When Suzanne and Helen opened the door of the cramped, box-like apartment in Albert Road, I didn’t even notice the small, huddled figure on the sofa. It was only when Helen, one of the two people who look after Clare Hollingworth in her Hong Kong home, stood aside that I saw the very elderly lady in a red cardigan with thin hair and jutting jaw and heavy spectacles and realised that I was looking at the reporter who wrote the greatest scoop of the Second World War.
Yes, in August of 1939, this crouched little woman – 104 years old, sightless now and moving only with the greatest difficulty around her tiny flat – boldly crossed the Polish-German frontier in a British diplomat’s car and saw General Gerd von Rundstedt’s Wehrmacht tanks, in their thousands, lined up to invade Poland.
There are some interviews that a journalist remembers – those that betray a politician’s cruelty, a soldier’s brutality, the courage of a doctor under fire, the kindness and dignity of a man or woman who have lost their family – but in this little home on the far side of the world, I was lost. How do you talk to a colleague who has been deprived of much of her memory, whose moments of extraordinary vision and bravery return only in occasional seconds of clarity and then bleakly disappear? Did she think, when she reported the German invasion of Poland, that the Nazis would win the war, I asked her? “No, I thought they’d lose the war,” she answers emphatically. “Because they didn’t care about people.” As good a description of all fascist dictatorships, I suppose.