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Obituary: A Toast to Ian Verchere

By Philip Bowring

Ian Verchere, who died on 17 July in England aged 83, was one of the most agreeable and versatile journalists I have known. A restless enthusiasm and a wide variety of intellectual interests took him to many places, but he started out in Hong Kong doing his national service in the army in the late 1950s which led to his first job as a sports reporter on the South China Morning Post. Then it was off to La Sorbonne in Paris for two years to perfect his French, which led to a job as tour manager for Thomas Cook and a great deal of travel around Europe; he also spoke passable Spanish having studied in Barcelona.

The travel bug and journalism merged when the travel trade’s premier journal, Travel Trade Gazette, hired him. Ian then became the editor of Asia Travel Trade (ATT) following a chance meeting at a Singapore travel conference in 1972 with the publisher, bringing him back to Hong Kong. I arrived in the then-colony the following year and we quickly became friends. When he hired Murray Bailey to join him at ATT, Ian persuaded me to let Murray share my flat.

Ian was by then editing Insight, a monthly business-focused magazine which was, at least for a while, a journalistic success even if not a commercial one. Its in-depth look at business was a first for English-language monthly journalism in 1970s Hong Kong, a period that saw a great flowering of regional journalism with the launch of Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek and the Asian Wall Street Journal, among others. ATT and Insight gave him great opportunities to travel in the region and satisfy his wide and ever-growing interests.

From the May 1979 issue of The Correspondent magazine.

While living in Stanley, Ian also took up sailing a Hobie – a small catamaran which he launched off the beach at To Tei Wan. I was also living in Stanley, and also had a dinghy which I kept on the main beach, so I saw Ian quite often – though we did not make a habit of visiting the Smugglers Inn, then strictly for the squaddies from Stanley Fort.

In 1979 Bank of America lured Ian away from journalism with a job in Tokyo as vice president of corporate communications. He worked there for five years, then moved to New York. But journalism remained his first love and he eventually returned to London, working for Janes’ aviation magazines, the Economist Intelligence Unit and The European newspaper (which made a valiant but failed effort (1990-1998) to persuade English-language readers to learn more about what was happening in Europe). He also freelanced for numerous national dailies.

Ian went on do much sailing and travelling in Europe, the Caribbean, the US and across to Fiji. His adventures in Fiji led to a semi-autobiographical novel, Mugged in Tahiti, a tale of fun and games in the South Pacific. He also wrote Sailing into American History, a journey along the east coast’s Intracoastal Waterway which shed light on the early decades of the US.

The avid traveller was also very much at home in Buckinghamshire where I last saw him for lunch at a pub on the Grand Union canal. A memorial service was held at St Mary the Virgin, Ivinghoe, on 10 August 2021, followed by drinks at The Old Swan in Cheddington. I drank a toast to his memory at the Smugglers Inn.

Remembering Jonathan Mirsky

By Stephen Vines

Jonathan Mirsky was never a conventional journalist, nor conventional anything else. He died in London in September at the age of 88. 

For many years he was among the best known China watchers in the hacking business and won the British Press Awards International Reporter of the Year title in 1989 for his Tiananmen massacre coverage in The Observer

In Beijing he was “rewarded” with a savage beating at the hands of the police while covering the protests.

He later moved to The Times and was based in Hong Kong from 1993 to 1998. Towards the end, Mirsky fell out with the paper’s increasingly accommodating attitude towards Beijing ordered by owner Rupert Murdoch, who had big ambitions for expanding business in China.

Mirsky became a familiar figure at the FCC, where a lack of alcoholic consumption and an enthusiasm for discussion – not forgetting an impressive stock of Jewish jokes – marked him out as a not so run-of-the-mill member.

Mirsky, or Minsky as I called him after he was mistakenly identified as such by aristocratic Times Editor William Rees-Mogg, came to journalism through the circuitous route of academia and never quite lost his affection for the long form preferred in universities.

I got to know him back in the 1980s when we were both working for The Observer in London. He was an eccentric character in a newsroom where eccentricity was the norm. At the time I was engaged in the hard-edged area of labour reporting, while Mirsky was pontificating on China from afar. 

Infuriatingly to us hacks who thought that the only kind of reporting that mattered came from on-the-spot observation, he managed to produce superb and highly readable analysis which often outdid the work of Beijing-based correspondents.

