Every article about Clare Hollingworth begins with the same fact: she was the journalist who broke the news, in late August 1939, that German tanks were gathering on the Polish border.
The previous week, despite never having worked as a reporter, she’d been hired as a freelance stringer by The Daily Telegraph in London. She’d flown to Berlin, then Warsaw, then taken a train to the Polish border town of Katowice, where she’d borrowed the British consul general’s car. “You’re a funny old girl!” he’d laughed when she’d said she was crossing, alone, back into Germany. This wasn’t strictly accurate: she was 27.
The border was still open for diplomatic vehicles; the soldiers saluted the Union flag on the bonnet as she drove across. She did a little retail investigation. (“In a chemist’s shop where I tried to buy some soap,” she wrote later, “I was told they had to send the entire stock to Berlin.”) She drove on. In the 3km between the towns of Hindenburg and Gleiwitz, 65 dispatch riders on motorbikes overtook her.
A huge hessian screen had been erected to shield the valley below from prying eyes but as she was passing, a “great gust of wind” lifted it, and she saw what was about to be unleashed. The Daily Telegraph’s front-page headline on Tuesday, August 29, 1939 stated “1,000 Tanks Massed on Polish Frontier”. The byline, as was then the style, simply said: From Our Own Correspondent. Three days later, she was woken at 5am by Luftwaffe air raids on Katowice. She rang Hugh Carleton Greene, the Telegraph’s Warsaw correspondent (and brother of novelist Graham Greene), a call he later described as the most dramatic moment of his life.
“It’s begun,” she said.
Hollingworth would go on to report many more wars for other newspapers but that one – her first, the world’s second – would define her. In 2000, the BBC’s What The Papers Say gave her a lifetime achievement award. (She’d already been honoured by the programme, in 1963, for her coverage of the Algerian war.) She was, said the citation, “the doyenne of war correspondents” and her career read “like a history of conflict in the 20th century”.
By then, she was a Hong Kong resident. She’d moved to the territory in 1981 and lived in a flat on Upper Albert Road. On the February day in 2000 she was due to fly to London for the awards ceremony, we spent the afternoon together. The idea was to conduct an interview, although my note-taking eventually gave way to reading aloud articles from a pile of newspapers, locating telephone numbers and – at one point – combing her hair in the bathroom while she stood, tiny but imperious, in her stockinged feet. The young woman who’d borne witness to German military might was now 88 and almost blind, and everyone who encountered her tended to be given light administrative duties.
On that dreary winter’s afternoon, she constantly asked the time. Every hour, she listened intently to the World Service headlines on her radio, holding it to her cheek like a caress. At night, she said, she kept it under her pillow. She needed to know that she could take the globe’s pulse at any moment. Work was her obsession, and she wasn’t going to linger in London after the ceremony: “I’d like to but I’ve got so much to do, I can’t ...”
In her wardrobe hung the famous, specially tailored safari suits she wore on assignments; and on her bed she’d placed a gleaming mink coat, ready to take to the airport as protection against London’s cold. It had once belonged to Melinda Maclean, wife of the British diplomat and Russian spy Donald; the Macleans had been her neighbours in Cairo, Egypt, long before they’d defected to Moscow.
She’d known another British spy, Kim Philby, whom she’d met at a ball in the 1930s. Her birthday had been toasted at midnight and he’d come up to her and said it was his birthday, too. They were twins, he’d said, and they’d stayed friends. She broke the story of his Moscow defection in 1963, when they’d both been in Beirut, Lebanon. (Like pretty much everything else in Philby’s life, the birthday claim turned out to be false.)
She talked about the Shah of Iran. She’d interviewed him when, shortly after the British-Soviet invasion of 1941, he’d gone from being Mohammad Reza Pahlavi to a nation’s king; he’d asked her to stay to lunch so that she could cheer up his wife (the King of Egypt’s sister) with gossip from Cairo. She’d interviewed him again, in Morocco, after he was overthrown by the revolution of 1979. When I asked, she said, “No, I wasn’t nervous of him – careful but not nervous. I behaved myself, stood up at the right times and bowed.”
And she conveyed the most vivid image of the complicated relationship between politicians and people I’ve ever heard. It was in 1960 Algeria – then under French colonial rule and in the bitter throes of war – during a visit by the French president, General de Gaulle. (Of course, she already knew him. They’d met in wartime Cairo, when British officials half-heartedly offered an interview with “some French general” and she was the only journalist who took it up.)
“A crowd collected outside shouting, ‘Down with de Gaulle!’,” she said, meticulously adding, “In French, of course. He was driving away and he said to the driver, ‘Open the door’ and the police said, ‘No, no, no.’ But he got out and walked into this hostile crowd. And when he came back, his uniform was covered with spittle where they’d spat at him and he had blood on his hands where they’d fought to kiss them.”
