Serious intent: Laurie Taylor interviews Isabel Hilton
Acclaimed journalist Isabel Hilton talks to Laurie Taylor about China, democracy, dictatorships and her passion to represent those at the bottom of the heap
I found I was worrying about the sandwiches. Were they sufficiently adventurous for my lunchtime guest? It had said Italian pecorino and Tuscan sundried tomato on the label but when you thought about it that really boiled down to nothing much more than good old cheese and tomato. And what about the precise arrangement of the sandwiches on the serving plate? Two neat triangles or a simple no-nonsense slice straight down the middle? It's as though I were having the Queen to lunch, I thought as I caught myself fiddling with the folds in the paper napkins. Isabel Hilton can have that sort of effect upon people. There's a calm, elegant assurance about her which suggests ever so slightly that she doesn't so much attend events as grace them with her presence.
I wondered whether it was her upbringing that inspired such composure. Where was she born? What was her family like? "I was born in Edinburgh and brought up in rural Aberdeenshire. My father was the local doctor". So, a very stolid respectable upbringing. "I'm not sure stolid is quite right. Rural Aberdeenshire could be a rather wild place. Most of my father's patients were up impossible tracks and who knows what went on at the end of those tracks. I remember a man turning up on New Year's Day at my father's surgery and saying 'I have an awfa sore heed, doctor'. And he took off his cap and he had a bullet wound right in the middle of his forehead. We wondered why he wasn't dead. It seemed his skull had been so hard that the bullet had simply flattened against it and skidded off elsewhere. Who'd shot him? Oh, one of his friends. During the farmers shoot on New Year's Day."
How many other children were there apart from you? "There were four of us." And your mother? Interested in the arts? "Oh yes. My mother was passionate about literature. Thirty years after, she could still recite great swathes of things she had learned in high school and she certainly imparted the attitude that we were all expected to do things with our lives."
And what about religion? "We wore it pretty lightly. We were technically Episcopalian, the Scottish equivalent of the Church of England but 99.9 per cent of the village was Scots Presbyterian. So on a Sunday morning there would be a tramp of feet going past our house all the way down to one end of the village. But at the other end of the village the traffic was very much lighter. Sometimes hardly anyone but ourselves going to the Pisky church. My mother, I subsequently discovered, was totally against any church because she had been brought up in the Church of England and when she had her second child she was told that she couldn't go back to church until she had been properly 'churched', until she'd gone through the almost forgotten ceremony of cleansing the impurity of childbirth. She was so indignant at the idea that childbirth was an impure activity that she never went back. She became a strange mixture. A sort of militant anti-Catholic agnostic." Anti-Catholic? "That was her Protestant Scots-Irish ancestry."
I was beginning to get the picture, or at least the picture I wanted to confirm my view, that Isabel's family background must have provided her with a great deal of the confidence she now exuded. I imagined long winter evenings in the doctor's house in rural Aberdeenshire with the family sitting around a roaring fire reading or playing cards: an almost Victorian setting with a strong emphasis upon self-improvement. "Well, yes, there was a roaring fire and a lot of reading and card playing. It was very cold and everyone did sit in that one room."
There was never any doubt that you would go to university? "Oh no. I was certainly going to university. In so far as I had an academic strength it seemed to be in learning languages and I was always being told to learn more of them. In those days when people told you that I think they had it in mind that you would get a superior secretarial job if you spoke more languages." You now speak four other languages? "Yes. Chinese, Spanish, French and German."
But what was the real impetus behind her desire to learn languages? It must have been something more than the promise of secretarial advancement. "Yes, there was a psychological element, the sense that you are unsettled where you are and are willing to consider being somebody else and somewhere else. By that time we'd moved to Bradford, where my father had taken up a job as public health officer because he'd been ill for a year with TB and found the pressure of single practice too hard. At the age of 17, forgive me, Bradford, I was absolutely desperate not to be in Bradford. I wanted to be in France or Spain, and to be able to speak French and Spanish was wonderful. If you can speak a language properly you enter into a different relationship with its culture and its people."
So she'd studied French and Spanish at university? "No. I went to Edinburgh University to do French and Spanish but then I had a year in the States in the middle of Ohio on a scholarship. I was quite bored there academically, and so I started to teach myself Chinese." Just like that? "Yes. I couldn't imagine what a non-alphabetic non-European language was like. I couldn't picture it. I couldn't get a map of it."
