Lindsey Hilsum: ‘I got to know Marie Colvin better in death than in life’

The Channel 4 foreign correspondent talks about her new biography of the Sunday Times war reporter killed in Syria

Lindsey Hilsum is Channel 4’s international editor. She has covered many foreign conflicts, including Syria, Ukraine and the Arab spring. She was a friend of, and sometimes worked with, Marie Colvin, the Sunday Times foreign correspondent who was killed in Homs, Syria, in 2012. Hilsum’s new biography of Colvin is called In Extremis.

How difficult was it to write about a friend, especially one with a complicated private and professional life?
I suppose I felt compelled to do it, so in that sense it wasn’t difficult. After Marie was killed, I was grieving, but her ghost never went away. She had 300 notebooks and diaries, some of them ordinary notebooks that a journalist keeps, but then there were all these very intimate personal diaries. I would never have read Marie’s teenage diaries if she’d stayed alive, so there was this really odd thing that I got to know her better in death than in life.

Did you feel like you were intruding?
Yes, I did feel that at times. But also many moments of recognition. For example, there was a great bit in the diary in which as a 13-year-old girl she writes about having to go to Mass with her family: “To church. Wore mini. The mother and the father no like.” In that moment I thought, I know the woman that girl became. But then there were other moments: I would read stuff in her diary from later on and I’d find myself wanting to ring her and say: “Marie, what really happened?” And then I’d remember: “Oh gosh, I can’t ring her.”

Has writing the book made you rethink your own ideas about war reporting and being a reporter?
Well, it made me think that it was a very good thing that I destroyed my teenage diaries. Marie took a lot more risks than I did and if one puts it crudely that’s why I’m alive and she isn’t. I always feel outclassed by her in the sense that she was much braver than I am. And I’m very envious of her for being able to be that brave and be so determined. Then I also think I don’t envy her because, you know, the title In Extremis, is about how she lived her own life in extremis, as well as the people she reported on. I’m glad that I have a more stable personal life than she did, because it caused her so much pain.

It seems Colvin was targeted by the Assad regime and recently we’ve seen a number of prominent journalists killed or imprisoned. Are reporters under greater threat now than ever before?
Definitely. I think Marie’s killing and the kidnap of James Foley marked a watershed when it became unacceptably dangerous for many editors to send reporters into those situations. If you look at what’s happening now, the people under greatest threat are investigative reporters. I mean, three investigative reporters murdered within the European Union this year. One in Malta, one in Slovakia and one in Bulgaria, and most recently Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist. It seems to me that with this nexus of corrupt governments and organised crime that investigative journalists are under more threat now than at any time in my career.

Marie Colvin covering the Egyptian uprising in Tahrir Square, Cairo, Egypt, in 2011
Marie Colvin covering the Egyptian uprising in Tahrir Square, Cairo, Egypt, in 2011. Photograph: Ivor Prickett/The Sunday Times/HO/EPA

There is a mythology attached to war reporters to which war reporters themselves are not immune. Do you think Colvin felt an obligation to live up to her own myth?
Marie had the glamour. The eye patch she wore after her eye was shot in Sri Lanka – she had one studded with rhinestones for parties. She definitely did live up to that image and arguably her editors cultivated that image. One of the things I go into in the book is that sometimes she didn’t feel like that person inside. She felt vulnerable and scared. She had bad luck or bad judgment in love, depending on how you look on it, and it was difficult for her psychologically to reconcile those two versions of herself. But she couldn’t help but be glamorous because she was glamorous. That’s who she was.

What’s the best novel or nonfiction work you’ve read about war reporting?
Obviously I have to say Scoop because it brings out the absurdity of everything we do, but one of the books I read when thinking about writing this book was Sweet Caress by William Boyd, which is about a female war photographer of the 1940s. I really enjoyed that. And I think the biography of Lee Miller by Carolyn Burke is brilliant.

What kinds of biography do you like to read?
I really enjoyed Hermione Lee on Penelope Fitzgerald and Nicholas Shakespeare on Bruce Chatwin because they sent me back to the original works. A memoir that I think is brilliant is Just Kids by Patti Smith.

Which literary genres do you most enjoy?
When I travel I always carry poetry with me. I read and reread quite a lot of James Fenton and WH Auden and recently Wisława Szymborska, poetry that deals with the same issues I’m covering, issues of war and peace and so on. I think everybody should be made to read Auden’s Epitaph on a Tyrant every week!

Which classic novel did you read recently for the first time?
I didn’t. I’m a bad, bad person, unless you count John le Carré’s The Russia House.

Which book would you give to a young person?
If a very small person, I love those feminist fairy tales such as Princess Smartypants. For a teenager, I think The Poisonwood Bible because it’s a complex story about a complex place, the Congo, but it’s told from the point of view of the children.

What books are on your bedside table?
I am a news journalist in the end so I’m having a bit of a Russian spy phase. The two on my table are Ben Macintyre’s The Spy and the Traitor and A Spy Named Orphan, Roland Philipps’s biography of Donald Maclean.

In Extremis by Lindsey Hilsum is published by Vintage (£20). To order a copy for £17.20 go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99


Andrew Anthony

The GuardianTramp

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