Hella Pick is made of stern stuff. At 92 and still recovering from a broken neck, nothing will stop the doyenne of diplomatic writers from appearing at Boswell Book Festival this weekend to talk about her memoir, Invisible Walls: A Journalist in Search of Her Life, which covers her long career as one of the world’s most respected political correspondents, her struggle for identity and security and her current views on world affairs.
Arriving in the UK in 1939 as an 11-year-old refugee fleeing from wartime Vienna, the Kindertransport evacuee number 4672 went on to become one of the greatest foreign and political journalists of her time. Alone until her mother joined her three months later, she learnt to survive life as a Jewish refugee, became fluent in English and went on to graduate from the London School of Economics before embarking on a career as a journalist specialising in foreign and diplomatic affairs.
From West Africa to the US and Europe, she witnessed and reported on seismic changes in the historic and political landscape of the 20th century and beyond. Spending 35 years at The Guardian - she was Diplomatic Editor from 1982-93 - she reported on the end of Empire in West Africa, covered the Kennedy assassination, was there with the Selma marchers when Martin Luther King led 30,000 supporters singing freedom songs and demanding voting rights, witnessed the birth of the Solidarity movement in Poland and the end of the Cold War, travelled to Poland with the first Polish Pope and met everyone from Gorbachev to Kennedy.
Over the phone from London Pick’s excited to be Scotland bound and declares herself ‘very well’, despite still recovering from breaking ribs, pelvis and neck when she fell backwards down a street to basement staircase in 2019 and for a few days ‘hovered between life and death’.
“I've got nails holding my neck together and don’t have much movement in my neck so it makes it difficult for me to drive, for example, but apart from that I've been fortunate with a wonderful surgeon who managed to repair me.”
In moments of lucidity when Pick’s life was hanging in the balance, it was the thought of her unfinished book that spurred her on to recovery. She was never one to miss a deadline.
“I'd probably done about a third of it before the accident, and when I could start thinking again, I was just determined to get back to it. In many ways it helped me hold on and get better.”
She had already embraced lockdown as a time to write, sticking to a daily routine at her desk.
“Curiously enough lockdown was a huge help because I had nothing else to distract me and I was disciplined about it. I got to my desk about 10 o’clock every morning and continued on and off until late afternoon. Having been a journalist all my life, I set myself deadlines and had a wonderful editor who kept me going. So I spent a fairly productive lockdown, but didn't get around to sorting the clothes rail.”
With two of her previous three book biographies - one on the Aga Khan that was finished but never published and one on Simon Wiesenthal the Nazi hunter - Pick knew what it involved to write a biography, but Invisible Walls is a departure in that her subject is herself.
“I enjoyed it because I was discovering things as I went along and it revived a lot I haven't thought about or forgotten. The Guardian’s archive was a huge help and I was so surprised to discover the range of subjects I had covered. So in some ways it was a voyage of discovery, or rediscovery.”
Her memoir is a feast of memories from being in Ghana in 1957 when it became the first British colony in West Africa to gain independence, at the races with the Aga Khan watching Shergar win, to being in Gdansk with Lech Walesa on the day he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
“The most memorable in some ways because they were my most formative years were those spent in West Africa which was such a novel experience and gave me the opportunities in my working life, BUT you can’t compare that to later periods when I was covering America and The Cold War.
“My experiences in Poland, touring with Karol Wojtyła, the Polish Pope, witnessing Lech Walesa become prominent, were important highlights in the sense you really felt you were witnessing important moments in history, and I think I understood that this seemed to be the beginning of the end of The Cold War.
“And being in America while Kennedy was still alive, covering the White House and the Selma March which is still of huge importance for the Civil Rights Movement, those are important highlights.”
But Pick wasn’t just reporting on events, she was part of them.
“It was incredibly important to be in Poland when the Pope made his first visit and you saw millions turning up and making it plain their faith and church meant more to them than the communist regime under which they had to live. You could not but be affected by that. Again, I was in Berlin on the day Gorbachev made it quite clear that the GDR could not continue how it was. It was the end of an era. It felt like an absolute key moment in history. And Reykjavik, when Reagan and Gorbachev briefly announced they were ready to reduce missile movement, you suddenly saw these two superpowers were able to talk to each other. That again was a historic moment. I’ve got quite a selection.” She laughs.
Pick was more than a witness, able to engage with some of the key players, not least making an impression on Kennedy when she was sent to his summer home in Hyannisport to cover a meeting between the President and the Canadian Prime Minister.
“I not only met him but fell straight into his arms,” she writes, describing her stumble as she was introduced. “I was briefly, very briefly, in the President’s arms. He smiled, everyone else laughed and I was a little embarrassed, but certainly not displeased.”
She laughs at the memory, a departure from her usual approach in gaining the trust of her quarry, which she explains.
“I think they realised I came with an open mind and my questions and what I wrote demonstrated I had some understanding of problems of the political issues they were facing. With most, the relationship was very superficial, it was having access that allowed me to put more questions, but there were a few who became personal friends such as German Chancellor Willy Brandt and Mieczyslaw Rakowski who was briefly Prime Minister of Poland.”
Her friendship with the German Chancellor also helped her heal her past and relationship with Germany.
“That somehow helped me take a different approach to Germany. For all his faults he was a man of high principle and had great understanding of how Germany could heal, and to some extent I began to look at Germany in a very different way and become a great admirer of what it has achieved both in terms of a genuine backing of democracy and contributing to the post-war fabric of democratic nations.”
Among the things Pick discovered writing Invisible Walls, was more detail on the Kindertransport that brought her to the UK, the British scheme that rescued nearly 10,000 predominantly Jewish children from Nazi occupied territories.
