It would have pleased Marie Colvin to discover the number of friends she had – and amused her still further, had she survived that bomb blast in Syria in February, to greet so many of them for the first time. Like “her good friend Martha Gellhorn” (to cite John Burns of The New York Times), with whom it has become routine to compare her – and whom, to my knowledge, she never met – Marie had a seismic sense of humour. Both Marie and Martha knew that laughter, allied to a passionate identification with victims of every denomination, was the war correspondent’s most powerful weapon.
Alex Crawford, OBE, special correspondent of Sky News, is cut from different sheet-metal. Last week, I sat next to a contemporary of hers at Cobham Hall where “Crawfie” was head girl, or guardian. “What was she like?” I asked, having read her book. Came the reply: “Slightly from the Ministry of No Fun.”
Crawford’s breathless account of her coverage of the Libyan revolution bears this out. A mother of four, married to “the most long-suffering person in the world”, she reminds one of Nicola Horlick, the City Supermum, as she up-sticks and rushes “from one revolution to another” as if to lacrosse matches. “Come on team,” she urges her crew at one point.
In March 2011, Crawford flew from her gated community in Dubai to Tripoli, where Colonel Gaddafi’s 42-year rule was unravelling. She was undaunted by her ignorance of Libya’s history or language. “‘Can we come with you?’ I say, using very expressive hand-language to compensate for my lack of Arabic.” Soon she has hitched a ride for her team to Zawiya, 30 miles away, only to find herself trapped in a storeroom with rebels, under bombardment from Gaddafi’s tanks.
“Oh God, I don’t want to die.” The next hours are the most traumatic of her life. The Almighty is once more invoked as she contemplates her family – “Christ, I have got too much to live for to die here in a foreign country away from them all.” And again – “Jesus, that’s close.” And again: “God, it’s just like a scene from Apocalypse Now.” Pretty swiftly, all she wants is to smell her children’s gorgeous smells and “just be a family again”. Even if she insists that what motivates her is “not about Alex Crawford”– rather the responsibility she feels for the civilians of Zawiya, to whom she is unnaturally linked by her excessive secretion of “the bonding hormone oxytocin” – her narrative comes across as chokingly self-congratulatory. “Oh my God, are they thinking that I did this for an award?”
Crawford may well have balls of titanium, as some suggest, but in her bid to outdo “the state broadcaster, the BBC”, she also risks becoming a parody of Gaddafi, ceasing to draw any distinction between herself and the country she reports on – and which she has visited only for a few days; we could be in Togo or Runcorn for all the dearth of observation, insight and freshness she brings to her descriptions. Her book seems written to justify to her children why she is eternally going off (“I want them – my family – to be proud of me”). It ends up an ululating horn-toot to herself and to Sky Television, “the only ones broadcasting this live”, as she hitches a ride with the rebels back into Tripoli. Unblushingly, she reports the crowd’s reaction – “Thank you Sky News!” “We love Sky News!” “I have to tell you, you are a hero to the Libyan people” – and the news that, on Twitter, Alex Crawford is “the most mentioned name on the planet for a few hours”.
Over in Benghazi, Channel 4 News’ International Editor Lindsey Hilsum was also greeted with misplaced respect – “Thank you Sarkozy! And long live Alain Juppé!” But her measured and sensible history of the same revolution, which she covered on four separate trips, cannot be recommended enough. Well-written, beautifully paced, with an understated command of the complex background, plus a humour as dry as Libya’s desert wind, the ghibli, it deserves to become the standard account.
From Hilsum, we learn these unforgettable details. The fingertips of Gaddafi’s ludicrous son Saif – who dictated his LSE thesis and owned a white Bengal tiger, Freddo – were cut off by rebels in retaliation for his wagging them at the television camera. His father funded the film Lion of the Desert with Anthony Quinn and Oliver Reed, and played it nightly on state television. In 1966, while on a signals course at Beaconsfield, Gaddafi strode up Piccadilly Circus in his Arab robes.
In Gaddafi’s warped cosmos, the people ruled; he was merely their guardian, guiding them – but like the loosest missile. Outfitted as a Ruritanian officer, in lizard-skin slippers and sunglasses, and botoxed to his eyeballs, he resembled “a sinister Middle Eastern Michael Jackson”. His politics were a mingling of nonsense and old-fashioned socialism, culminating in his 1977 “Jamahiriya” – an invented word, meaning “state of the masses”. His claim to have no political prisoners had a grisly truth: in 1996, he ordered 1,270 inmates to be machine-gunned in Abu Salim prison. “He had a solution for anyone who disagreed: assassination.” The IRA man who killed Lord Mountbatten was trained in one of Gaddafi’s desert camps; as were Laurent Kabila and Charles Taylor.
Then, after 2001, Gaddafi metamorphosed into Tony Blair’s incongruous ally in the fight against terrorism, with “an eerie fascination” for Condoleezza Rice and Madeleine Albright. “I love you,” he once wrote to Albright, then US Secretary of State, “and if you feel the same way will you wear green next time you’re on television?”
The three sniper’s bullets fired into Hilsum’s hotel room in Tripoli are a reminder that beyond humour and passion, it is luck which makes a war correspondent. Crawford and her colleagues were splattered with the brains of a man standing beside them, shot by one of his own side. “It takes only one stray bullet – even one fired by mistake – to end it all.” Clare Hollingworth, still very much with us, covered the war in Libya in 1940. “It was pure luck that when chatting with Donald Wise in Vietnam, a sniper’s bullet whistled by between our heads.” Marie Colvin was another who reported on Libya’s 2011 revolution. Because her luck deserted her, we shall never read Marie’s book on it, never read her biography of Yasser Arafat, never read any book by her. For that, I am so sorry.