March 2008

Encounters

Shane Maloney and Chris Grosz

John Pilger & Martha Gellhorn

Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

Martha Gellhorn wrote many things during her remarkable 60-year career. Reports on living conditions in the mine and mill towns of Depression-era America. Newspaper despatches from battlefronts as far-flung as Spain, Finland, Java and El Salvador. Trenchant and prophetic observations on the rise of fascism. Eyewitness accounts of wars, insurrections, revolutions and invasions. Novels, collections of short stories, travelogues and autobiography.

In 1975, she wrote a "fan letter" to a stranger she saw on television. He was a 35-year-old Australian journalist named John Pilger. Gellhorn had chanced upon an interview in which Pilger was copping a mauling for his first book, The Last Day, an eyewitness account of the hasty American retreat from Saigon. Personally acquainted with the reception often given to the bearers of unpalatable news, she promptly went out and bought the book. Judging it fine, she wrote to Pilger to tell him so.

Pilger, it transpired, owed his introduction to Indochina to Gellhorn. Eight years earlier, her articles on the horrors being unleashed on Vietnam's civilians had prompted Pilger's editor at the Daily Mirror to send him to cover the war. Pilger found Gellhorn's fan mail "moving", but it was another three years before the two inveterate travellers were to meet. In 1978, following the screening of Pilger's documentary Do You Remember Vietnam?, they finally sat down together.

Gellhorn kept a flat, a court of sorts, in London's Cadogan Square. As a young Midwesterner in Paris, she'd modelled for Chanel and Schiaparelli, and she retained a slim, striking elegance that must have contrasted to the lanky Aussie with fiercely independent hair. Over a bottle of Famous Grouse, they talked about "the struggle of memory against organised forgetting", agreeing furiously on almost everything. The exception was Palestine. Gellhorn was one of the first journalists to enter Dachau and her adherence to Israel was unqualified. Pilger steered around the subject and the two became good friends.

Strongly adverse to "the kitchen of life", the former Mrs Ernest Hemingway was a terrible cook. On subsequent visits, Pilger took food. Sometimes they would stroll in the park, talking surfing and snorkelling between denouncing the vileness of Kissinger. An incorrigible smoker, Gellhorn once got them thrown out of Selfridges for lighting up.

Martha Gellhorn was still reporting in her eighties, travelling to Panama in the wake of the American invasion and interviewing street kids in the favelas of Brazil. She died of cancer in 1998. John Pilger continues to annoy the buggery out of his critics.

Shane Maloney and Chris Grosz

Shane Maloney is a writer and the author of the award-winning Murray Whelan series of crime novels. His 'Encounters', illustrated by Chris Grosz, have been published in a collection, Australian Encounters.

Chris Grosz is a book illustrator, painter and political cartoonist. He has illustrated newspapers and magazines such as the Age, the Bulletin and Time.

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