STILL WITH US

For­eign cor­re­spon­dent Clare Holling­worth, 104

The Oldie - - NEWS -

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.

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