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A note on the great Ann Leslie.
‘I tell you where you should go, Suzanne — Chechnya. It's fantastic. You can smoke everywhere there. You can smoke in an operating theatre in Chechnya.’
I will never forget the great Dame Ann Leslie, who has died aged 82, telling me that. We were somewhere in Soho in a fug of cigarettes; later we ended up in a leather bar. Ann said she would fit in fine there, as her “Hendon flash” took her everywhere.
You can read the official obits and lists of her achievements in all the papers, but today I want to celebrate a complex and clever woman that I am delighted to have encountered.
She covered every major event and war, and really did write the first draft of history. She hung out with Salvador Dali, Muhammad Ali and Margaret Thatcher, to name but a few, and smuggled herself into Iran and Zimbabwe. She was endlessly curious about how the world worked and, of course, she was supernaturally brave. Some poor soul from the Daily Mail was ordered to get in contact with her when she was covering the Balkan War, to see if she wanted a bulletproof vest. ‘No, darling,’ came her response. ‘But can someone pick up my dry cleaning?’
She was so fabulous and funny. I can’t pretend to have known her well, but the little I did makes me want to write this.
We met in the 90s in a TV studio, the first time of many that we were set up to argue in public. I was of “the left” and she of “the right,” though in her case such classifications were totally reductive. I was terrified of her, obviously, until I got over my shock and awe. That process began when the runner came to tell us to go down to make-up, and she said in her deep, deep voice: ‘Look at me: can I get any more make up on?!’
There was no adequate response to this, apart from agreeing: she already had on false lashes and everything…
I just adored her. We were expected to be at each other’s throats over the issues of the day —monogamy was one such, I recall — but we actually got on brilliantly. She really wasn’t one for sentiment. But she was for truth, always truth, however hard that was.
My mother was dying at the time and, while most people never mentioned that, for fear of saying the wrong thing, Ann simply said: ‘I wish my mother would die.’
What a huge life she lived. Who else would drop into convo, ‘My friend, the Serbian warlord…’ or get themselves involved in a voodoo ceremony in Haiti in the hope of a cure for a bad back? The fags and booze had to go in the end, but she never lost her cutting edge.
You can get a glimpse of her soul by listening to her wonderful 2004 Desert Island Discs.
She grew up in India and had a passion for both Ravi Shankar and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (I remember how upset she was to hear of Nusrat’s death). She chose Strange Fruit, too, and talked of all the corpses she had seen in her decades as a foreign correspondent. The fallen sparrows. The anonymous dead.
For all her apparent “hardness,” her choice of devotional music (she also included Gregorio Allegri’s Miserere) revealed a depth she masked with clever barbs and Lady Bracknellish grandeur. She may have pretended not to care, even about her own life, but care she undoubtedly did. That is what drove her to risk so much to report the world in all its vast complication.
We bumped into each other once at a political party conference. ‘Ann!’ I said. ‘I didn’t know you still had to go to this kind of thing?’
‘I am here as the editor’s Geisha,’ she informed me, dry as a bone.
What an immense person she was.
Go well, Ann. When I get to Chechnya, I’ll spark one up for you, I promise.