Invisible Walls by Hella Pick review – vital lessons from a titan of journalism

Pick recounts her incredible life story, from Kindertransport evacuee to doyenne of the diplomatic press corps, in this profound must-read

I have never forgotten those who were kind to me when I had no journalistic name to speak of, just as I retain specific memories of those who were arrogant, dismissive or patronising. From each I have learned something about human nature and how to behave. I came of age as a foreign reporter in the era when “big beasts” with rampant egos trampled the globe, sometimes in more ferocious competition with their own colleagues than with those from rival outlets. Ruthlessness, guile and manufactured charm were essential commodities in this not so golden age. It became a rule of thumb to be especially suspicious of the avuncular colleague who told the gullible neophyte how much they loved his or her work. A sharp stiletto in the ribs often followed.

Hella Pick never told me she loved my work. But she was kind. Although she may well have forgotten our Harare encounter, I have not. I was setting out on 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, causing a minor diplomatic storm as table plans were hastily rearranged. I had been dispatched from Johannesburg to provide backup to the diplomatic and political editors sent out from London. These veterans were the elite of the reporting teams of the BBC and broadsheet newspapers and I was attending my first summit of any kind. My reporting life was usually spent in the black townships or in the rural heartlands of the Afrikaner nationalists. I did not take naturally to the world of off the record briefings and summit press conferences.

Pick was the doyenne of the diplomatic press corps and her legend preceded her. There was hardly a major international crisis in the previous three decades that she had not reported on for the Guardian and as a frequent contributor to the BBC World Service. A woman with such a CV might have felt entitled to affect an austere distance in the presence of a young man just off the plane from Johannesburg, brimming with opinions about what was really happening in the fight to end apartheid. On the contrary. She asked me a few questions, listened carefully and put me at my ease. Until reading her book I knew nothing of the personal circumstances that formed this deeply empathic personality. Now that I have, I understand and appreciate that encounter all the more.

Invisible Walls is a book of great power and honesty, packed with vivid detail of her reporting adventures from the newly independent African states of the late 1950s, through the US of the turbulent 60s and on, through the cold war and into this uncertain age of populist promise-makers, all told with a keen intelligence and relentless dedication to the facts.

It is no accident that she became a diplomatic correspondent, one whose finest work concerned the efforts of the United Nations, often doomed, to avert conflict in various parts of the world. She brought to the job the intellectual hunger and moral purpose of one who had escaped the great catastrophe that descended on Europe in the 1930s. Her childhood was torn apart by the rise of fascism and the catastrophic failure of diplomacy. Pick arrived in Britain from Austria as an 11-year-old child – number 4672 – on the Kindertransport that brought around 10,000 Jewish children to safety after the Kristallnacht attacks in 1938. She lost a country – Austria – and her maternal grandmother perished in a concentration camp.

Together with her mother – who constantly feared she would lose Pick as she had lost so much else – she experienced the struggles of life as a Jewish refugee. It left her with a sense of being an outsider, which never ameliorated despite numerous awards and friendships that included some of the most influential people in the land.

With great honesty and poignancy she recalls the failed love affairs with men who would not make themselves available for a family life with her. But the more I read, the greater my conviction that coming from where she did and being who she was, Hella Pick could never have settled for quiet domesticity, and certainly not as the wife in the background of some eminent man. At a time when precious few women were allowed into senior ranks of foreign reporting, she was a trailblazer for a generation. I commend her book to the widest audience possible but particularly those setting out in journalism. Pick is testament to the necessity of having a broad intellectual hinterland and an open mind, the value of cultivating sources and finding things out. There is no better manifesto against the current clickbait culture and narcissistic social media obsession. This voice from before the age of Facebook and Twitter is profound and urgent.

Fergal Keane is a senior foreign correspondent for BBC News

  • Invisible Walls by Hella Pick is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (£20). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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