorns the notion that he is regarded by his audience as a star.

"I don't go along with that. There should be a lot more journalists who the audience wants to see and the fact they want to see me is rather a denigration of the profession. It suggests there aren't many people trying to do what I try to do.

"I knew before I came to New Zealand that per head of population we have sold more copies of the book here than anywhere else in the world. I was aware there was a considerable appetite. But I've known that for years now from my time on radio and television in Australia and New Zealand - I get quite a huge mailbag from both countries.

"People here take a different view of world events, they are much more to the point. Plain-speaking is rather nice and that's what I am trying to do. Let's call a spade a spade and tell the truth."

It must have been obvious to Fisk that he was preaching to the converted in the Wellington shows. But in the United States, where he gives lectures every month to audiences that are swelling up to 2000 in number, he has to work harder.

"Giving a lecture, it's a funny thing. It's not like you are just talking to the reader. It's about 30 per cent journalism, and 30 per cent being a lawyer, trying to convince the jury that you are right. Sometimes the audience is loaded on your side, but in America it is not always - you should see it. They are a much tougher audience so you have to be 30 per cent showbiz, get the humour right, get the jokes in right, pause at the right moment. And the rest is 10 per cent luck, depending on your audience."

But doesn't he get a little nervous lecturing in the United States because of celebrities such as John Malkovich saying he'd like to shoot Fisk in the head, and subsequent animated websites showing that happening?

"In the United States, all I say is here is a land where everyone can own a gun and here is a land where there are raving loonies as there are in all countries. It just needs one person to take Malkovich seriously, someone who is less rational, then I've got a problem ... these are people who are not normal.

"There is something wrong with them, they are cracked. I don't want the John Malkovichs scratching them and provoking them into doing something. They haven't done anything, touch wood, but I do think about it."

Earlier that day, Fisk, 59, had remarked in one of his sessions that he "felt very lonely". It would be nice to think that he has some form of emotional succour at home but he's having none of that kind of trivial questioning, thank you.

"I am not going to talk about my private life at all," he snaps. Sorry, Robert, and you'll hate this, but research reveals he has been married twice, and is separating from his second wife Lara Marlowe, a former Time magazine correspondent. The two are said to remain on good terms and Fisk has, to quote a source, "someone in the wings".

It can't be easy, however, to be in a relationship with a man who is away from home so much - usually six months of the year, but even more now because of the book - and whose job is hazardous in so many ways.

Moreover, Fisk, who bristles with energy, cannot stand being idle. The day we met, he had been up since 3.30am to file a story for the Independent. He had done two festival sessions, worked on a small TV documentary about Gallipoli memorials around Wellington, then found time to talk to me before going out to do more filming. A week in Wellington must have seemed like a very long time for him.

As he enters his 60s, how does he see the shape of his life ahead? He'll still keep writing for the Independent, of course. "I would like to be redundant. I would like the Middle East to be so boring and quiet I wouldn't need to be there. It will never be that, in our lifetime," he states, matter of factly.

"I was thinking also that I used to play the violin quite well - I've got a violin back in Beirut and I am thinking of taking up playing again ..."

He pauses because that confession has elicited a yelp from me. "Oh, I see," he chuckles, "you are thinking of that scene in Master and Commander where the captain and the doctor play a duet..."

"No, I wasn't ... I was thinking of Robert Fisk playing the violin."

He drives on. "I loved that film. I thought it was wonderful. So was Kingdom of Heaven. I saw that film in a Muslim part of Beirut. Every time Saladin [played by Syrian Ghassan Massoud] did something compassionate, they all stood up and clapped."

He draws breath, barely. "So if you are asking me if I am about to retire, the answer is no. I went to Beirut when I was 29 and I still feel 29. I feel as fit as anyone in their 40s. I have a huge amount of energy. If it's midnight and there's a good story, I don't mind at all. My driver might object and he does sometimes, but he is very well paid."

