STILL WITH US
Foreign correspondent Clare Hollingworth, 104
LIKE MANY of Fleet Street’s finest foreign correspondents, Clare Hollingworth is one of life’s outsiders. Once bitten by the bug of reporting from hot-spots, she never really tried to settle back home in Britain. Throughout her long working career, she shifted restlessly between spells in Poland, Germany, Algeria, India, Beirut and Israel, before finally settling in Hong Kong in the mid-1970s.
Though she is now frail and virtually blind, she still keeps her shoes under her bed just in case the foreign desk calls for one last ‘out of town job’.
There was only one venue appropriate for the party to mark her 104th birthday in October, and that was the ‘bunker’ of the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents’ Club, just around the corner from her modest flat.
For decades this club has been her stage, where her imperious method for summoning a waiter – banging her walking stick loudly on the wall – would scarcely be tolerated from anyone with a lesser journalistic pedigree than hers. That night of her party she stayed for more than three hours chatting to friends, disciples and bibulous hacks, which is not bad for a woman born three years before the outbreak of the First World War.
When journalists gather at Hollingworth’s feet, they tend to debate which was the greatest of her many scoops, but I favour her exclusive that Kim Philby had defected to Moscow in 1963. Hollingworth and Philby were both correspondents in Beirut when he disappeared, she for the Guardian, he for the Economist and the Observer.
Several reporters had their suspicions, but only Hollingworth had the nous to check the harbour records and learn that a Soviet vessel had sailed at exactly the time Philby vanished. Hilariously, the boobies at the Guardian sat on her scoop for three months, ostensibly for fear of libelling the traitor.
She had bagged her most famous exclusive at the age of just 27, only a couple of weeks after being hired by the Daily Telegraph in 1939 to report from Poland on the German military threat.
Sensing there might be a decent colour piece to be filed, she commandeered the British Consul’s official car and headed off to the frontier. All seemed normal until a gust of wind blew vast hessian sackings from their moorings, to reveal General von Rundstedt’s forces in pre-battle formation in the valley below.
Her report the next day caused a sensation, not just in Britain, but around the world: ‘1,000 TANKS MASSED ON POLISH FRONTIER – TEN DIVISIONS REPORTED READY FOR SWIFT STROKE.’
Three days later, on 1st September, she followed up her scoop with the news that the invasion had begun. She was back at her temporary base in Katowice and heard the tanks rumble past her window. A diplomat friend at the British embassy in Warsaw refused to believe her until she held the telephone handset out of the window for him to hear the grind of tank tracks.
In those days journalists were not encouraged to become personalities or emote for their readers, so her identity was masked behind the bland byline ‘From Our Own Correspondent’. Years later she would concede it was probably just as well, as it would only have alarmed her parents back home in the UK.
In terms of longevity, only her late Telegraph colleague W F (Bill) Deedes, born two years after her, came close to her span as a working journalist. Deedes cut his foreign corresponding teeth in 1935 covering the Italian invasion of Abyssinia. Though he was to earn Fleet Street kudos as the partial inspiration for Boot of the Beast in Evelyn Waugh’s novel Scoop, Deedes got no exclusives during his months in East Africa.
Forty years on, when he became editor of the Telegraph, they would occasionally meet though there was a mutual wariness and a certain sense of rivalry between the two ‘legends’ of their trade. Hollingworth was easily the better story getter, Deedes the more assured prose stylist.
Her later years have been clouded by a distasteful dispute with a former friend who temporarily took over her financial affairs when she broke her hip twelve years ago. Despite her securing a court ruling, there is little prospect of some $286,000 withdrawn from her bank account ever being returned. She lives frugally in Hong Kong, and gets by on savings and a modest Telegraph pension.
Well into her eighties, she would occasionally sleep on the floor, just to prove to herself that she still had what it takes to jump on a plane with no guarantee of a bed at the other end. She would telephone the Telegraph’s foreign desk manager, Paul Hill, every day to assure him of her willingness to serve in any capacity and remind him that her visas were all up to date.
Just five feet three inches tall, she could be an intimidating presence in the field, particularly for soldiers attempting to keep journalists from doing their job. Lacking any sense of deference, she prefers the company of hacks to editors, of Second Secretaries to ambassadors.
Were Clare Hollingworth thirty years younger, she would almost certainly now be prowling the Syrian border in search of Islamic State, or walking into Hungary with the hungry migrants, notebook in hand, yelling down her mobile phone at the foreign desk about how they had mangled her copy.