Press & media
Leslie, Ann (1 of 6). Oral History of the British Press
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journalists; foreign correspondents
2008-07-03, 2008-08-06, 2008-10-01, 2008-11-17
British Library, London
Leslie, Ann, 1941- (speaker, female)
Brodie, Louise (speaker, female)
Part 1: Dame Ann Leslie [AL] was born in Rawalpindi in 1941. Her father was in the marketing of oil and his father did much the same in China. Her grandfather was a taipan and her father was a boxwalla. AL has always been fascinated by “pipeline politics”. Her family have always liked to work and live abroad. AL went to her first boarding school at the age of four. It was normal for expat families. Communications were terrible. Her grandmother, Ming, thought your job was to stay with your husband. Later AL went to school in England. They were very stoic. She was in the same holiday home as Angela Thorne. AL became a foreign correspondent because it was in the genes. [6:10] Before partition, AL, aged about five, remembers going in a train from New Delhi to Lahore and it was a killing train, blood and bodies everywhere. Story of the killing of a Muslim bearer by Sikhs. AL’s family had to have a lot of servants because of the caste system. She adored Ja Mohammed, a Pashtun [Pushtun]. He saved her life in the Calcutta killing, finding her and carrying her to safety. Story of the letters. Burma Shell would only pay for one child to travel. Even when she went back to see her parents they were never in the same house she had left. They never had toys. [15:40] In some ways it was a privileged childhood, but not in others. Her father came from a family of Anglo Irish gentry and was Protestant. Her mother was Irish and a Catholic, she was stunningly beautiful and also clever. She saw AL as plain. AL’s father was handsome and unfaithful. Her mother got more and more neurotic, and jealous of AL, who unaccountably had decided to live among foreigners and could not spend enough time with her. [22:19] Her father was born in Tientsin (Tianjin). He went to Balliol. They owned Abney house on the Thames, which Ming furnished with heavy inlaid furniture from China. She looked on her daughter in law with distaste. When AL’s father died, the lawyer gave her intimate papers concerning his girlfriends. Her mother was very needy. Often a great beauty is not sexy. [28:00] AL for some time went to St Hilda’s school for girls in Ooti. It was run like an English boarding school. AL went back to see it on the 50th anniversary of partition. It is still run the same way, but for Indians. Outi is quite high in the Nilgiri hills and is lovely. It was set up by the British, but in AL’s youth it was a magical place. Mrs Gulliland had a wonderful house and became a surrogate mother. AL took her terrier for walks in the woods till it was snatched by a panther. Then she was bitten by a rabid dog and had the fearful injections. [37:25] Then she was sent to a Catholic convent in the Peak District, which was ghastly, damp and cold and obsessional. AL was clever and a swot. There was one good teacher who taught English. AL decided that she would do her O levels early and leave school. They sent her then to another convent in the south where diplomats’ daughters went. It was quite different. AL did her A levels and got a scholarship to Oxford. [43:44] AL’s sister, Alison, was the pretty one, and was sent to a convent full of pretty but dim girls. She resented AL, and they both wanted to be the other, and hardly ever saw each other. Her brother, Michael, was her mother’s favourite and went to Ampleforth. He is an architect and worked in Hong Kong. Nellie, his wife, who is Chinese was given a hard time by their mother. Stories of travelling unaccompanied, first by ship then by slow planes, which used to break down. When her grandmother was travelling it took weeks. [54:02] In Karachi they had a big social life with ghastly dances. The driver knew AL hated them. Sohail, a Pakistani, asked her to dance and she fell for him. The driver would take her out for three hours to avoid dancing, once with Soheil. He reported them to AL’s father, which caused great trouble. At Oxford the ratio was about 8 boys to 1 girl. AL had a wonderful friend, beautiful. One term they would go for the Marxists, another term for the rugger players. Then they went for the actors, painting scenery, and got an audition for the Cherry Orchard. It didn’t last for long. This is where she met Michael Fletcher her future husband, though they each went their separate ways first. [1:03:56] When AL started doing foreign correspondence, her idol was Clare Hollingworth. She was a tough cookie. Then there was ghastly Martha Gelhorn, and wonderful Anne Sharpley. She told AL not to get married and never have children. First you must sleep with the Reuters correspondent and then the chief of police, to get information. Michael and her got married, though she was not keen on the idea. She was working for Queen magazine going round the world and Michael wanted them to get married before she went. He arranged the whole thing, and the Canon got rather