Fisk's forehead bears a bump, the scar of the Afghan refugee attack in Pakistan in 2001. He also shows me a scar on his hand, from when he fought back to save his life. "You have to be very hard and tough, sticks and stones. The only thing I regret is that in order to survive I had to throw a punch and there's the mark where the Afghan lost his tooth.

"I remember thinking, 'Goddamit, we've been beating up Afghans all these hundreds of years and here we are again, a Brit smashing a face'. But then again they were smashing stones into mine."

After 30 years of seeing the most revolting atrocities, has he grown inured? "I don't think you ever get used to seeing the massacre of the innocents, you always see something you have never seen before.

"It out-horrors any horror movie, I can promise you. That is the purpose of war, of course, to horrify people into surrendering - give them enough pain and they will.

"But I don't have nightmares. I can go home after seeing the most terrible things and go out for dinner. You don't come back soul-searching. I hate this thing about, 'Oh, you need counselling'. If reporters don't like writing about these things then they can fly home with a glass of champagne.

"It's the people they leave behind who live in the country - they can't use their passports to fly away, so don't worry about journalists.

"I remember a reporter, who shall remain nameless, who covered a massacre. He got blood on his shoes and said in his report, 'I walked through hell'. I read his book in which he repeated this and he did not walk through hell. He got his shoes dirty and he flew home.

"The idea that the reporter becomes the victim is preposterous. We can get killed, but to try and turn oneself into this figure of misfortune and self-pity is ridiculous."

He has given me nearly an hour, and 4000 words, it's getting late, but Fisk's bedtime is hours away. He bounds off into the Wellington night with a handshake and a wave. A one-man energiser. Phenomenal.


History's right-hand man

What is it about the Fisk phenomenon, the man who attracts such an unusually zealous following? "I envy those Wellingtonians and visitors who got to hear Robert Fisk," wrote one correspondent to the Listener's letters pages. Another fan, writing to the same magazine, described The Great War for Civilisation as a "masterpiece", adding that, "If anyone wants to know what is going on, read Fisk's book and be thankful that there does exist one chronicler of contemporary history with the courage to speak out, and with genuine facts at his command."

Radio New Zealand host Chris Laidlaw, who interviewed Fisk face-to-face, said that in his analysis there were several reasons for his appeal. "He uses the plainest language, there is no embellishment, there is no great literary allusion. There is the occasional pulling out of quotes and so on, and his book has got quite a few of those, but there is a chilling clarity.

"It's partly the messianic quality he brings as well, and word about that has got out. He is prepared to go on the offensive the whole time - he has spent half of his life on the offensive. He's angry and I asked him about how he deals with that. I think he just remains angry.

"There is a certain amount of, 'Why doesn't the world listen to me? or the wrong people are listening to me. The policy makers are refusing to listen to me because I am not telling them anything they want to hear and I'm calling them idiots.'

"My personal feeling is that Fisk is the only person in the media who has a comprehensive grasp of the ebb and flow of history, to be able to put things into context. Nobody else, and certainly nobody in this country, comes even close and those who criticise him I think do so from a position of very great disadvantage. They simply don't know near as much as he does.

"Fisk has told the absolute and coruscating truth. Some people like that and some people don't. I found him very engaging."

TV3's John Campbell, who interviewed Fisk on Campbell Live and chaired one of his festival events, observed, "When you put Fisk before a crowd of people, everyone's eyes light up and they look animated with expectation. They really believe they are going to be told something that illuminates the way they see the world, which is very flattering.

"You do have to put it into the context of the festival - that is a highly literary crowd going along to see their heroes in one form or another but we are not used to seeing a journalist received like that.

"Some people say Fisk is cynical, but I would say he is one of the least cynical journalists in the world.

"He is profoundly optimistic and idealistic - he believes in the power of journalism. When was the last time you saw a journalist sit before 500 people and say journalism is an honourable job and we can change the way people see the world.

"He is opposed to cynicism and that is a very attractive quality. He has seen the bodies and he has every right to tell us this is obscene and repugnant. He is not a cynical old hack - the lights are still on, he is unstoppable and the energy is contagious."