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Creative Women at Work: Journalist and International Editor Lindsey Hilsum

— by Alyson Walsh

‘Picture from 2011, entering Tripoli, Libya with rebels. (One of them gave me the scarf when I admired it and said I liked pink!)’

Lindsey Hilsum is Channel 4 News’ International Editor. An award-winning war correspondent who has covered many conflicts throughout her career; including Iraq, (she was in Bagdad during the US invasion, in 2003), Rwanda, the Arab Spring and Syria. Not only is Hilsum a superb broadcast journalist and author, she knows the importance of accessories and how to put a scarf to good use.

As an avid Channel 4 News fan, I often tune in to Hilsum’s segment and take note of the colourful combinations she wears while reporting from dangerous combat zones. The International Editor’s pairing of an ochre shirt with her signature turquoise scarf got a mention in my outstanding coat post. And then the most wonderful thing happened: between broadcasting from Syria and other important assignments, Hilsum found the time to send a lovely email. ‘Thank you. I’m very flattered,’ went the subject box (I checked and double-checked and it wasn’t spam), ‘ I’m very excited you mentioned me on your blog,’ continued the email.  Wow. I’m sure I was the most-flattered person in that particular email conversation, but I managed to remain calm enough to type a not-too-gushing reply.

‘As a person who went grey early,’ continued Hilsum, in her next email, ‘I love colour and have found it enhances everything.’ Enjoying this most delightful, pinch-yourself moment, I tentatively enquired if she might have time to answer a few questions for my Creative Women at Work series. Thinking that asking an award-winning war correspondent to talk about scarves might be pushing it, I braced myself for the upcoming silence. But up popped another reply,  ‘Sure, email me and I’ll respond.’

Photo via Harper’s Bazaar

Hilsum’s brilliant book In Extremis: the life of war correspondent Marie Colvin has just been shortlisted for the 2019 Costa prize. It is a riveting read – and as the BBC’s World Affairs Editor John Simpson says on the cover, ‘ A fitting account of the life of one of the finest war correspondents of our time, written by another.’ Hilsum and Colvin first met in 1998 in Djibouti reporting on the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea, and would often encounter each other in various conflict zones, at house parties or the Frontline Club (a venue where foreign correspondents get-together in London).

‘As the conflicts of the twentieth and twenty-first century proliferated, I felt like we were partners in crime, the Thelma & Louise of the press corps,’ Hilsum writes in the book.

 

And there you go, one of my favourite things about being editor-in-chief of That’s Not My Age is all the brilliant women I meet, both online and in the real world. Here’s Lindsey Hilsum:

TNMA: Talking about Patti Smith’s Just Kids in the New Statesman, you said ‘getting older is the most banal and the most profound thing’. Please can you expand on that?

LH: ‘I think others have better words than me. In Joni Mitchell’s song Sweet Bird  there’s a verse that goes:

‘Behind our eyes
Calendars of our lives
Circled with compromise
Sweet bird of time and change
You must be laughing.’

That’s it. We live through time and change and feel we don’t really understand what happened.’

TNMA: What do you always take with you when you travel internationally for work? And are you an expert at packing for a trip?

LH: ‘I always have music on the iPhone: Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, Dylan, Springsteen, Patti Scialfa. I like to have a book of poetry and always a novel, but I often end up too exhausted to read.

I’m better at packing for hot countries than cold countries. I can do it pretty quickly now, but I always forget something crucial like a specific cable, or shampoo.’

TNMA: When it comes to what to wear, you must be juggling practical, durable clothing  with outfits that look good on TV. How does this work in practise? And is this where the scarves come in?!

LH: ‘The challenge is not to look sweaty and muddy or dusty when that is exactly what you are. Strong colours and clean lines look good on TV. For about 10 years I’ve had the same three pairs of Jigsaw dark blue stretch almost jeans/ almost chinos which are perfect but they’re pretty much worn out now and I can’t find a replacement. Then I have shirts in bright colours, two of each: turquoise, lime green, dark green, pink, purple. I try to take two sets of shirts in colours that will work with the same scarves (turquoise/green or pink/purple). And a dark blue jacket in case I get an interview with someone important and need to look a bit smarter. The scarves soften the look and make it less uniform. They’re useful to have on hand in case you have to cover your head when in a mosque or meeting a sheikh. Also, a scarf solves a multitude of problems when you’re somewhere hot and sweaty and get all crumpled (it can also double up as a sling or a bandage, if needed). And they channel my inner hippie.’

TNMA: How many scarves do you own? Are there any particular brands that you prefer? And have you ever used one as a sling?

LH: ‘Oh God, I don’t know. 200? 250? None are designer or brand name. Most I buy on the road and cost £10 or less. My current favourite is a dark red square with a print of bright flowers, and a small, beaded fringe. I bought it for about £2 in a market in Qamishli in north-east Syria. It’s the kind Kurdish fighters wear – male and female. I’ve not yet used a scarf as a sling but I’ve certainly mopped brows – mine and others.’

TNMA: What is life like working in a war zone? Unpredictable, I imagine…is it possible to have a routine?

LH: ‘Some things are routine – the tube to Heathrow, the plane, the determination to get the story. There’s a lot of waiting about, and a lot of driving, often to the wrong place because it’s not clear where the right place is. The bit where bullets fly is a very small part of it. For me, the most stressful thing is sending our story because you never know when the technology is going to let you down. I think my “uniform” is one way I have of trying to impose order on chaos and reduce the unpredictability of it all.’

TNMA: How did you find writing In Extremis? Was it difficult writing about a friend?

LH: ‘It’s strange to get to know your friend better in death than in life, but I really enjoyed the process. Marie Colvin kept amazing diaries from when she was a teenager right through to when she was killed in Syria in 2012. She was a great reporter. She was always very into clothes, by the way. One entry when she was 13 reads: “To church. Wore mini. The mother and the father no like.” One of my favourite bits of the book is her thoughts after she was shot in Sri Lanka and lost the sight in her left eye. “As I tried on the lacy-edged cardigans, the flimsy silk Tracy Boyd sundress, the clothes of other summers, I realised that nothing in my wardrobe worked,” she wrote. “The black eye-patch somehow unbalanced and dominated everything. I looked like I was in someone else’s clothes.” I thought it was fascinatingly female that she tried to manage her trauma through buying new clothes, working from the outside in. (It didn’t work – she suffered from PTSD nonetheless.) She was also a very acute observer of Colonel Gadaffi’s wacky outfits.’

TNMA: Given what’s been said recently about political journalism in the UK, what advice would you give to reporters?

LH: ‘Not sure my advice is much use to anyone! Just try to tell the truth. That’s about it really.’

TNMA: What’s it like coming home? And how do you unwind? 

LH: ‘I love coming home. The sofa in my kitchen is my favourite place in the world. Colour is a hugely important thing for me – in October when I got back from northeast Syria, which was a very difficult trip, I found myself in the garden centre buying tulip bulbs in very exotic colour combinations. Gardening is great because it’s physical and the rewards come slowly, so it centres you. My north London garden is tiny but I am immensely proud of it!’

 

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