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Posts Tagged ‘virginia cowles’

Anne Sebba

The recent success of Finds’ reissue of Virginia Cowles’ Looking for Trouble gives us a chance to spotlight another of Anne Sebba’s titles that we are fortunate to have on our list and which should be read in tandem with Cowles – that book is Battling for News: Women Reporters from the Risorgimento to Tiananmen Square. Originally published in 1994, it offers a terrific history of the gendered division of labour in the business of reporting from frontlines and battlefields – from the age when a female war correspondent was rated no better than an ill-equipped hindrance, to the slow grudging tolerance of women writers as exponents of ‘human interest’ in wartime, to our present day, when female war reporters have proved their fortitude and perspicacity under all kinds of fire. Virginia Cowles is seen by Anne as a mould-breaker in this regard, alongside other such luminaries as Clare Hollingworth and Martha Gellhorn. In a good piece about her time at Reuters available at Anne’s own website, she writes of how Maggie O’Kane of the Guardian told her “that the reporters she worked with in Bosnia were far too busy staying alive to worry about what gender their colleagues were. O’Kane’s brilliant style of war reporting, echoing Martha Gellhorn before her, may focus on children in orphanages, young girls satisfying soldiers as prostitutes or women scavenging for food – stories once demeaningly referred to as ‘soft news’ are now not simply regarded as the norm, but often as the only news that really matters…”
I asked Anne what she thought the passage of time since the book’s original appearance had shown us about how the woman war reporter is now perceived. She answered me thus:
“‘Battling for News’ was published just as the war in former Yugoslavia was changing the way we thought about women reporters – because the nature of warfare itself was changing so dramatically. Today more women than men graduate from media courses, and just as many women as men want to report wars. But there are still certain taboos about where to send a woman, especially if she’s a mother. Is that sensible or mad? Is it to protect the woman reporter or to protect the soldiers she is writing about? This is more relevant than ever in Afghanistan, since one of the key issues around the war is about allowing Afghan women to be treated fairly and, at the very least, given an education. Do women have a greater interest in reporting these issues than men?”
Readers interested in exploring more about this subject are recommended to look at the work of Afghan journalist Farida Nekzad, who offers some unnerving stories about her working days in this online piece (scroll down). Anne Sebba’s Battling for News is available to order from Finds, and comes highly recommended.

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Virginia Cowles

The TLS also cites as one of the Best of 2010 the Finds reissue of Virginia Cowles’ Looking For Trouble, which has undoubtedly deserved its glowing reviews, capturing as it does the extraordinary experiences of an intrepid and perspicacious war correspondent who witnessed some of the most momentous scenes of what Auden famously characterised as a ‘low dishonest decade.’ It’s Rachel Polonsky who’s picked Cowles for the TLS, noting that she ‘observes the political monstrosities of late 1930s Europe with unforced moral clarity and singular wit.’
Caroline Moorhead’s excellent Spectator review of Looking for Trouble offers a good gauge of Cowles’ range and accomplishment. As Moorhead notes, “When in London, she went to Chartwell to see Churchill. In Nuremberg, she was part of a very small group to have tea with Hitler, Himmler, Göring, Heydrich and Goebbels. She dined with Duff Cooper, during Chamberlain’s ‘peace with honour’ period, who told her that he might not have resigned from the Cabinet had Chamberlain returned from Munich saying ‘peace with terrible, unmitigated, unparalleled dishonour’. Bold, tenacious and tireless, she made the most of her introductions. Air Marshal Italo Balbo took her flying in a two-seater plane over Tripoli. Mussolini gave her an interview the week he launched his attack on Abyssinia…”
The Daily Mail also ran a generous review of our Finds edition, and there is this fine notice too from Janine di Giovanni in the British Journalism Review. John Julius Norwich, who knew and ‘rather fell in love with’ Cowles, offers his own splendid tribute to her on the main Finds site.

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