When we were later both based in Hong Kong, we occasionally joined forces for interviews. It was an exasperating experience as Mirsky liked to be discursive and, with his genuine interest for people and what made them tick, would spend a great deal of time talking to the interviewees about their lives, while I was impatient to extract the news line of the day.

The Mirsky method often worked far better than the more conventional news-gathering approach, and he made firm friends with many of the people he interviewed. Among them were the Dalai Lama, who wrote to him shortly before his death, and Chris Patten, Hong Kong’s last Governor – a combination of friendships likely to confirm the worst misgivings of an ever-suspicious government in Beijing.

Mirsky came from an aggressively secular intellectual leftist New York Jewish family and quickly graduated towards left-wing politics both as a student and an academic. It was this leftism that led him to become one of the early visitors to China in 1972 when the regime was keen to cultivate fellow travellers.

It would however be inaccurate to describe Mirsky as an apologist for the regime, because a sharp eye for the reality of Mao’s China and an uncontainable independence of mind defied such a simple characterisation.

In later years, most especially after Tiananmen, he became a prominent critic and was banned from entering the PRC. To describe Mirsky as being somehow “anti-China” would be a gross misconception because he had a deep love of all things Chinese and almost certainly a deeper knowledge of China’s culture and history than many of the most avid “patriots” who flaunt their love of the nation these days.

Above all Jonathan Mirsky was a mensch. It’s a Yiddish term that covers everything from friendship to humour to kindness yet is still inadequate to convey the true nature of the man.

Obituary: The legendary Clare Hollingworth, 1911-2017

Clare as a freelancer in the 1950s. Clare as a freelancer in the 1950s.

The FCC’s legendary Correspondent member, Clare Hollingworth, who spent her entire working life travelling the world reporting war and conflict, passed away at home in Hong Kong in January at the very venerable of age 105.

Hollingworth, often hailed as the “doyenne of Foreign Correspondents”, forged a remarkable career as a foreign correspondent, beginning with the scoop of the century when she reported the start of World War II from Poland in September 1939 while working as a stringer for London’s Daily Telegraph newspaper.

She was a dedicated journalist who overcame gender barriers to report from the front lines of major conflicts in Europe, the Middle East, North Africa and Vietnam. She lived her final four decades in Hong Kong after being one of the few Western journalists to report on the Cultural Revolution from China in the 1970s.

Hollingworth had celebrated her 105th birthday in October last year at the FCC. “We are very sad to hear about Clare’s passing. She was a tremendous inspiration to us all and a treasured member of our club. We were so pleased that we could celebrate her 105th birthday with her this past year,”  FCC president Tara Joseph said.

Best known as a Daily Telegraph correspondent, Hollingworth wrote for many publications during her long career, including The Economist, The Observer, Manchester Guardian, Daily Express, International Herald Tribune and Asian Wall Street Journal.

Charles Moore, the editor of the Daily Telegraph described Clare as one the Telegraph’s most distinguished servants and an inspiration to all foreign correspondents and all women in journalism. Other tributes from the Telegraph included:

Clare in the 1960s next to a RAF Hunter in Aden Clare in the 1960s next to a RAF Hunter in Aden

Kate Adie, the veteran BBC war correspondent said Hollingworth was “a pioneer” for women in journalism who did not stop after her great scoop, went on to have a “a lifetime of journalism, full of adventure, good stories and terrific attention to detail and fact. She was a role model, without being aware of it.

Robert Fox, the Telegraph‘s former defence and chief foreign correspondent, described Hollingworth as amazing and steadfast. “After the Falklands I remember she took me to lunch and asked me about the state of the British Army. She used to take the trouble to come over to me, she was always interested and took a great deal of interest in younger reporters.”

The BBC’s John Simpson, who first met Clare in 1978, described her as a journalist who people trusted. “She interviewed the Shah of Iran in 1941, just after we had put him on the throne, and she was the only person he would speak to before he died – because he trusted her. I consider her one the finest journalists of the 20th Century, along with Martha Gellhorn and one or two others. I shall miss her memory more than I can say.”

Chris Patten, who knew Hollingworth when he was Hong Kong governor, said, “Clare was quite literally one of the greatest journalists of the 20th century. She was a great buccaneer, brave, witty and wise. “She covered some of the greatest stories of the last century with imitable dash and, on top of all that, she was kind and lovable.”

