Marie's place is empty

Remembering Marie Colvin, 1956-2012.

I walk along Fatemi Avenue in Tehran amid the swirling dust of a gathering electrical storm, the tulip-shaped towers of the Hotel Laleh swimming in a heat haze over honking afternoon traffic. I muster a smile for the doormen in peaked caps and gold lanyard and stroll purposefully into the foyer, freezing after a few steps and looking around me. For ten days this visit has loomed over my annual trip to the Iranian capital like the black flower of the hotel itself; now that I’m here, I haven’t the faintest idea what I’m doing.

The glamorous trappings of the lobby haven’t changed in seven years: an enormous art deco chandelier still forms an inverted pyramid of light over tables and chairs, the former dressed with red and white flowers, the latter upholstered with mock Gucci embroidery and occupied by a mix of bemused tourists and bored looking businessmen. There’s an unmanned grand piano, a bronze statue of Hafez’s tomb, a marble reception hung with mandatory portraits of the ayatollahs, eyes narrowed as though scanning the lobby for licentious behaviour.

I spot a receptionist studying me with interest, and in a split second convince myself that this is the same man who checked Marie in the night she arrived in 2005; who cracked a joke about Rupert Murdoch when she mentioned the Sunday Times, and who managed not to stare at her eye patch the way I had when I’d met her at the taxi rank ten minutes earlier. Suddenly self conscious, I turn and walk into the lobby, sit and order a pot of tea, aware only after the waiter has departed that I’m seated at our old table; that opposite me – to paraphrase a popular Iranian saying – Marie’s place is empty.

I’d been in Tehran for three months when Marie Colvin arrived to cover the presidential elections for the Sunday Times. I’d somehow wrangled work as home news editor of a national English-language newspaper despite my abysmal Farsi, a job that entailed rewriting largely unintelligible newswires on earthquakes and plane crashes (so many earthquakes and plane crashes), and righteous affirmations of Iran’s nuclear program. They were exciting and unsettling days: exciting because I was finally doing what everyone back home would see as "real journalism" after years of travel writing and reviewing; unsettling because I felt like a fraud, and not just because of my second-rate Farsi.

I’d realised on arrival that I didn’t have the character of a news journalist; that I lacked the cynical swagger and the deadline in the blood. I wrote the occasional whimsical piece for publications back home – a story on underground poetry clubs for the New Statesman, another on coffee shop youth culture for the BBC – but when I pitched similar human interest efforts to the Sunday Times (a paper whose foreign editor had called me at Heathrow to express his happiness at having someone "on the ground"), they were turned down, and I was encouraged instead to put together something on the forthcoming elections. I didn’t have a mobile, so the foreign desk kept calling my grandmother’s house, where I was staying, only to have her bark insensibly down the phone until either party hung up or I realised what was happening and jumped on the line.

Still, as the first round approached I managed to write something on the elections – a few hundred words towing the widely accepted wisdom that former president and remade liberal Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani would sweep to victory (he had recently appeared on a Time magazine cover with the headline "Iran’s Next President"). I wrote it under the pseudonym Ali Bandari, something I told the Sunday Times would ensure against a conflict of interests with my own paper, though it was actually because I’d been refused a journalist’s visa, and would be arrested if my name was discovered in foreign publications.

Rafsanjani found himself vying for the second round against Tehran’s mayor, a hardliner called Mahmoud Ahmadinejad whose rare appearances in the international press had been as a caricature spouting semi-comical quotes about cutting off hands and strangling democracy. The story acquired an extra page and the Sunday Times sent in the cavalry – hence my meeting Marie Colvin at the Hotel Laleh that June evening, attempting to sound fluent as I bantered with her taxi driver and ordered a pot of tea at what would become our regular table.

