They don’t make them like Ann Leslie anymore. For decades, she has walked the world of British foreign correspondents like a colossus. I was very saddened to learn that she had died, a true loss.
I first met her when she was a regular at BBC Question Time with Sir Robin Day in the 1980s, and when I met her a quarter of a century later, she instantly became one of my favorite people. Any self-respecting journalist should read her memoir KILLING MY OWN SNAKES if only to get some good advice.
Leslie’s anecdotes of daring feats constantly entertain and sometimes horrify. She covered virtually every major conflict of the second half of the last century, but she hated being described as a “war correspondent.” Her stories about various aspects of the Cold War in her memoir are particularly evocative, as is the chapter about a visit to Iran in the early 2000s. She Pretended She’s Not Particularly Brave, But That’s It nonsense. Time and time again she has put herself in physical danger to get the story. And preferably get it before her rivals hers from Fleet Street.
Ann was always awesome on shows like Question Time because she was never afraid to express an opinion. She recounts in her book her first appearance on Any Questions, which turned out to be quite a horrible experience. She was sitting next to Conservative MP Sir Nicholas Fairbairn, who proceeded to spend the entire show with his hand on her crotch. I think she had a more enjoyable experience when she appeared on my show CROSS QUESTION. Or at least I hope she did. I remember the rest of the panel (and myself) being quite in awe of her. She was as if she appeared a member of journalistic royalty, and in many ways that was correct.
I first met her in 2007 when we were judges for a world statesman of the year award. I was a little in awe at first, but he has a wonderfully natural way of talking to you, like you’re the only person in the room who matters.
I was last in contact with her two years ago when I asked her to write for my book KINGS & QUEENS. She sent me a lovely email declining due to health issues, and also telling me how much her ‘lefty’ daughter loves her For the Many podcast.
Oh how I wish I had done one of my long interviews with her for the ALL TALK podcast.
Listen to it on Desert Island Discs HERE.
I’ll leave you with this, which is Ann Leslie’s essay in my 2013 book MEMORIES OF MARGARET Thatcher.
My note to a 1973 Tory Party conference read: “I met a dreadful woman named Margaret Hilda Thatcher.” I took copious notes on the variety of Grand Old Gents who later wielded power in the party, along with their old-school ties, champagne flutes and brandy balloons, but on that ‘dreadful woman’? Nothing more, because I figured she’d never get anywhere.
In fact, it wasn’t until February 1977, standing with her on the Great Wall of China, that I first grasped the fact that Mrs Thatcher was more than an overly eloquent bottle blonde who, improbably and (many believed) ) temporarily, had managed to become a conservative leader. In that role she was making an official visit to China.
It wasn’t just the Grand Old Gents who didn’t take her very seriously. Even the Fleet Street editors thought of it as a suburban housewife joke. It may have been only four months since Chairman Mao’s death, and two months after the arrest of the Gang of Four (momentous geopolitical events), but the press portion of the trip was mostly chosen from the fluffy end of the journalism: columnists she could be trusted to indulge in girl talk about Carmen with her, laughing gossip columnists, plus two or three serious China specialists. I still thought of her as ‘that awful woman’, but now that the Cultural Revolution was over, I was finally able to visit the fenced off land where my father was born and where my grandparents were married.
I knew that the Chinese routinely subjected their visiting ‘Distinguished Foreign Friends’ to what I called the Great Wall Stakes. I warned Mrs. T. that she had learned that the section of the Wall we would be visiting at Badaling was extremely steep and slippery and, er, her high-heeled shoes were not up to the challenge. She cheerfully assured me, ‘Oh, I don’t pretend to be athletic, dear!’
But then the Chinese, no doubt chuckling at his forthcoming humiliation, told him: ‘Chairman Mao said, ‘He who doesn’t make it to the top of the Great Wall is not a great man.’ Big mistake. She strongly retorted: ‘That should be changed to: he’s not a great leader!’ And she was shot along the Wall like a Blue Streak rocket and, in the blink of an eye, she and her Rotarian wife outfit, the carefully coiffed headpiece and those ‘inappropriate’ shoes were mere dots on the horizon of Badaling.
His insatiable gluttony for facts, boring things that great gentlemen tended to believe were a little beneath them, soon became apparent.
