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How Clare Hollingworth defied the stereotypes about women and war

The legendary war correspondent, who reported the start of World War Two, has died at the age of 105.

Who would have thought that the Germans would hide their Panzer divisions behind an enormous hessian curtain? Yet they did, and on 29 August, 1939 a gust of wind detached it from its moorings, revealing hundreds of tanks to the Daily Telegraph’s stringer, Clare Hollingworth, on the Poland/Germany border. 

Of course there had been rumours, which is why the 27-year-old reporter, who had been a foreign correspondent for all of three weeks, decided to borrow the British consul’s car and go for a little recce. She told the border guards she was going shopping, and since the bonnet sported a diplomatic flag, they waved her through. Hollingworth bought wine and aspirin before taking a detour along the edge of the valley where the wind did its work and she got the scoop of the 20th century.

The next day’s Daily Telegraph headline read: “1,000 Tanks Massed on Polish Frontier — 10 Divisions Reported Ready for Swift Stroke.” When the invasion came, three days later, signalling the start of World War Two, she called the Secretary at the British Embassy in Warsaw, who told her that she must be mistaken as negotiations were continuing. “I put the telephone out of the window so he could hear the tanks rolling in,” she recollected on Desert Island Discs in 1999. Hollingworth, who went on to become one of the most celebrated correspondents of her era, died on Tuesday at the age of 105.

These days satellite imagery would have revealed the massed tanks weeks in advance. The reporter who got the scoop would have been sitting at a computer in London or Warsaw. A few dissident Germans would have tweeted about tanks, triggering a cacophony of assertion and denial. Those who still believe in going to have a look are far more likely to be female than in Hollingworth's day. They are also likely to be freelance. Editors these days are more interested in the human cost of war than manoeuvres and strategy — being a war correspondent has become a poorly paid and caring profession, so feminisation was predictable.

Although she had previously worked for the Refugee Trust in Poland and Czechoslovakia, organising British visas for refugees from the Nazis, Hollingworth defied the stereotype that women are fundamentally anti-war.

“I enjoy action,” she told Sue Lawley. “I enjoy being in a plane that’s bombing something. Or being on the ground in the desert when they’re advancing. I’m terribly interested in war, in strategy and tactics.”

She was also fearless, a characteristic she shared with a more recent war correspondent, Marie Colvin, who was killed by a Syrian government mortar in Homs in 2012. Colvin didn’t share Hollingworth’s fascination with weaponry but she did believe in seeing for herself and understood that you need to be a particular kind of woman to report war.

“Those of us who do are probably more driven than most, simply because it is harder to succeed,” Colvin wrote. “Maybe we feel the need to test ourselves more, to see how much we can take and survive. Bravery is personal.”  

Clare Hollingworth had many other scoops. She was the first reporter to interview the Shah of Iran in 1941 and the last after the Islamic revolution in 1979. In 1963, she established that when her friend and fellow correspondent in Beirut, Kim Philby, failed to turn up for dinner one evening, he had in fact stowed away on a ship travelling to Odessa. When she reported to her then employers, the Guardian, that Philby must be the “third man”, a Soviet spy, they spiked her story for fear of MI6.

Today it's easier to make it as a woman than it was in Hollingworth’s day. But for all journalists, male or female, it is a struggle to persuade editors to spend money sending you to dangerous places, when you can filter information gleaned from Whatsapp feeds, YouTube and contacts calling in on social media.

“I like the smell of the breezes,” said Hollingworth, “But you can’t smell the breezes on a computer.”

Lindsey Hilsum is International Editor for Channel 4 News. She is writing a biography of the war correspondent Marie Colvin.

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear