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Lindsey Hilsum on 'swashbuckling' reporter Marie Colvin

Lindsey Hilsum and Bridget Kendall
Lindsey Hilsum and Bridget Kendall

Hard-drinking and hard-living, Marie Colvin was the eye-patch-wearing war reporter who went where others feared to tread and lived life at full tilt. She was killed in 2012 in Syria whilst covering the war for the Sunday Times.

At the Cambridge Literary Festival, Channel 4 News International Editor Lindsey Hilsum discussed the biography she has written about her friend. It covers Colvin’s inspiring career reporting from the most dangerous places on earth and some of the details of her tangled personal life.

Lindsey said: “I called it In Extremis because I felt that’s how she was both professionally and personally. Obviously, being a war correspondent is a dangerous profession but the point about Marie is she went in further and stayed longer than other reporters. And so she was often in more danger than the rest of us. Because she worked for the Sunday Times she had to have something different to write about for Sunday but it was also in her nature that she was particularly brave and she believed very strongly that you shouldn’t stay on the margins.”

With access to more than 300 notebooks and personal diaries belonging to Marie Colvin, Lindsey had a clear insight into some of her most private thoughts.

She said: “She kept diaries from the age of 14 up until she was killed. These were extremely rich with notes about the places she went and the encounters she had as well as very intimate stuff. She was a great chronicler of heartbreak, I read about all of her love affairs and marriages and the heartbreak she suffered.

“That’s what I meant about her living her whole life in extremis: she had so much drama. She had a taste in men that didn’t always make her happy.”

Lindsey reveals she had to keep some of these details back as “I didn’t want to hurt people still living”.

She adds: “Foreign correspondents are a bloody nightmare to be married to. There are many broken marriages whether you are a man or a woman.”

Stories that Lindsey collected from friends, colleagues and diaries included include details of how Colvin would sit up for hours drinking and smoking with Yasser Arafat’s men in the hope of being granted an interview, which always seemed to happen in the early hours of the morning.

She also narrowly escaped a creepy nurse sent by Colonel Gaddafi to her hotel to take a sample of her blood and once spent four days trekking to safety through snow covered mountains in Chechnya after her car was shot out.

And, famously, she lost the sight in one eye after being shot whilst reporting in Sri Lanka. At parties she revelled in her rakish image, wearing a special sparkly eye patch to match her glamorous black dresses.

“She was almost like a fictional character - it’s why she is so amazing to write about,” says Lindsey. “If she were a man, people would have called her swashbuckling, but that is never applied to women, is it? She was larger than life in that way, in that survival instinct. She was always taking it so far.”

However, Lindsey was careful to try to write about the real woman, so just the well-known image. She says: “I didn’t want to portray her as a saint but to get that sense of the commitment she had and how funny she was and the essential dilemma which was she had this image of being a brave war correspondent didn’t always feel the same on the inside as she appeared on the outside. That’s true for all of us.”

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