Over and over again on that trip to China, her daughter Carol, then 23, would wail, “Oh, Mom, come on!” when it looked like mom had hooked up with another hapless Chinese official and was about to question him about the exact composition of the Revolutionary Committees, and could you please explain exactly what happened to the surplus grain profits, if any, and it was the Is the Basic Unit accounting method really the most efficient method for running an agricultural commune? While the eyes of the ‘Gang of Nineteen’ (as we call ourselves in the press pool) were glazed over by yet another bewildering recitation of the mus and catties of Chinese rice production, Mrs T’s were shining like stars.
At the end of another strenuous day touring communes and eating jellyfish, tree mushrooms and duck feet at yet another banquet in the Great Hall of the People, the entire Thatcher party and our ‘Gang of Nineteen’ were sunken-eyed with jet-black eyes. lateness and lack of sleep. She, on the other hand, was fresh as a daisy and, turning to me, said cheerfully, ‘Oh dear, tonight ends so early. I wish we could tour the factories that are open all night.’
In his heart of hearts, he still belonged to the cheap suburbs of his youth: catching a glimpse of cheap but well-packaged vegetables at a Beijing market stall, he happily yelled, ‘How wonderful, they’re like Sainsbury’s stewpacks!’
Two years later I found myself once again slinking in her blue-suited wake during the 1979 election that brought her to power, and once again I marveled at her resilience and her ability to absorb facts and regurgitate them with astonishing precision. There didn’t seem to be anything she wasn’t, by now, an expert at, from fake kneecaps to chocolate making to types of ironing board covers. Interrupting a woman ironing a garment in a factory, she enthused, ‘Oh, those ironing board covers are wonderful! You know, they come in two sizes, a large and a small, I have one of the small ones at home and you know in comparison to… ”Is her wife good at ironing?” I asked Denis. ‘My wife is good at everything she does!’ she growled herself.
Including (as he didn’t say) flirting. He liked men, preferably tall, young, and handsome ones like Cecil Parkinson and Michael Portillo. Frankly, she wasn’t much into most other women, especially doe-eyed journalists like me. I think she thought we were a bunch of cowards.
In that ’79 campaign, tour buses weren’t routinely equipped with onboard toilets, and having given birth the year before, my bladder wasn’t entirely stoic about having to spend hours out of reach of a public toilet. . I begged, ‘Mrs Thatcher, please, can we have more toilet stops? Sometimes I wonder if you vaporize things, like astronauts. But I can not. The iron-bladdered Iron Lady glared at me: ‘No one needs to go more than twice a day. I go first thing in the morning and last thing at night, and that’s enough!
She would always, over the years, comment on my not-so-flashy clothes: ‘What a beautiful color your jacket is, I have one like that!’ But she never wasted her high-octane flirtatious charms on people like me, perhaps mostly because she suspected us women knew her little tricks.
Especially his use of hand on elbow body language. A victim of the latter told me how it worked. “First she plays the tough, scary warrior queen and then when you’re really intimidated, she suddenly grabs your elbow, looks at you with those porcelain blue eyes and says ‘my darling’… and makes you feel like you.” You are the only man in the room who can bring out the feminine “little woman” in her. Trust me it works!
In fact it did. Over the years, I had watched her deploy her weapon from hand to elbow against dozens of initially recalcitrant men, from Zambia’s President Kenneth Kaunda to Mikhail Gorbachev to my own husband (who sincerely disliked her public image but who, at a party at No.10, received the hand-on-elbow treatment and was seduced almost instantly).
Interviewing her was a nightmare (as I once told her: ‘you’re the worst interviewee I’ve ever had, except maybe Imelda Marcos: asking Imelda or you a question is like throwing a stone into Niagara: it’s instantly washed away’). ). She once said to me: ‘My dear, please don’t interrupt me until she has explained the whole situation to you!’ Fine, except I asked her about the poll tax and her inapplicability, and she insisted on explaining the whole thing about Toronto’s garbage collection system.
No wonder his weak cabinet colleagues couldn’t take it anymore. But despite myself, I adored her and knew that the Tory Party had committed hari-kiri in driving her so cruelly out of it. The Tories continue to pay for that matricide today.