That was worthy of Coriolanus, although I’m not sure she’d have liked the literary comparison. She was painstakingly scrupulous. “I can’t tell you the truth about that because I don’t know,” she’d say. Emotion, in a professional context, could be a trap. When I asked if she felt sorry for the shah, having witnessed the entire arc of his reign, she said, “I’d rather not comment on that, I haven’t thought it through.” (Although, after a pause, she conceded, “I think he gave extravagant parties.”) She had less interest in talking about the past than in the possibility of events to come; to a journalist, like an actor, the next, unknown, job is the truly thrilling one.
When I asked her if Hong Kong was her accidental home, she replied, “Yes, in a way. I used it for a base for covering the war” – Vietnam – “and as a place to get news and to get eventually into China.” Having ended up here, she agreed she liked it. “I couldn’t say I love it but it has a good deal of interest and I’ve got many friends here.” One of the things she planned to do on her short London trip, she said, was discuss where it was best to live because of her failing eyesight. “Homes for the blind,” she said and gave a rare little laugh. “Not that I want to be in one ... I’ll spend what little capital I have in having someone look after me.”
In her bag, among the magnifying glasses and scraps of paper scrawled, hugely, with names and numbers, I glimpsed a Towngas envelope stuffed with money. Later, warily, I looked at her bills from the Foreign Correspondents’ Club: she wanted someone to scrutinise her paperwork, clearly a potential quagmire. I’m not an FCC member but the amounts seemed rather high and, afterwards, I asked a friend to check that everything was as it should be. (Word came back that all was well.)
In the early evening, we went to the FCC. In those days, she was a daily presence, pointed out to visitors as the pride of the club, a human equivalent to those battle-survivor lions in front of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank building. During Hong Kong’s handover to Chinese rule, three years earlier, it was said that the two people every British journalist wanted to meet were governor Chris Patten and Hollingworth. He’d sailed away; she’d remained.
The size of the bills made more sense when I heard her offering to order drinks and food for anyone who came over to say hello, order being an apt word; the tolerance of the waiters, addressed in autocratic tones worthy of a 19th-century memsahib, was remarkable. What I most remember, however, is that tottering short walk down to the club, nightmarishly lit by the headlights of early rush-hour traffic on Lower Albert Road. It’s a peculiarly horrible feeling to think that an icon might die on your watch (and a lifetime achievement award be abruptly cancelled). But Hollingworth was unperturbed. She kept going, unsteady but fearless, into her future.
ON OCTOBER 10 (2016) she will turn 105. Every year since her 100th, there has been birthday stories in the British media. Now, there is the added bonus of a biography, Of Fortunes and War: Clare Hollingworth, First of the Female War Correspondents, written by a great-nephew, Patrick Garrett.
Hollingworth, who married twice, had no children apart from a stepdaughter, now in her 80s, who lives in Paris. But her younger sister, Edith, had two, one of whom is Garrett’s mother. Inspired by his great-aunt, Garrett, 50, grew up to be a television news editor, was based in Moscow between 1992 and 1997, then came to Hong Kong for the handover. In 2003, he moved back to Moscow, where he works for Cathay Pacific. (His daunting job title is country manager, Russia.)
“I began the book in 2007 and half of me regrets that I didn’t start researching earlier,” he says, when we meet at the Airport Express Starbucks in Hong Kong’s Central district, after he’s landed for a recent brief visit. In 1997, he’d tried interviewing his great-aunt but, as he already knew from her 1990 autobiography, Front Line, she wasn’t the revealing type. It wasn’t until he discovered a trunk in his parents’ English attic with some of her documents inside that he felt there was still a story to be told.
The book is certainly scrupulous – rather more so, as it turns out, than Hollingworth was herself. Like Philby, she altered her date of birth. Although she was born on October 10, 1911 (Double Tenth, the day the Chinese empire fell), she claimed for years on her passport that it was 1909. Garrett believes she wanted to appear more senior in a man’s world. (He’d seen her birth certificate and was confident she wasn’t turning 107 in October 2016.)
What makes it interesting is that it’s certainly not a hagiography. It’s a clear-eyed view of a flawed individual who led an extraordinary life. “This was classic Clare” – Garrett writes at one point, of a brief course she did on international relations – “always able to parlay a little bit of knowledge to great advantage”. She had no time for other women correspondents (although she had “a tendency to fawn over men in uniform”) and when Garrett arrives in Hong Kong in 1997, she makes it clear she’s not going to help him with contacts.
“I respect her for that,” he says, now. “In her mind, I may have been a danger to her but I had no opportunity to upstage her.”
One of the more unexpected aspects is not her early involvement with the peace movement (she later felt considerable guilt at how much she came to enjoy war) or her vital work with refugees on the Polish border in the spring of 1939 (that knowledge of the region was why The Daily Telegraph hired a complete novice) or even the fact that she converted to Catholicism in the 1950s. It’s the affairs. The British consul general who lent her his car and thought her such a funny old girl was one of several discreet dalliances.
