Lindsey Hilsum's powerful and inspiring biography of the courageous war reporter who was driven to tell the stories of ordinary people enduring some of the world's most devastating conflicts. Today, its 1986 and Marie Colvin is on assignment in the most dangerous city in the world, and love beckons. Juliet Aubrey reads.
Costa Biography Award
Judges: “A riveting insight into an extraordinary life and career; a fitting tribute to a brave and singular woman.”
Hilsum had a wonderful source to draw on: Colvin left 300 diaries, running from 1969 to January 2012. They were a biographer’s dream, containing not only detailed descriptions of what she was doing but reflections on her personal life, friends, love affairs and insecurities. Hilsum also knew Colvin well, having met her in Djibouti in 1998; together they persuaded two Ukrainian pilots to take them to Asmara to report on the war that had broken out between Ethiopia and Eritrea. “I felt”, Hilsum writes, “we were partners in crime, the Thelma and Louise of the press corps.” Her tone is admiring but never adulatory, and her book is richly informed by her close knowledge of the events she describes.
In writing this richly researched and well-crafted account, Hilsum avoids canonising Saint Marie of Fleet Street. Colvin’s writing, she points out, was sometimes patchy — so much so that in the early days, the newsroom joke was: ‘Marie’s copy’s in, someone call Bletchley Park.’ She missed deadlines, occasionally pitched up drunk, and struggled with PTSD to the point where many believed she should no longer have been on the road... Her bosses had offered her the chance to take it easy and do a column. But retiring as a Kate Adie-style grande dame did not appeal, nor did she find the time or focus to write a memoir. That it fell to someone else to do the reporting on her remarkable life story may seem tragic. It is also, perhaps, a measure of just who she was.
Marie was a great human being as well as a great friend. Generous, emotionally and actually, she was a true enthusiast — an optimist — despite what she witnessed as a war correspondent and what life threw at her. She was great fun, and very, very funny.
All of which meant that I approached this biography of her with some trepidation. But I needn’t have worried. Lindsey Hilsum, the Channel 4 News international editor, who also knew Marie and sometimes worked alongside her, has written a wonderful book — a fitting tribute, certainly, but also a well-told tale of a remarkable life.
Colvin’s need for war, like her drinking, seems to have become increasingly desperate over the course of her career. There are times when the book risks becoming a hagiography, but Hilsum avoids this by combining storytelling with asking important questions about what kind of service war correspondents perform and what ethical codes they should adhere to. It becomes clear that the entwined motives to get the best story and to change the world don’t always inspire the same action...Hilsum tells the story of her final week masterfully in a way that makes the end seem both inevitable and unnecessary. At a point when her bosses were calling her back, she remained in a press camp in the most dangerous part of Homs, broadcasting from a traceable satellite while knowing that she was a target for the Syrian authorities. At Colvin’s funeral, her friend Jane Wellesley read some lines from St Paul’s second epistle to Timothy that may have been consoling as well as wrenching for those present. “As for me, my life is already being poured as a libation, and the time has come for me to be gone.”
Lindsey Hilsum’s “In Extremis: The Life and Death of the War Correspondent Marie Colvin” is an extraordinary account of one reporter’s fearless and ultimately fatal dedication...Colvin never slowed down long enough to write a memoir. Now, thanks to Hilsum’s deeply reported and passionately written book, she has the full accounting that she deserves.
Hilsum, Channel 4’s international editor, has always had buckets of empathy. Here she marshals not just empathy for her subject, who was also a friend, but investigative and critical skills and damn fine storytelling....In Extremis rescues Marie Colvin from the rubble of Bab Amr, and brings her tragically, and tenderly, to life.
In Extremis...succeeds brilliantly in honouring a brave and hugely influential journalist, while allowing the real woman, with all her strength, intelligence and human frailty, to shine through... In Extremis is a gripping and very moving book which raises important questions about the way society values foreign correspondents at a time when their profession has never seemed more perilous.
Hilsum pulls no punches in her description of the final stage of Colvin’s life in Syria. Colvin pulled herself together for one more big story, entering Homs through a storm drain as Syrian forces closed their siege on its desperate civilian population. She reported from the city, left it, then returned without discussing the matter with her editors, and delayed her eventual withdrawal. It is easy to second-guess alternative scenarios for Colvin. What if she had stopped drinking? What if she had taken a break from conflict? What if the newspaper had stood her down?
The simple answer is that war kills. Reporters cannot do their job in war without the risk of dying; Colvin, who always made her own rules anyway, knew and accepted this. The more complex truth, which Hilsum suggests, is that the American who died in the rubble in Baba Amr felt more at one with the internal peace she found in wars than with the conflicts she found in peace.
There is almost too much Gatsby, name dropping, and the celebrity whirl of the in-crowd in this version of the Marie story, which occasionally lurches into hagiography. The real Marie was quite often rude to those she thought lesser mortals, and a bit of a snob...
Marie Colvin was a one-off, eccentric, brilliant and sometimes maddening. Lindsey Hilsum does her justice. She had the physical and mental courage of a pride of lions — and lionesses.
Killed in Syria in 2012, Colvin was a glamorous, hard-drinking and valiant foreign correspondent who reported from the world's most dangerous places, "going in further and staying longer than anyone else". This gripping biography is by the international editor of "Channel 4 News", who draws on unpublished diaries, notebooks, and interviews. The result is a humbling and hard-hitting account of a turbulent world we only know about because the likes of Colvin and Hilsum put their lives on the line every day...