But weren't there other things that could have occupied the mind of a teenage girl? Something a little less precocious? Were there no liaisons or romantic indiscretions? "There were plenty of teenage indiscretions but the opportunity in Ohio was limited. The work was not academically interesting and the social condition of the American teenager was more infantilised than the Brits."
That makes her sound so serious. And at such an early age. "Well, yes, I am serious. My idea of hell would be to live somewhere comfortable where no one ever talked about anything serious." So she must find a great deal about the present cultural world in Britain pretty superficial? "There are great swathes of it that I ignore. I no longer read the tabloids and I watch almost no television because I don't see the point. I don't find it amusing or entertaining. I find the culture of global capitalism far too manipulative. I think it really is infantilising people – that word again – we are, as in the title of that book by Neil Postman, amusing ourselves to death".
There can't have been much time at Edinburgh University for frivolity. Back then their degree in Chinese involved both classical and modern Chinese. Apart from learning two syntaxes Isabel also had to become familiar with Chinese literature. Indeed, when she finally went to China to complete her studies, she was supposed to be studying literature. But her timing was completely off. "When I got there in 1973 nearly all literature had been banned by Mao. All classical literature was out of the question and most 20th century literature was banned." Mao was burning the books? "Mao was burning the scholars. He used to boast that whereas the Emperor who united China had only burned 300 scholars, he had killed far more. In China then it was Year Zero, culturally. Mao had been marginalised because his previous escapade, the Great Leap Forward, had resulted in the death by starvation of 30 million people. But he didn't like being on the side so to get back he had to destroy the Party. He did so by mobilising all the young people to attack the old culture, all the 'reactionary elements' in China. And that included its vast cultural heritage."
There was, I remind her, currently a new interest in the figure of Mao, much of it prompted by the publication of Jung Chang and Jon Halliday's Mao: The Unknown Story. What was her own opinion? She had after all been to China many times since that first visit in 1973, and reported bravely on so many of the effects of the cultural revolution and its aftermath. Did she have any respect for what Mao was trying to create in the so-called People's Republic? "I think he was making it up. I think that Mao thrived on disorder and that is why he would never let China rest. Through most of his career China was at war and he managed to create this myth around himself because he was utterly ruthless and single minded and people who are ruthless and single minded tend to go a very long way. And whenever the rest of the leadership united around the thought that Mao should be put on one side, he would create chaos and disorder to get his power back."
At the time, had she been surprised by how some in the west had supported the Cultural Revolution, been eager to call themselves Maoists? "Oh yes. In Western Europe it was felt to be a licensing of student disorder. It was much approved of in Paris in '68 and that was what made for a very funny episode in the early 70s when the Chinese began to send students abroad in order to put their shattered education system back together. So, it was announced that four or five Maoist students would be going to Paris to study. This threw them all into a great tizz. Here were genuine Maoist students coming to their university and the staff felt their own Maoism was on the line. They must do something to live up to those students. So, they produced the most Maoist of lectures they could contrive. They deconstructed the classrooms and de-authoritised the lecturer. And then the students came in, took out sharpened pencils, wrote the date at the top of the page, and then waited for the lecturer to tell them what to write. But he simply stood there refusing to tell them anything."
But would she want to say that the people of China were any happier under Mao than they were now? She had after all only recently published a long article in Granta called "Made in China" which specifically compared her own experience of factory life in China thirty years ago with the industrial landscape that had been ushered in by the new market economy. In structural and cultural terms the change could hardly have been more dramatic.
"The old lessons of the Marxist canon that I originally went to learn – the solidarity of the workers, the possibility of unalienated labour, the dignity of labour – have long since been discarded by the same state that once declared them its central conviction." In their place had come an industrial landscape whose degrading conditions made her feel a little of what Engels felt when he described Victorian Manchester.
"It's not quite fair to compare the industrial revolution to the many political revolutions that China has experienced in the 20th century. But the last 100 years have been pretty hard going. That's why we can forget that for long periods of time elsewhere in history you could have been reporting on a wonderful country where people were on the whole enjoying more prosperity and a much more advanced state of civilisation than they were in Europe. What worries me now is that there has not been any political revolution to go with the industrial revolution and that means that the people continue to suffer from a degree of arbitrary tyranny and continued political oppression. The problem is that the domination of the Communist Party has written so much out of history that it is forgotten that China once had a democracy."