“What I found out about the Kindertransport - less to the degree that it affected me personally, but it shocked me hugely - was how selective it had been. How it really only focused on the kind of background that I came from; middle class, usually secular Jewish homes and how it left behind particularly orphans of East European Jews who had fled from the east and settled in Austria and never been welcomed by the established Jewish community. In many cases these were children of Orthodox practicing Jewish families where the parents had been taken to concentration camps and these children were rejected because they were not considered the right kind of material, either to adapt to the UK or eventually end up in, as it was called Palestine, the new Israel. I found this whole background to the Kindertransport shocking, particularly because it is always depicted as something deeply wonderful and positive, which indeed it was for those who were rescued, but it has left all these question marks. At least to their credit, the Jewish community in Austria and Germany, along with some British academics, are now researching to find out much more about the selection of children.”
While Pick, joined by her mother shortly, settled in the UK, her grandmother was still missing in Europe and sadly the trail went cold. Today Pick is still uncertain about her journey, while sure of her fate.
“The nearest we came to evidence of what happened to her is that she died in Theresienstadt, one of the concentration camps where the Jews were sent, but we’ve never found out exactly. On my father’s side I’m ignorant as my parents were divorced, but it was a large family and there must have been great losses of which I have no idea, which doesn’t say a lot for me,” she says.
“I feel ashamed that unlike many others who spend a lot of time researching what happened to their families I've always avoided that. I’m sure there are all sorts of psychological explanations for that but I’m not proud of it.”
Meanwhile in wartime Britain, Pick was living in the Lake District, excelling in assimilating at school, and when she covers this period of her life, the writing is vivid, revealing a prematurely mature child who had already witnessed much more of life than her classmates.
What would she say now to her 11-year-old self?
“I think I would say to that child, you made the best of the situation you found yourself in, and with determination you will make something of yourself. So, you know, well done.” She pauses and laughs, then continues, now talking to her 92-year-old self.
“In some respects, well done, in others you have failed abysmally.”
Pick doesn’t go easy on herself, posing the hard questions she liked to put to interviewees. Where does she think she failed?
“Well, this is really the centre of my book. Professionally, obviously I can't complain, but in my private life I have never really come to terms with the search for security that has dominated my underlying approach to life. It’s something I’ve never really managed to conquer and it did sadly affect my private life. Not my personal relationships with friends, but the personal relationships with the men in my life.”
Pick never married as breaking through as a female journalist in the 1950s, especially one who travelled, didn’t leave much time for finding a husband and having children, a theme her mother returned to frequently in their often daily correspondence.
“She was IMMENSELY proud of what I had achieved,” says Pick, “yet thought I was exhausting myself, wasting myself. She was old-fashioned and wanted me to have what she would define as normal, and I was failing in that. When she discovered I was in a relationship where it was highly unlikely I could be married she branded me for a time a ‘kept woman’.”
She laughs, understanding her mother’s stance.
“If I started life all over again, I would still have wanted to have a professional life but would have preferred to have found a real partner and have a family life as well. But you know, the love between us never went, and I always found time to write to her. I certainly regret I didn’t spend much more time trying to talk through with her the problems we’d had, and ask far more questions about her life.”
Her mother’s own story is remarkable, her divorce and single parenthood, attempts to get her own mother to safety then life as a domestic servant around the UK, all the while fiercely protective of her child, long into adulthood.
“She was remarkable, and everyone who knew her was fond of her. I feel so guilty I’m in many ways critical in this book, and in some very unfair, but at the same time I have old letters she wrote, and the constant theme of complaints makes me laugh, but was also terribly hurtful to rediscover.”
Throughout the book Pick talks of her lifelong insecurity and search for identity first as an Austrian Jew in wartime Europe, then the UK, then as a Briton abroad and now post-Brexit. A vehement Remainer, she talks of being ‘in an invisible cage floating in a world undergoing profound change’.
“The older I have grown, the better I have understood that European culture is part of my makeup and I feel in wider terms I have this cultural affinity with Europe as the core. I believe the fabric of the European Union is a very important part of keeping this whole very, very complex continent peaceful and economically integrated.”
Once the place from which she fled, Vienna became a city she loves once more, a reacquaintance born of her writing, living there while she interviewed Simon Wiesenthal, then later for her book Guilty Victims: Austria from the Holocaust to Haider.
“The Austrians are quite fond of me I think, although obviously there are some that vitally disagree with the way I’ve depicted it. I feel very much at home there. The inner city is so unchanged and the modernisation so unobtrusive and it’s culturally vibrant, a good place to be.”
As for today’s political leaders, Pick isn’t greatly impressed, particularly by those in the US and UK.
“I think the state of the world is dire,” she says. “The inability to talk and absence of any dialogue is striking compared to the Cold War. To me at the moment the most dangerous symbol of the absence of dialogue and danger to democracy is at the centre of politics in the US. I think it is incredibly dangerous. If American democracy fails it has an impact around the world.
“And Boris Johnson can talk forever about democracy but is happy to receive [Hungarian leader] Viktor Orbán, who is the antithesis of a democrat, at No 10. Things like that are rather frightening, and wrong. I’m not a great supporter of this government,” she explains and laughs.
For the future, her plans include catching up with friends and a trip to Austria and the Salzburg Festival for her beloved opera.
“I’ve got tickets so I’m crossing fingers. And I do have one advantage - dual nationality, an Austrian passport as well as British.” She smiles.
Hella Pick appears at the Boswell Book Festival on Sunday 13 June at 10am. https://www.boswellbookfestival.co.uk/ Her new book Invisible Walls: A Journalist in Search of Her Life, is out now in hardback, £20, Orion Publishing Co.
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