Clare with the Commander of British Forces near Tamar in Hong Kong. Clare with the Commander of British Forces near Tamar in Hong Kong.

Patrick Garrett, her biographer and great-nephew, said, “At 105 we had begun to wonder if Clare was one of the immortals. However, she got a cold around Christmas and obviously it is an extra concern with the elderly. We assumed she’d fight it off but it was to be her last Christmas.

“She was far from home but she’d been abroad most of her life. Seventy-eight years ago in Nazi Austria and most years since on foreign soil.”

Garrett, in his biography of Hollingworth, “Of fortune and war” published in July last year, described her first taste of war: “27-year-old Clare collared one of the scoops of the century by borrowing the flagged diplomatic car of the British consul-general in Katowice (with whom she’d a fling, extra-marital for both of them) on the Polish-German border, driving probably in breach of the rules into Germany and by chance seeing masses of Wehrmacht tanks readying for action. When a couple of days later the tanks rolled into Poland, Clare’s first account of world war breaking out was denied – by a disbelieving Polish government.”

What is far less well known is what Hollingworth was doing immediately before she walked into the offices of the Daily Telegraph in Fleet Street in August 1939 and asked for, and got, a job. “The fact is during the spring and summer that year Clare played an important part in rescuing around three thousand people from under the very noses of the Nazis.” These were refugees facing immediate arrest, or worse, as the Nazis tightened their grip on eastern Europe. Clare’s job was to try to help these very frightened people who were on the Nazis’ wanted list to find a safe haven. This she did despite nightmarish logistical difficulties, lack of funds and baulky bureaucracies. It is an amazing account of sheer, bloody-minded persistence on Hollingworth’s part – qualities that would serve her splendidly in her journalism. It was clearly “fiendishly difficult and dangerous work that deserved gratitude and recognition far beyond the modest OBE she received from the British government much later in life.”

Clare during the India-Pakistan war in circa 1965, also with The Guardian Clare during the India-Pakistan war in circa 1965, also with The Guardian

After her journalistic coup on the Polish-German border, Clare had hair’s-breadth escapes from the rapidly advancing German forces, experiences which did nothing to quench her thirst for action and adventure. Far from it. And the outbreak of World War II was by no means her only scoop. Another notable success was breaking the story of double agent Kim Philby’s defection to Moscow.

Throughout her subsequent career she repeatedly impressed or shamed her male correspondent peers with her sang-froid and apparent fearlessness. “It was manic story-chasing and a perverse pleasure in warfare. This relentless hunt for conflict and adventure would become a way of life for Clare, and ultimately it is what defined her as a person.”

Hollingworth was born October 10, 1911, to a middle-class family in the village of Knighton in Leicestershire, England. Her father ran a boot factory founded by her grandfather. She took brief courses in Croatian at Zagreb University, international relations in Switzerland and Slavonic studies in London. She worked as a secretary and then at a British refugee charity in Poland while writing occasional articles about the looming war in Europe, before landing the job with the Daily Telegraph that was to launch her remarkable career.

When Clare moved to Hong Kong in 1981 it was supposed to be temporary. She was researching a book on The Great Helmsman (Mao and the Men Against Him) and had secured a research position at HKU’s Centre of Asian Studies. She never planned to stay, but was intrigued by the negotiations over Hong Kong’s future. Finally she decided to sit it out until the Handover. She never left.

Undoubtedly one reason she opted for Hong Kong was the FCC. Describing the Club as a “second home” for some members may be an old cliché. But for Clare it soon became her first home. Widowed in 1965 she lived for journalism, and was frankly obsessed with following “the story”. She lived modestly – university accommodation at first, later an un-renovated one-room flat. But in the FCC Main Bar there was always someone – local insiders, out-of-towners, and reporters from the 20th century’s wars – to exchange gossip and memories.

A one minute silence was observed in the Main Bar and a service to celebrate Clare’s life will held in the Club on Thursday, January 19. Tributes to Clare and her achievements can be found on the FCC website at http://www.fcchk.org

Celebrate Clare Hollingworth Facebook page

Patrick Garret, Anna Fenton, Jonathan Sharp, Paul Bayfield

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