As Hilton has written elsewhere the curious Chinese schoolchild will look in vain in any available books for an account of China's invasion of Tibet in 1959, or the war against Vietnam in 1979 which cost 50,000 Chinese lives, or the 1978 "Democracy Wall" in Beijing, or the events in Tiananmen Square in 1989.
I have the sense when Isabel is talking so movingly about what has happened in China in the 20th century that she is mourning the loss of what first came to matter to her when she began her studies in Chinese at Edinburgh University. She freely admits that back then she was in love with traditional Chinese culture, with the excitement of reading individual poets from the seventh and eighth century Ti'ang dynasty. "Wonderful poetry", she calls it. To write this out of history is appalling barbarism. And she finds a more recent example of the desecration of a unique heritage, the destruction of Beijing, a city that was the highest expression of a culture and a way of life has vanished under concrete. What pig-headed ideology had begun, globalisation had finished.
It occurs to me that if Isabel had arrived in Beijing in 1973 for her postgraduate studies and found the sort of China that, say Marco Polo knew, she might never have embarked on a career as a foreign correspondent, but contented herself with a life analysing the country's traditional literature. But that is to ignore her self-confessed radicalism. Would she describe herself as a socialist? "No, I never belonged to a political party, although I was blacklisted by the BBC back in the days when MI5 used to license journalism in this country. I was blacklisted because I had been secretary of the Scotland/China Association, a frightfully respectable organisation full of ex-missionaries. I only found out eight years later and was absolutely outraged because by then I had been up and down Latin America and had very unpleasant encounters with secret policemen, and the idea that anything resembling that could happen back in Blighty was a shock. I was outraged."
What then, if not a socialist? "I think I'm a kind of traditional liberal. A democrat. I think I have a quite simple belief that if you are lucky enough to get to go to places and write about them, then you have an obligation never to lose the perspective of the people at the bottom of the heap. Throughout my career I have met people who have survived appalling situations with decency and humanity and courage. I have probably seen more dictatorships than anyone should and they are a great test of character. They are tests that many people fail."
Wasn't this to play down her own bravery? Simply to read her Granta story was to realise the huge chances she had to take to get her story.
"It always makes me slightly uncomfortable when people try to glamourise the danger. The danger is to the people who are involved in the dispute: the danger is always to the people you are reporting on and not to yourself. Although when you have children you acquire a fear which is not to do with your own apprehensions and immortality but to do with being someone's mother. I remember one of the most terrifying times was during the first attempt to hold an election in Haiti after the fall of Baby Doc. I was four months pregnant and we were stopped at a roadblock by Ton Ton Macoute. They got us out of the car and one of them raised a machete which is their way of dispatching people. And I had this absurd idea that because I was pregnant I couldn't be chopped up with a machete. Somehow that saw me through and when I went back the following February quite visibly pregnant, all the people who had been there on the previous occasion said 'how does it feel to have had your baby felt by the Ton Ton Macoute while it was still in the womb?' But what resulted from the pregnancy was an extremely serene little girl who didn't seem to mind at all."
Perhaps her life will be a little safer now that she has taken up her post as the editor of the online political discussion site openDemocracy. What was it that appealed to her about the job? "Well, I've been a reader since it started and it's quite a challenge to create something which tries to maintain a global conversation. It makes sense for me particularly because I have been trying to bring back messages from out there for most of my career. And now instead of bringing back messages it's exciting to think of starting a direct conversation."
Weren't there any problems nowadays in trying to sell democracy? Hadn't the Americans got there first on that one and thoroughly contaminated the water? "Well, the problem with the present Bush administration is that they have told so many outrageous lies that it is quite hard to believe anything they say. There are maybe people in that administration who imagine they are exporting democracy but they are deluded, because if you want to export democracy that is not the way to do it." So you're going to have to spend some time saying that we approve of this type of democracy but not this type? "We will try to deliver the democratic message without the missile strike, since at the moment we don't have our own armed response unit."
My time is up and yet I've hardly touched on all the years that Isabel Hilton spent covering dangerous Latin American stories during the Reagan administration, an experience which was to make her deeply suspicious of all American foreign policy. Neither have I talked to her about her book on Tibet, The Search for the Panchem Lama, or her forthcoming volume on Cuba. But if we didn't stop now there would be no time for her to enjoy her cheese and tomato sandwiches.
She accepts one of my carefully cut triangles and declines a second. I thank her for her time. She politely reciprocates. "Well, goodbye," she says and leans forward and kisses me on the cheek. My feeling of having been somehow honoured doesn't wear off until teatime.