worried that she took no part in the arrangements. This was 1969 and they have been married ever since. She was constantly going away. He has put up with a lot. [1:12:02] Becoming a foreign correspondent was accidental. She got the Maud Hay scholarship to LMH at Oxford. Story of interview at Newnham, who offered AL an exhibition. She went to LMH. She was seen as glamorous by other people. She was offered this job of £1000 a year by the Daily Express after they came round. She had never read a newspaper in her life. It was only the second series of interviews they had ever done, in 1962. He interviewed a couple of men too. He found her amusing while they just chatted. Then she had to go down to meet the editor. Michael got into the BBC after doing journalism, but she had no idea what she wanted to do. [1:21:19] This was an experiment, to hire someone with a degree. AL went in to see the editor Roger Wood, who never even looked up and told her to start in Manchester on Monday. It was a nightmare. Her first news editor loathed her on sight. He was Tom Campbell with a huge moustache. She was a woman, from the south, educated, sent by Fleet Street, he hated her. Stories. There was a style book which was kept from her. There were some good tips in it which she had to learn osmotically. There were various code words, vivacious, for instance, and pert. [1:29:51] The funniest thing was finding a dwarf who had been to school with Cary Grant, who lived in Oldham. She found the house in a blizzard, was invited inside and started on the Scotch. His wife came home and threw her out. She was also meant to find a flock of sheep frozen dead on the moors. This she didn’t do, quite rightly as John Scholes, who shared her desk, agreed. It made a short funny piece which enraged Campbell. Then there was a budgie dispute, only there wasn’t. She had had budgies in India and liked them. Then there was a woman victim refusing to talk to the press. AL played it straight and got the story. Campbell was furious. Women were discriminated against in a way difficult to understand today. She couldn’t get a mortgage. She had to pull strings with Lord Cohen to get one. It was completely normal particularly in the north to treat women as second class. Women were there to be decorative, make the tea and do the shorthand. [1:41:19] AL got trained only in how to drink and smoke. There was Yates’s Bar. The woman who ran the Court House bar was called Carmen and other women were frozen out. AL was assumed to come from a wealthy family which was not true but she was resented for it. She told herself she would do one year, and not be got rid of by Campbell. She got in with the Library Theatre crowd and met Janet Manners (Suzman). They rented a semi detached house on the Didsbury Road. AL couldn’t cook. Recipe of spaghetti bolognaise with lots of red wine and brandy. It was a great time. John Barton saw Janet act and Peter Hall hired her, so she went off to Stratford, AL decided she should leave too. In the old days you would have to use the public phone box to send in your copy. Once you had got in there you would vandalise the phone by taking out the diaphragm. Or remove the distributor head from the rivals’ cars. If AL wanted to ring Michael she would have to go down the road to do it. [1:53:12] If you were an ordinary news hack your copy might end up on the spike. AL does not actually like writing. She was known to write like a dream, but only about the things she wanted to do. She liked it to be truthful, which not everybody did. That is truthful to the facts and to the style of the person and to the atmosphere. This is essential but a chore. How, what, why, where, when is the journalist’s mantra, and she would want to know and write all the details, not just a short piece. The copy taster throws things out, onto the spike. AL would demand to see the running order for the conferences twice a day. If you were sixth on the list, it was likely to go on the spike. Unless she had the first or second piece she would not write it. She has not been ambitious and refused to be an editor. She never wanted to get somewhere. After a while she would not work at weekends. [2:02:55] She was given her first column aged 22. Robert Edwards, who was the Daily Express editor in Fleet Street, came to visit them in Manchester. She was asked to go down there. Story about subletting the house to Patrick Stewart, who still owes her rent and meeting him at the Human Rights Watch function. The column she wrote had a headline, “a provocative new name and she’s only 22”. It was just wittering away. She did it for a while but did not think she was good at it. Beaverbrook was still alive. His letters to her were like onions, flattery at first followed by criticism. Bob Edwards was called the “smiling shark”. Beaverbrook’s son, Max Aitken, sacked Bob one time, but Beaverbrook called him back. They had lots of foreign correspondents at the Daily Express. Stories. There were extraordinary characters. Often they were not sacked when they should have been.
Life story interview with journalist and broadcaster Dame Ann Leslie