She was one of history’s most manic travellers, with an insatiable urge to be going somewhere – it didn’t really matter where, just as long as she was on the move. ‘I enjoy the travelling not the sitting still,’ proclaims the central character in Graham Greene’s Travels with my Aunt. And so it was with my great aunt, Clare Hollingworth.
Her career as a traveller began on the railways of central and eastern Europe. She later found the perfect profession for her itchy feet. She became a roving war correspondent, and on 1 September 1939, in her first week on the job, got the scoop of the century: the outbreak of the Second World War, with an eye-witness account from the Polish border. She spent the next eight decades as a foreign correspondent.
Aunt Clare was an inspiration to me in my own career. Although I knew there was little hope of ever rivalling her exclusives, I spent the 1990s covering war and revolution in the Caucasus and eastern Europe for a variety of international media.
But despite her decades abroad, Clare was never big on foreign languages. During the three years she spent in Beijing in the 1970s the only two Chinese phrases she acquired were pijiu and bing – ‘beer’ and ‘ice’. I never discovered where she’d learned her Russian, but her three-word vocabulary clearly followed a pattern: pivo, khleb, vino – ‘beer’, ‘bread’, ‘wine’. For my aunt’s main needs, that would probably have sufficed.
It was Aunt Clare’s presence in Hong Kong that first lured me to Asia, and a gig reporting the return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. Clare was a regular fixture at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, and kept a permanent reservation at her private corner table for lunch and dinner. Her rundown old apartment was right next to Government House, where she’d managed to wangle access rights to the governor’s private pool.
Despite her record of scoops, even in her late eighties Aunt Clare remained fiercely competitive. I was on assignment in Beijing in spring 1998 when the bedside phone woke me at dawn. Unannounced, Clare had followed me north, suspicious lest I be onto anything Pulitzer-prizeworthy. ‘What’s happening?’ she demanded.
Reassured that my story was just routine politics, she filled her day catching up with a mass of contacts in the capital, before we hooked up for a fried dumpling dinner. She maintained direct lines to scores of senior diplomats and military figures. Back in the day, she was often pictured at official receptions alongside the Chinese statesman Zhou Enlai. Both her interpreters had gone on to important government positions.
My aunt was in her mid-nineties by the time I started writing her biography. She was no longer up to travelling rough, and so I found myself retracing her adventures without her.
With an old photograph and much detective work I located the exact spot in Ho Chi Minh City (then Saigon) where Clare had huddled with US Marines at the height of the Tet Offensive in 1968. On another trip I tracked down the Zagreb tenement where she’d lodged as a summer student. There she’d met Otto, a German Jew on the run from the Nazis. That friendship helped propel her into refugee work; at Katowice, in Poland, I located the building that had been the British Consulate, where Clare had organised a refugee assistance committee that, on the very eve of the outbreak of war, had spirited some 3,000 souls to safety.
From there she made her abrupt but fortuitous switch to journalism. Clare Hollingworth died last year in Hong Kong aged 105. Her life was defined by her travelling and adventures: one long foreign assignment.
Of Fortunes and War, Garrett’s biography of his great aunt, is published by TwoRoads in paperback and on Kindle and audiobook