Lindsey Hilsum Q&A: “Getting older is both the most banal and profound thing”

The war correspondent talks Little Women’s Jo, Artemisia Gentileschi, and the early albums of Joni Mitchell or Bruce Springsteen.

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Lindsey Hilsum was born in 1958 and was brought up in Malvern. She started her career as an aid worker in Latin America before becoming a journalist. She has since reported from war zones in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo and Rwanda, and is the international editor of “Channel 4 News”.

What’s your earliest memory?

My mother telling me the names of birds and flowers. I remember her saying that the yellowhammer sang, “A little bit of bread and no cheese.” And the wood pigeon sang, “Take two cows, Betty.” I haven’t heard the yellowhammer in years.

Who are your heroes?

My childhood hero was Jo in Little Women: the rebellious one who refused to fit the female stereotype. In adulthood I admire the female correspondents of the Second World War, notably Lee Miller, Martha Gellhorn and Clare Hollingworth.

What book last changed your thinking?

Just Kids by Patti Smith. It made me understand that getting older is both the most banal and the most profound thing.

Which political figure do you look up to?

I don’t. Every revolutionary I’ve admired has turned out to be corrupt in the end.

What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

As a journalist, I know a little about a lot. I have no Mastermind special subject except my last story. Though I suppose you could try me on the early albums of Joni Mitchell or Bruce Springsteen.

What TV show could you not live without?

Channel 4 News, obviously.

Who would paint your portrait?

Artemisia Gentileschi. Sadly she died in 1653. Because she was a woman, she got very little recognition in her own time, but today her depictions of mythical women are seen as brilliant – not that I have aspirations to be mythical!

What’s your theme tune?

“Gracias a la Vida”. Apart from the sentiment, it reminds me of Guatemala where I began my career, and where I first listened to the music of Mercedes Sosa and other Latin American singer-songwriters.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

The advice was not to sneak across the border from Lebanon into Syria and the besieged suburb of Baba Amr in February 2012. I followed it. The tragedy is that my friend Marie Colvin of the Sunday Times went anyway, and that’s where she was killed in a targeted mortar attack by Bashar al-Assad’s forces. Our differing choices haunted me, which is why I wrote a book about her.

What’s currently bugging you?

The same as usual – all the unreported important stories I should be doing but I’m not because they’re inaccessible, or too dangerous, or I’m distracted by other things. Too many stories, not enough time.

What single thing would make your life better?

A horse. I know, I know, you spend half your life looking after it and the other half checking your bank balance because it costs so much, but I’m allowed a fantasy, aren’t I?

When were you happiest?

Lying under a tree with my partner, Tim, when a herd of deer came over the brow of the hill.

In another life, what job would you have?

Alas, I fear I am capable of nothing else.

Are we all doomed?

Probably. But what the hell. 

“In Extremis” by Lindsey Hilsum is published by Vintage

This article appears in the 19 July 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Facebook fixer