In extremis: Reviewed by Richard Lance Keeble

The life of war correspondent Marie Colvin, by Lindsey Hilsum. 

Marie Colvin was a brilliant war correspondent who paid the ultimate price when she was killed in 2012 (aged just 55) in a mortar attack by Syrian government forces on the besieged town of Homs. This 400-page biography by her friend and fellow war reporter Lindsey Hilsum, Channel 4 News international editor, captures the complexities and contradictions of Colvin’s personality: her extraordinary bravery (often amounting to recklessness), her wild partying, her alcoholism, her dedication to the underdog and the victims of war, her depressions, her miscarriages, her suicidal thoughts, her chaotic love life. As Colin Freeman commented in the Spectator of 1 December 2018: ‘Husbands and lovers came and went, leaving her private life as chaotic as any warzone, and often less fulfilling.’

Colvin covered most of the major conflicts of recent decades. She was the archetypal ‘parachutist’ moving from one war zone to another: Libya in 1986, Iraq in 1991 and 2003, the Yemen in 1994, Eritrea in 1998, Kosovo in 1999, Zimbabwe in 2000, Gaza in 2004, Pakistan in 2006, Afghanistan in 2010, Tunisia in 2011, Egypt in 2012 and so on. While reporting on the assault by the Sri Lankan military on a jungle zone held by the Tamil Tigers in 2001 she was shot – and lost the sight of her left eye (pp 234-240). The large, black eye-patch she sported afterwards became, in some way, her ‘trade mark’: it symbolised her uniqueness and her special courage.

Colvin never completed a book: she planned a biography of PLO chairman Yasser Arafat with whom over the years she developed a particularly close professional relationship but it never materialised. Yet a collection of her writings, On the front line: The collected journalism of Marie Colvin (Harper Press 2012) does show her greatest strength as a journo: namely in being able to describe with minute attention to detail and with compassion the horrors she often witnessed. And Hilsum quotes regularly from her despatches.

But what makes this an unusual biography of a journo is that it includes (at the end, pp 374-375) a very moving, ten-stanza poem, ‘Reports of my Survival May be Exaggerated’, by Alan Jenkins, one of Colvin’s former lovers. He actually read it out at one of the memorial services for Colvin – at St Martin-in-the-Fields, off Trafalgar Square – where, amongst those present, Hilsum writes, were the foreign secretary and the head of MI6, the intelligence service.

Jenkins’ poetry collections include The Hot-House (1988), Greenheart (1990), the Forward Prize-winning Harm (1994), The Drift (2000), A Shorter Life (2005), Revenants (2013) and Drunken Boats (2007). He received an Eric Gregory Award in 1981, a Cholmondeley Award in 2006, and he is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. Loss and the awareness that sexual desire tends to gravitate to the unattainable are amongst the themes of his poetry which can often display a lyrical intensity and stylised confessionalism.

The title of the Colvin tribute plays ironically with the phrase ‘reports of my death have been exaggerated’ (attributed, falsely, to Mark Twain), used when a character who is alive but presumed dead. Here, Colvin is sadly dead – but is given a magical ‘living’ presence. Jenkins begins;

How can you be lying there?
Immodestly among the rubble
When we want you to be here
In some other kind of trouble –

Luffing up, in irons, perhaps,
Just downstream from the Dove,
Lost in South London, without maps
Or capsized in love.

What’s keeping you? A kind of dare?
Come back and tell us how you stayed
One step ahead, how you gave fear
The slip, how you were not afraid –

The first stanza, then, sets out the structure for the poem (four short lines, here 2 and 4 slightly indented with 1 and 3, 2 and 4 rhyming) and its lyrical tone – tempered by the sadness of mourning. The first line captures the surprise and disbelief at the tragedy. In line three, Jenkins uses the ‘we’ voice as if to represent the group of Colvin’s many friends, relations and admirers whose presence provides some kind of comfort to the poet. ‘Lost in South London, without maps’ captures, affectionately, Colvin’s somewhat scatty nature while ‘capsized in love’ (following the ‘downstream’ and ‘capsized’ motif) alludes to her difficult love life.

Jenkins continues to address Colvin – as if he’s willing her not to be dead. He entreats her to ‘come back’ and tell how she gave ‘fear the slip’.

In the next stanza, Jenkins finally takes on the ‘I’ voice: conversationally he says: ‘Look – here’s my idea./Come back – this time for good.’ And, with the first reference to Colvin as a war reporter, he tells her: ‘Leave your flak jacket and your gear/In that burnt-out neighbourhood.’ By the end of the next stanza he is pleading with her: ‘Marie, get up off that bloodstained floor!’

The poem is split into two, five-stanza sections with the indents now appearing on lines 1 and 3 in the second section. At the start of stanza six, Jenkins imagines Colvin throwing her arm around him and talking – with an ‘unearthly calm’: ‘Can’t you take in that I am dead?’ And she advises: ‘Learn to expect the unexpected turn/of the tide’ (so continuing the ‘downstream’, ‘capsized’ theme).

In the final two stanzas, Jenkins (through Colvin’s voice) evokes the intimate times they spent together:

And filling ashtrays filed the copy
You would read – or not read – with
A brackish taste and your first coffee
Contending on your tongue; while Billy Smith,

My street cat rescued from Jerusalem,
Barged in, shouting, from his wars …
As many lives as his – and now I’ve used them.
I wish I’d made it back to yours.’

‘Filed the copy’ is a reference to Colvin’s work as a war correspondent. While her beloved cat, Billy Smith, can perform human activities (just as a dead journalist can in Jenkins poem) and so barges in ‘shouting’ (not ‘barking’) from his wars.

And the poem ends unsentimentally on a down-to-earth note with Colvin realising she has used her ‘nine lives’, saying simply: ‘I wish I’d made it back to yours.’

While the poem is wonderful, then, there are still significant problematics about the book as a whole which have been largely ignored in all the reviews in the corporate media. Throughout, Hilsum’s attempts to place the events Colvin covered in a broader political context are woeful, merely following conventional narratives. For instance, there is no mention of the fact that the 1986 US attacks on Libyan targets incorporated a deliberate attempt to assassinate the President of Libya, Muammar Gaddafi. Indeed, the notion of US-led Western imperialism indulging desperately in a series of adventures (dubbed ‘humanitarian’ in the rhetoric) driven by the demands of a massive military/industrial/intelligence/media complex against largely manufactured enemies is nowhere considered.

Thus, the 1991 Gulf conflict, in which 250,000 Iraqi soldiers perished (according to Colin Powell, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, writing in his memoir of the conflict) was solely the fault of ‘Saddam Hussein’ and ‘his’ August 1990 invasion of oil-rich Kuwait (pp 128-129). In 1999, according to Hilsum, the Serbian conflict erupted after Serbian forces marched 45 Kosovar Albanian farmers to a forest at Račak and shot them (p. 186). To oppose the brutal Serbian rule, the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) began to fight for independence. No mention of the fact that the KLA was effectively a creation of the CIA which funded, trained and supplied it with weapons. And that the conflict was largely an attempt by NATO (in its 50th anniversary year) to establish a post-Cold War raison d’être.

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