Thursday, September 23

Invisible Walls by Hella Pick review: Vital lessons from a journalism titan | Autobiography and memoirs

I I’ve never forgotten those who were nice to me when I didn’t have a journalistic name to speak of, just as I have specific memories of those who were arrogant, dismissive, or condescending. From each one I have learned something about human nature and how to behave. I came of age as a foreign reporter at a time when “big beasts” with unbridled egos trampled the world, sometimes in fiercer competition with their own colleagues than with rival media. Cruelty, cunning, and manufactured charm were essential products in this not-so-golden age. It became a rule of thumb to be especially suspicious of the paternal colleague who told the gullible neophyte how much he loved his job. Often there was a sharp stiletto in the ribs.

Hella Pick never told me she loved my job. But she was kind. Although he may have forgotten our meeting in Harare, I have not. I was starting my career as a foreign correspondent. We were in Zimbabwe at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Summit in October 1991, where Nelson Mandela would make an unexpected appearance at a banquet hosted by the Queen, sparking a minor diplomatic storm when the table’s plans were hastily rearranged. I had been sent from Johannesburg to support the diplomatic and political editors sent from London. These veterans were the elite of the BBC reporting teams and large-format newspapers and I was attending my first summit of any kind. My journalistic life was generally spent in black towns or in the rural heartland of Afrikaner nationalists. I did not naturally drift into the world of informal briefings and press conferences at the summit.

Pick was the dean of the diplomatic press corps and her legend preceded her. There was hardly a major international crisis in the previous three decades that I had not reported for the guardian and as a frequent contributor to the BBC World Service. A woman with that résumé might have felt entitled to maintain an austere distance in the presence of a young man just off the plane from Johannesburg, brimming with opinions about what was really going on in the fight to end apartheid. Otherwise. He asked me a few questions, listened carefully, and reassured me. Until I read your book, I knew nothing of the personal circumstances that formed this deeply empathetic personality. Now that I have, I understand and appreciate that encounter even more.

Invisible walls is a book of great power and honesty, packed with vivid details of his informational adventures from the newly independent African states of the late 1950s, through the turbulent 1960s America and onward, through the Cold War and in this uncertain age of populist promise – doers, all numbered with keen intelligence and unrelenting dedication to action.

It is no coincidence that he became a diplomatic correspondent, whose best work concerned the efforts of the United Nations, often doomed, to avoid conflicts in various parts of the world. She brought to work the intellectual hunger and moral purpose of someone who had escaped the great catastrophe that gripped Europe in the 1930s. Her childhood was shattered by the rise of fascism and the catastrophic failure of diplomacy. Pick came to Britain from Austria when he was 11 years old, number 4672, on the Kindertransport. that brought some 10,000 Jewish children to safety after the Kristallnacht attacks in 1938. She lost a country, Austria, and her maternal grandmother died in a concentration camp.

Together with her mother, who constantly feared losing Pick as she had lost so much more, she experienced the struggles of life as a Jewish refugee. It left her with a feeling of being an outsider, one that never got better despite numerous awards and friendships that included some of the most influential people in the country.

With great honesty and shock, she recalls failed love affairs with men who were unavailable for a family life with her. But the more I read, the greater my conviction that coming from where she came from and being who she was, Hella Pick could never have settled for a quiet domestic life, and certainly not as the wife in the background of an eminent man. In an age when very few women were allowed to fill high-level positions in foreign reporting, it pioneered for a generation. I recommend your book to the widest possible audience, but particularly to those who are into journalism. Pick is testament to the need for broad intellectual territory and an open mind, the value of cultivating sources and discovering things. There is no better manifesto against the current clickbait culture and the narcissistic obsession of social media. This voice from before the era of Facebook and Twitter is deep and urgent.

Fergal Keane is a senior foreign correspondent for BBC News

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