The wistful nephew of a former secret agent in the Second World War once told me of his utter frustration: his aunt, well into her nineties, refused to talk of her adventures. Patrick Garrett had already read his great-aunt Clare Hollingworth’s autobiography, but it was short on personal detail. He’d also spent many hours talking to her in her apartment in Hong Kong, though she added little to personalise the details of her career in journalism that were already in the public domain. Then, in his parents’ attic back in England, he discovered a ‘battered trunk, plastered with shipping labels’. In it were letters, campaign medals, documents, torn photographs of former lovers… His great-aunt’s past sprang to life.
And what a life. Wars, travel, exotic locations, encounters with spies, fact-finding and gossip with diplomats and soldiers, double agents and politicians. It was both glamorous and gritty, from the fashionable watering holes of Cairo, Paris and Bucharest to the rigours of survival in a warzone. It featured two husbands, many other charming men and, essential to a globetrotting correspondent, a phenomenal contacts book.
Most remarkably, in 1939, she got what might well be called the scoop of the century, which was her very first story. Twenty-seven years old, she had been working with refugees in Poland and already had a reputation for independence and defying the rules in what was a very male world. Married to Vandeleur Robinson, a writer who shared her passion for politics and foreign affairs, she determinedly refused to be known as Mrs Robinson. In Katowice she acquired identity papers and visas, pulled strings and lobbied British embassy officials to smuggle hundreds of Jews, political activists, trade unionists and others back to Britain, developing several of the skills that would stand her in good stead in the following decades. She was hard-working, had the knack of making excellent contacts with every kind of official and encountered a string of colourful characters (particularly in the grey world of intelligence), many of whom crossed her path later in her journalistic career.
That career took off spectacularly when she headed back to Katowice in August 1939 for the Daily Telegraph. She ‘borrowed’ the British consul’s official car, heading straight for, and over, the German border. Driving along a valley, she noticed that the view from the road was hidden by a hessian screen. A gust of wind caught it and she saw ‘scores, if not hundreds, of tanks’ behind it. The Daily Telegraph ran the story. The next day Hollingworth was woken by anti-aircraft fire as German bombers attacked Katowice. The British embassy in Warsaw did not believe the news, which prompted her to hold the phone receiver out of the window to pick up the sound of Luftwaffe aircraft dropping their bombs.
To begin a career in such spectacular fashion might have meant that the rest of it would turn out to be dull in comparison. Not at all. There followed a lifetime of alarms and excursions. The list of her assignments reads like a potted history of warfare, espionage and terrorism. She was drawn to the front lines of conflict and believed that a reporter should see a situation for herself in order to know what was going on. On many occasions she declared to somewhat astonished questioners that she never felt afraid and candidly informed listeners of Desert Island Discs about the thrill of ‘being in a plane that’s bombing something’. She covered the North African campaign in the Second World War, civil wars in Greece and Algeria, conflicts in Aden, Borneo and Vietnam, and terrorism in myriad locations, always demonstrating a grasp of military strategy coupled with an insatiable desire to pursue the right story when there was action.
Contrary to her usual response to enquiries about her life away from the front lines that she had no time for much else, she emerges in Garrett’s book as a rounded personality. She was sociable and gossipy, collected art and married twice – her second marriage, to Geoffrey Hoare, was very much a love match. Both her husbands supported her career, despite having to spend long periods apart from her. And both seem to have frequently polished the copy she sent back from assignments – a good test of a relationship.
Her social life in Cairo and Paris might be seen as a mere pretext for adding to her bulging contacts book, but Hollingworth had charm and swam naturally in a sea of diplomats, politicians, journalists and spies. Donald Maclean was a frequent dinner guest and she first met Kim Philby at a ball in the 1930s. Garrett’s generously written biography is peppered with details yielded by that chest in the attic.
Her final assignment was to China – and regardless of the fact that she spoke not a word of Mandarin, she burrowed away doggedly into the wall of communist officialdom, ferreting out nuggets of information. She lived the life she wanted to the full. Her ears pricked up at the sound of ‘something going on’ and her bag was always packed and ready. For years she practised sleeping on the floor ‘just once a month’, in case she had to scamper off somewhere on assignment.
Hollingworth is still with us, now quite fragile at the age of 105, and lives in Hong Kong. The story of her life is a kaleidoscope of world events, shot through with determination and courage. It’s a great read.