“I was amused but I could believe it,” Garrett says. “Totally plausible.”
And then there’s the court case with Ted Thomas. The Welshman, who has been in Hong Kong since 1955, is a well-known figure around town; he used to be a journalist, then moved into government public relations before setting up his own PR agency. In January 2003, Hollingworth, aged 91, signed forms that allowed Thomas to write cheques on her bank account. Seven months later, she had a fall; in the 10 days she was in hospital, about HK$1.5 million was moved from her account. By the time she left, so little money remained that the cheque for her medical expenses bounced.
The court case, in 2006, was an attempt to make Thomas – whose real name is Thomas Edward Juson – account for the missing monies, which, until his signing rights were revoked, came to HK$2.2 million. Some of it was returned but as the legal judgment stated: “It is plain that there is much room for a full and sworn account by the defendant.” For those with no connection to the plaintiff, the legal details, which are available online, have an almost horror fascination. Thomas (who has worked on the fringes of showbusiness and provides the voice of Godzilla in English-dubbed versions of the films) claimed that some of the money was spent on a Hollingworth autobiography titled Captain if Captured. This was a vanity-publishing project he arranged for which she paid; apart from some slight updating, it’s almost identical to her earlier autobiography.
He had, he claimed, paid HK$50,000 “as a sweetener” to a man called Simon Taylor, “to entice the interest of the owner of the UK’s Daily Telegraph newspaper in the book”. Taylor has never been found (although the ICAC might be interested if he ever re-emerges). No documentation relating to the publication, distribution and sale of the book was produced. A bill of HK$96,000, however, was submitted by Thomas. He retrospectively claimed he’d earned this amount on her behalf for interviews with, and phone calls from, Hollingworth, “to discuss current affairs and politics”, costed at HK$400 per hour.
A Barry Lau had been engaged to provide proper accounts. He worked for Thomas, charged HK$1,000 a month for 16 months, and produced only five monthly statements, with no supporting documentation. As the court’s judgment put it: “The justification and purpose of the payment to Mr Lau is in doubt.” (This being Hong Kong, Lau later went on to advertise his services as a feng shui master, additionally promising to “explain the significance of your mobile telephone number in relation to your destiny”.)
In the end, an agreement was reached between Thomas and Hollingworth’s family.
“I’m not allowed to say what was in the agreement,” Garrett says. “But I can say how much he owes – over HK$1.5 million. It was a sad way to end the book but it’s been 10 years and that’s 10 per cent of her life. And if it can happen to Clare Hollingworth, it can happen to anyone. She has to live on the charity of family and friends. She’d be mortified if she knew.”
Thomas, author of I Was Misquoted: How To Survive Contact With The Media, is now 86. Earlier ub 2016, he moved into the China Coast Community, a Kowloon Tong charitable care home “for the English-speaking elderly in Hong Kong”. When I rang him there last August, he cried heartily, “I was wondering if Clare’s still alive! You know, she did a book and she told this story, I think it was in the second world war, about looking through tarpaulin and seeing a line of tanks – this is the story – and she goes to the telephone at the border post and rings her newspaper in London. The only problem is there’s no way you could do that, even now. I don’t think it ever happened!”
Asked about the court case, he said, “A chap who claimed to be her great-nephew turned up and said, ‘Where was the money?’ In fact, it was thrown out of court.” When I correct him, he said, “Well, the judge said to go away and settle this yourselves.” He laughed, disbelievingly, when I mentioned the HK$96,000 figure. “I’d like to see that!” Told that he can, on the judiciary website, he replied, “To be quite honest, I can’t remember. Sorry I can’t be more help.”
ONE RECENT WET afternoon I went back to see Hollingworth. Her flat was also close to the FCC and on fine days her Filipina helpers – Helen Penaranda and Susan Perez, who are sisters – would wheel her down the hill. She still enjoyed the taste of wine.
She lay on the sofa, with her eyes closed, so small she looked almost extinguished. She was by then totally blind but her grip, holding my hand, was strong. The television was on, tuned to the BBC news; at one point, Joshua Wong Chi-fung’s face flashed up as the world’s news cycle turned and history continued to rewrite itself.
The sisters told me she got “jittery” and couldn’t sleep if there was too much talk about her wartime past; instead, prompted by Helen, she sang the patriotic songs she learned a century ago. She always sang God Save the King; after all, George V was crowned in June 1911, four months before her birth.
Garrett keeps most of her old passports in Moscow. She had an expired one she liked to hold for comfort; but there was also a brand-new one in the flat, in case she was called out to do one last story. (“Clare wouldn’t be Clare without a passport”, Garrett said.)
When I left, she murmured, “Au revoir”. As Susan explained: “She always says that because she doesn’t like to say goodbye”.
■ Of Fortunes and War: Clare Hollingworth, First of the Female War Correspondents is available through Amazon.