No One Leaves Her Place in Line
Jeremy Harding revisits Martha Gellhorn
‘Martha Gellhorn (1908-98), war correspondent and heroine’. Since her death in February, this epitaph has become a depressing possibility. Now we can say what we like about her, but during the last ten years of her life, though she could do little about criticism, she tried to keep the mythologising, much of it from friends, within the bounds of taste. She didn’t care for anything, or anyone, with a propensity to gush. She is thought of, primarily, as a journalist – and one whose subject was war. Since the second half of the Eighties, her two collections of reportage, The Face of War and The View from the Ground, have enjoyed a wider readership than her novels, of which there are five, or the novellas, roughly a dozen, or the numerous short stories.
War is ‘our condition and our history’, she once said – and she wrote about it well. But throughout her working life, she remained gripped by the political and social issues of peacetime, poverty above all, which she regarded as evidence of bad government in the developed world, compounded in poorer countries by international indifference (or worse). In the mid-Thirties, she travelled across the United States, researching the effects of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration for the head of the agency, Harry Hopkins; fifty years later in Britain, she watched the gap between the rich and the poor widen again, and she railed against the spirit of Thatcherism. Two days before she died, at the age of 89, she was denouncing the Clinton Administration’s plans, with Britain in tow, for the bombing of Iraq (‘they won’t even listen to the Iraqi opposition’). So, even though she used the expression herself until a few years ago, ‘war correspondent’ won’t quite do, in spite of unforgettable dispatches from Spain in 1937 and 38, from Italy and Normandy in 1944, from the Ardennes and Dachau the following year, from Vietnam in the Sixties, El Salvador and Nicaragua in the Eighties and from Panama in 1990. Two years ago, she rounded off the list with a long and steely report on the undeclared war waged in Brazil by the police and the military against homeless children.
That Martha Gellhorn might become a heroine is the risk she incurred by never really changing her mind. From the United States in the slough of the Depression to the favelas of Salvador, she moved more or less doggedly, telling one story after another, but her preoccupation with the big themes – hunger, injustice, war and dispossession – meant that she was obliged to retell the same story in different settings. On hearing the word ‘commitment’, she sought refuge in Henry James (an odd hero for a writer whose sentences are so unencumbered and who was also besotted by Elmore Leonard), but she was happy to be accused of consistency: she believed in the salutary power of memory, and the value of precedent. Consistency, after all, was the logical outcome of her loyalty to those beliefs, and to the people and events that marked her life.
Her first loyalty was to her family: she was passionately thankful to her parents for her rock-solid liberal upbringing in St Louis, Missouri, and she admired their lives for the duration of her own. The next most obvious was to the Spanish Republic. Here, too, the loyalty was absolute: Spain became her moral template for the reputable cause that is abandoned for disreputable reasons (cowardice, indifference, lack of foresight). It hastened her ‘premature anti-fascism’, as her politics were described in her FBI file, and defined her view of the Second World War. Half a century later, it was still at the back of her mind when she grappled with the conflicts in Central America at the time of the Reagan Presidency.
Her consistency is as comforting to the fickle, the ambivalent, the fainthearted, as it is to those for whom an adjutant nod of assent in her direction is second nature. Her work is habit-forming, whether you share her convictions or not. There’s comfort, too, to be got from another of her big achievements: longevity. She was surely the only person to have inspected the defences around Madrid in the winter of 1937 and, nearly sixty years later, heard Mandela address a multiracial Parliament in Cape Town. It wasn’t that Martha clung to life; it clung to her, piling on the years like a Berber potter loading his donkey. For that alone, she’s been thought of as a witness to the 20th century; better to say that for much of her career she looked the century in the face and made something of it, yet even this comes close to veneration.
A few days after Martha Gellhorn’s ashes were scattered in the Thames near Tower Bridge, I went back to her flat near the King’s Road to collect some books that she’d left me. I’d made the journey often from North London to Sloane Square, walking away from the Royal Court Theatre, rounding Peter Jones on Symons Street and turning up towards Cadogan Square. On entering the house, you rose in a coffin-like lift to the top and walked down to the first half-landing, where the door of her place would be open. Inside, if it was summer, you could browse the skyline of West London through her picture window, probably as far as the southern edge of Holland Park. If it was winter you’d settle rapidly into the business of talk and drink. The stage directions were always the same: Martha, with her gay, vigilant eyes, the edges of her mouth drawn down slightly, is leaning forward on one side of a blue two-seater sofa beneath a large painting of flowers; you’re sitting on her near side on a matching sofa beneath a larger submarine painting in greys, greens and blues. The flat is sparsely furnished, a little austere, but lavishly lit by Martha’s moods, her stories, her interest in anywhere you’ve been, whether it’s Dar-es-Salaam or Saffron Walden. Until her death, I’d only once set foot here in her absence. Then, too, it had been to collect some books; she’d set aside a couple of her novels for me to borrow. Now, after a good hour with her minimal library and a long look through her picture window, I went back down in the lift with one carrier bag and a briefcase full of books. Strictly speaking, they belong to me, but I can’t shake off the idea that, like the ones I took away nine years ago, they’re only on loan.
There are two dozen or so. Some of them she wrote herself – The Heart of Another, my favourite collection of short stories, published in 1941 (on the flyleaf of this 1946 edition, the inscription in pencil confirms how quick she was to think she’d never done anything good and might never produce a sentence again: ‘To —, this badly-made reminder that I used to write. Gloomily, the ex-authoress’); Point of No Return (1948), a novel which tells the story of four characters, three of them Americans, fighting the last stages of the war in Europe, which I read with indecent haste many years ago, hoping I’d like it more than I did; The Lowest Trees Have Tops, a middling, happy-sad novel set in Mexico.
There’s also an incomplete set of Ruskin, in an undated American edition inscribed by her mother in black ink: ‘Edna Fischel, April 1900’, or ‘May 1900’ – she seems to have accumulated them as they appeared, the name and location of the publishers changing midway through the edition. A couple of the volumes are underlined and annotated in Martha’s hand. She probably read them during the Twenties. The marked-up passages of the keen young high-school pupil offer an unerring foretaste of the mature writer. Underlinings at random, from Fors Clavigera: ‘The chief, and almost the only business of the government, is to take care that no man may live idle.’ ‘And the guilty thieves of Europe, the real sources of all deadly war in it, are the Capitalists.’ (Ruskin, like Martha, was a premature anti-fascist.) Again at random, from Time and Tide: ‘There is no final strength but in rightness.’ ‘The peculiar ghastliness of the Swiss mode of festivity is in its utter failure of joy.’ ‘It is true, of course, that in the end of ends, nothing but the right conquers.’ The older Gellhorn was too weather-beaten to countenance that idea, but she would have liked to, and the bulk of the journalism is about why she couldn’t.
I knew Martha Gellhorn during the last ten years of her life. I had fallen for the work long before I fell for the person. We met through Bill Buford, then the editor of Granta, who had also fallen for the writing. She and I were both contributors. By the time Buford made the introduction, I’d read whatever journalism I could find and roughly half the fiction. A year later, she and I started work on a programme for the BBC, consisting of a series of long interviews which were to be edited down and interspersed with readings from her journalism and fiction. If it worked well in the end, this was because she took charge of the programme – and because she was too much her own person, too set in her ways, to star in anyone else’s notion of who she was. Television failed to replace Martha Gellhorn with ‘Martha Gellhorn’.
The full text of this essay is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.