Killing My Own Snakes, By Ann Leslie

Adventures on the front line with the Dame of journalism
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The Independent Culture

On the rare occasions when I find myself in a war zone or some abandoned scrap of misery far from home, I try to live by one rule: what would Ann Leslie do? Should I drive towards the fighting? Ann Leslie would. Should I bluff my way into the camp and try to interview the rebel leader, even though he is a mass murderer? Ann Leslie would. Should I run away now? Ann Leslie would never – never – do that.

Along with Robert Fisk and John Pilger, Ann Leslie is the iconic foreign correspondent of her time. A story early in her autobiography distils her public persona into one perfect image. On the trail of heroin traffickers in the Mexican badlands, "As I trudged up the hill, a band of moustachioed trafficantes leapt... from behind the cactuses, aiming their ancient Lee-Enfield rifles at me. Then they suddenly stopped in astonishment: nobody, absolutely nobody, had ever come trudging up their gun-bristled hill wearing white gloves, a white-and-yellow Horricks frock, and carrying a white handbag."

That's the Leslie of legend: Middle England woman in a war zone; Hyacinth Bucket finagling her way into the company of mass murderers. But beneath this impossible construct, there is a darker, more dazzling figure: a daughter of the Raj, all-but-abandoned by her mother, who fought through a tide of misogyny to the top of Fleet Street. Almost all journalistic memoirs amount to nothing more than the stodgy dough of old anecdotes and old office politics. The exceptions are rare: Claud Cockburn's In Time of Trouble, Max Hastings's Editor, and Andrew Marr's My Trade. Leslie's book leaps into this list – because it teases out the woman beneath the bravery.

She was born in Rawalpindi – then in India – in 1941 to an oilman father, and spent her early childhood skipping through Basra and the Raj. Her mother was living proof of the need for feminism: an extremely intelligent woman, "considered a beauty and a wit", barred from pursuing a career simply by her gender. She slowly curdled with boredom, and seems to have resented her children. She sent Ann to boarding school at the age of four to be pickled in loneliness and boredom.

The only person who seems to have given Leslie a sense of love was the family's chief servant, Yah Mohammed, whom she adored. The first boy she fell in love with – a Karachi teenager called Sohail – committed suicide soon after. She ended up in a "Talibanic" convent school, a "ghastly, cold, damp mausoleum in the Peak District". She made it to Oxford – and tripped into journalism by accident when it was the only job offering a decent wage during the end-of-year "milk round".

She was plunged into the icy pond of the Daily Express office in Manchester– where she was deemed to be "depriving a good man of a job". So she fought – all the way into the macho world of foreign reporting. The story of how this happened is studded with the best pound-for-pound anecdotes you'll find anywhere. She tells how Salvador Dali flashed at her and the Manson Family nearly poisoned her; she recounts the time she slugged Mohammed Ali in the chin and danced on the Berlin Wall as it crumbled; she takes us from the killing fields of Bosnia to the nation-sized gulag of North Korea. But the book never descends into the drizzle of old news – because it is underpinned by a blunt exploration of her psyche. Why did she tramp through the guerrilla camps of Rhodesia, holding her machine gun over her pregnancy bump? What drove her on?

I vehemently disagree with many of Leslie's political views, but she is more liberal than her stereotype suggests. She is scornful of religion, soft on drugs, and disgusted by homophobia. It is impossible not to respect the fact that she has managed for decades to smuggle these views – and world-class journalism – into the Daily Mail.

Killing My Own Snakes clears away the haze of nostalgia that surrounds the old Fleet Street – it sounds like a haven of alcoholic misogynists – but it is a lament nonetheless. At a time when journalists are ever-more pressured to see the world through Google, Leslie's career is a testament to the narcotic of running towards the fire and seeing the story for yourself. If you want your teenage daughter to spend her life in the world's war zones, just buy her this book and sit back. Even somebody like me, who vociferously opposes the honours system, can look at Ann Leslie and say: now, that's a Dame.