16 March 2020

In Extremis: The Life of War Correspondent Marie Colvin by Lindsey Hilsum

In a sense there is a mythologising of Colvin that occurred during her lifetime and has certainly intensified since her death. Her website° states she was the greatest war correspondent of her generation” and pays tribute to her achievements. That’s understandable and it doesn’t dwell on any moments of personal unhappiness or any self-destructive behaviour that brought those plaudits. We have to celebrate her work and life but did it have to come at such an appalling cost to the individual? Is being the greatest war correspondent about being the person who runs the biggest risks?

Hilsum does a very good job of presenting the facts and we’re left to fill in the gaps. Her admiration and love for Colvin shines through but this is no hagiography; Colvin’s flaws are left open for examination. There has clearly been much introspection about the role of the war correspondent in past years but this book should certainly generate plenty of discussion amongst journalists. I would hope that this is a topic that is debated regularly. How close must one be to bear witness”? From my perspective, as a doctor involved with vulnerable people, it’s difficult not to listen to this book and be appalled at the pathology on display.

We need to talk about alcohol. Early in the book it’s very apparent from Hilsum’s descriptions that Colvin was using alcohol spectacularly. She offers descriptions of Colvin being drunk at key moments, not filing copy in time, flouting the advice of editors and bosses. It made me wince to listen to someone who seemed to need help and was often desperately unhappy. It all rather depends where one let’s one lens fall — Colvin had more moments of joy and intense pleasure than most people can imagine. Yet, there is a lingering note of regret here.

I listened to the audiobook and it was narrated by the author, Lindsey Hilsum. This always makes me nervous. Hilsum has written a very fine book but the qualities of professional narrators aren’t to be under-estimated. In the end, it works out just fine, if lacking some of the seamless qualities of the top narrators, but the hint of an American accent when Hilsum reads quotes from Colvin made me twitch a little.

The thought that kept running through my head was how Colvin was allowed to go back time and time again. It’s not as if Colvin was a model professional when not overseas; the impression I was left with was that she was drowning rather than waving. I found it difficult to conceive how any reasonable employer could send a person with serious mental health problems and severe PTSD back to a conflict zone. Repeatedly. Times change and I’ve no doubt that much of this stems from Colvin’s forceful personality but, in terms of duty of care, it feels hard to defend. Hilsum does cover this a little at the end: There are those who blamed her editors for her death. She should have been taken off the road years ago, they said.”

Much of this biography is taken up with the personal details of Colvin’s life and that, to me, felt important. The reporting from war zones is punctuated by her rather jet-setting, somewhat hedonistic lifestyle, and Hilsum makes extensive use of Colvin’s diaries to flesh out Colvin’s emotional state. Colvin was a passionate, if not always objective, witness to many horrors but Hilsum offers a more rounded picture than the image of the journalist-warrior striding across the landscape in search of truth. It’s compelling and inspirational but it’s tinged with sadness.

Orwell Long List Scribbles

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