She asked my opinion on what might happen at the ballots; I swallowed my pride over the first story ("Rafsanjani’s seemingly full-blooded independence looks set to propel him to victory," says Ali Bandari), and told her what people were now saying in the office: that Ahmadinejad had a real chance of winning. That while Rafsanjani had been measuring his head for the crown and receiving the international media at his palatial Tehran offices, Ahmadinejad had been touring the provinces in a beat up orange bus, speaking in mosques and emphasising to the common people that it wasn’t just their right to vote, it was their Islamic duty. It had also become clear that he was Ayatollah Khamenei’s choice for president; beyond that, little else seemed to matter.

We had three days before Marie needed to file the story, days I spent almost entirely in the office, sometimes empty save for the caretaker’s son who careered around the floor in a plastic pedal car, crashing into desks and upturning chairs. I blackened my fingers flipping through back issues of the paper in enormous bound folders, filled notebooks with background on the candidates – details of Rafsanjani’s two terms as president between 1989 and 1997, of Ahmadinejad’s possible role in the American hostage crisis of 1979. When I did leave the office, it was to visit disparate parts of the capital and conduct interviews with potential voters – from wizened merchants hunched over sacks of dates and dried limes in the downtown bazaar, to Gucci-draped Persian princesses drifting around uptown shopping malls, headscarves serving as little more than hammocks for their dyed and dreadlocked hair.

At the end of each day I’d hop in a battered cab to the Hotel Laleh, euphoric and exhausted, arms laden with bundles of printed and photocopied paper, feet wincing with blisters. Marie and I would face each other over our usual table, a pot of tea between us, and I’d fill the gaps in her story, providing political context and local colour that her schedule of rigorously enforced press conferences left her unable to pursue. Once done with business we’d settle into our chairs and exchange war stories – hers filled with snipers and hostages, mine with ski resorts and secluded city bars. If she found my situation comical then she didn’t let on; she seemed impressed by my diligence, and implied that I might have a promising career at the Sunday Times, news she dropped into the conversation without realising that it caused the entire lobby to begin tilting beneath my feet.

That Friday morning I took my Iranian passport to the Tajrish mosque and purpled my finger with a vote for Rafsanjani. The results began filtering in the following afternoon, a day I spent glued to my computer, newswires piling up beside me as I refreshed the online vote count and watched Ahmadinejad snake closer to victory. Every hour I called the Laleh to update Marie, her smoke-stained phone voice instilling in my mind a timeless picture of the journalist’s hotel room: curtains closed, ashtrays overflowing, papers strewn over an unmade bed.

By the time I arrived at the hotel that evening Ahmadinejad’s victory had been announced, Marie’s story filed and her taxi to the airport booked. We drank a celebratory pot of tea, the piano occupied for the first and only time by a young man fiddling Persian flourishes into schmaltzy 1980s ballads. Afterwards she walked me to reception, shook my hand and gave me her card, scribbling her personal email on the back and encouraging me to drop her a line when I got back to London. “If you get back to London,” she said, winking to imply that she knew only too well how hard it would be to tear myself away.

I decided to walk back to my grandmother’s house that night. The streets were quiet after days ringing with protests and street parties and the names of candidates screamed from passing cars. The city seemed to have admitted defeat, to have folded in on itself to regard this latest development from a fearful distance. Yet I found myself smiling as I walked, swinging my steps in time to a piano ballad and greedily dismantling a bar of chocolate given to me in parting by Marie – a woman who had helped me find in three days what had previously eluded me for three months. Who had stopped me from feeling like a fraud.

Behind me, the dusk sky was scattered with bats, and the funereal towers of the Hotel Laleh receded for the last time, or so I thought.

Marie Colvin (right) with the Duchess of Cornwall in November 2010 (Photo: Getty Images)
Getty
Show Hide image

A father’s murderous rage, the first victims of mass killers and Trump’s phantom campaign

From the family courts to the US election campaigns.

On 21 June, Ben Butler was found guilty of murdering his six-year-old daughter, Ellie. She had head injuries that looked like she’d been in a car crash, according to the pathologist, possibly the result of being thrown against a wall. Her mother, Jennie Gray, 36, was found guilty of perverting the course of justice, placing a fake 999 call after the girl was already dead.

