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You can't knock around the globe as a reporter for decades on end and not bump into the occasional war or revolution. I've racked up 41, I'm afraid; though how sad is it to sit down and add them all up, as I've just done? But compared with one friend of mine, I'm a mere beginner. She is one of the great foreign correspondents of the second half of the 20th century, and she recently celebrated her 100th birthday
For many years now Clare Hollingworth
has lived in Hong Kong. She still spends part of almost every day in the venerable, numinous atmosphere of the Foreign Correspondents' Club, with its wooden panelling, chatting to people and having the papers read to her. Unsurprisingly, Clare is a bit fragile nowadays, but when her 100th birthday came around recently she was still bright and sharp enough to be interviewed by the BBC for a celebratory broadcast.
The main quality that marks a good foreign correspondent is luck, and Clare always had that in bucketfuls. Her very first foreign assignment, at the age of 28, was in Berlin in August 1939, working for the Daily Telegraph. Her boss was the paper's Berlin correspondent, Hugh Greene, who became the best director-general the BBC has had in my time. Maybe to get her out from under his feet, he sent her to the German-Polish border.
There she saw hundreds of tanks and armoured vehicles queuing up, and booked herself into a hotel by the roadside. At 6am, she rang Greene as he lay in his comfortable bed in Berlin and told him that the tanks were rolling into Poland. 'I really doubt that,' he said, and contacted the British embassy. He rang Clare a few minutes later. 'The ambassador says there's nothing in it.' 'Well, you'd better listen to this,' she said, and held the receiver out of the open window. Greene listened to the grinding of the tank-tracks for a few moments, then said, 'Oh my God!' and rang off. Clare Hollingworth had just witnessed the start of WWII.
It was 1978, when she was exactly the age I am now, before I met her. I was deeply impressed by her stamina and her love of a story. We were in communist Romania, and took her with us when we did some dodgy filming, being chased by various Securitate goons. Clare gurgled with delight like the 28-year-old she had been on the Polish border, and my heart went out to her.
Over the years she has told me lots of wonderful foreign correspondent stories. She was the first to interview the young Shah of Iran, installed by the British in 1941, and the last, seeing him shortly before his death in 1980. She spent several key years in Beijing during Mao Zedong's savagely difficult final days and the rule of the Gang of Four. Westerners were sometimes beaten to death in the streets, and there was only one other foreign correspondent in the city.
She was, and still is, remarkably charming, and can really turn it on in the presence of men she likes. Once, at a big state dinner somewhere, she sat next to a Soviet admiral and impressed him so much that, even though he knew she was a famous journalist, he showed her round the brand-new nuclear submarine that he commanded, as it lay at anchor in the nearby port. Two days later her newspaper — The Guardian by this stage — carried a front-page report about the range, speed and diving capability of the latest Soviet sub.
And once, in communist East Berlin, she came across the new Soviet tank. The crew were sitting sunning themselves beside it, and didn't notice as she shinned up the other side and climbed into the open cockpit. (She must have been in her 60s then.) When they spotted her, she did her little-old-lady trick: 'I'm sorry, I've lost my way and I thought I'd climb up and see if I could spot the Brandenburg Gate.' It didn't occur to them that she might be a journalist, and they let her go. But she had read the tank's dials: the speedometer showed how fast it could go, and the fuel gauge gave an idea of its range. That went on the front page too.
I've always been haunted by another story she told me, about her time in Beijing during the last days of the Cultural Revolution. While there, Clare discovered her translator's father had been murdered by the Red Guards. Clare soon gained her trust and the linguist told her a story that could have brought about her own death. Clare never reported it, of course.
Every year, on the anniversary of their wedding, the translator and her husband would slip their children a sleeping tablet (all Chinese children at the time were trained to report any deviance on the part of their parents). When everyone in the apartment block was asleep they would pull up a couple of floorboards and lift out a box. Inside were an evening dress and a dinner jacket. In the darkness they would put on these clothes, whose very existence could lead to their deaths, and just for a couple of minutes they would waltz around the room in total silence. Then they would hide the clothes away for another year, and pray their children would never find them. But for one brief moment they were free again, and happy.
What events Clare Hollingworth has seen, and what stories she has! And nowadays, having achieved her century, she sits
quietly in the corner of the Foreign Correspondents' Club bar, listening to the familiar sounds and occasionally nodding off. Quite magnificent.
John Simpson is the BBC's world affairs editor and can be seen around the globe on BBC World News, available in 200 countries and territories worldwide, and on selected British Airways flights.