When the trial first started, I clicked on a link and saw a picture of Ben and Ellie. My heart started pounding. I recognised them: as a baby, Ellie had been taken away from Butler and Gray (who were separated) after social services suggested he had been shaking her. He had been convicted of abuse but the conviction was overturned on appeal. So then he wanted his daughter back.

That’s when I spoke to him. He had approached the Daily Mail, where I then worked, to tell his story: a father unjustly separated from his beloved child by uncaring bureaucracy. I sent a writer to interview him and he gave her the full works, painting himself as a father victimised by a court system that despises men and casually breaks up families on the say-so of faceless council apparatchiks.

The Mail didn’t run the story; I suspect that Butler and Gray, being separated, didn’t seem sufficiently sympathetic. I had to tell him. He raged down the phone at me with a vigour I can remember half a decade later. Yet here’s the rub. I went away thinking: “Well, I’d be pretty angry if I was falsely ­accused and my child was taken away from me.” How can you distinguish the legitimate anger of a man who suffered a miscarriage of justice from the hair-trigger rage of a violent, controlling abuser?

In 2012, a family court judge believed in the first version of Ben Butler. Eleven months after her father regained custody of her, Ellie Butler was dead.

 

Red flags

Social workers and judges will never get it right 100 per cent of the time, but there does seem to be one “red flag” that was downplayed in Ben Butler’s history. In 2005, he pleaded guilty to assaulting his ex-girlfriend Hannah Hillman after throttling her outside a nightclub. He also accepted a caution for beating her up outside a pub in Croydon. (He had other convictions for violence.) The family judge knew this.

Butler also battered Jennie Gray. As an accessory to his crime, she will attract little sympathy – her parents disowned her after Ellie’s death – and it is hard to see how any mother could choose a violent brute over her own child. However, even if we cannot excuse her behaviour, we need to understand why she didn’t leave: what “coercive control” means in practice. We also need to fight the perception that domestic violence is somehow different from “real” violence. It’s not; it’s just easier to get away with.

 

Shooter stats

On the same theme, it was no surprise to learn that the Orlando gunman who killed 49 people at a gay club had beaten up his ex-wife. Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun control group, looked at FBI data on mass killings and found that 16 per cent of attackers had previously been charged with domestic violence, and 57 per cent of the killings included a family member. The Sandy Hook gunman’s first victim was his mother.

 

Paper candidate

Does Donald Trump’s presidential campaign exist if he is not on television saying something appalling about minorities? On 20 June, his campaign manager Corey Lew­andowski quit (or was pushed out). The news was broken to the media by Trump’s 27-year-old chief press officer, Hope Hicks. She was talent-spotted by The Donald after working for his daughter Ivanka, and had never even volunteered on a campaign before, never mind orchestrated national media coverage for a presidential candidate.

At least there aren’t that many staffers for her to keep in line. The online magazine Slate’s Jamelle Bouie reported that Trump currently has 30 staffers nationwide. Three-zero. By contrast, Bouie writes, “Team Clinton has hired 50 people in Ohio alone.” Trump has also spent a big fat zero on advertising in swing states – though he would argue his appearances on 24-hour news channels and Twitter are all the advertising he needs. And he has only $1.3m in his campaign war chest (Clinton has $42.5m).

It feels as though Trump’s big orange visage is the facial equivalent of a Potemkin village: there’s nothing behind the façade.

 

Divided Johnsons

Oh, to be a fly on the wall at the Johnson family Christmas celebrations. As Boris made much of his late conversion to Leave, the rest of the clan – his sister Rachel, father Stanley and brothers, Leo and Jo – all declared for Remain. Truly, another great British institution torn apart by the referendum.

 

Grrr-eat revelations

The highlight of my week has been a friend’s Facebook thread where she asked everyone to share a surprising true fact about themselves. They were universally amazing, from suffering a cardiac arrest during a job interview to being bitten by a tiger. I highly recommend repeating the experience with your own friends. Who knows what you’ll find out? (PS: If it’s juicy, let me know.)

Peter Wilby is away

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain