Obituary: Tanya Matthews

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The Independent Culture
OVER FOUR decades, Tanya Matthews was the Voice of the BBC from Tunis, filing daily reports for the BBC African Service from her beautiful Moorish house in the Tunis suburb of Sidi Bou Said.

Her style was pure idiosyncrasy: despatches written long-hand, often on the backs of envelopes, and delivered in emphatic and slightly over- enunciated English (reflecting her Russian roots) down the telephone line to the World Service in London. Her subject was Tunisia, in all its aspects but especially the scandal and intrigue at the "court" of President Habib Bourguiba, one of Africa's longest-serving leaders.

Indeed, it was Bourguiba who provided Matthews with her greatest "scoop", for she was the first to report the coup which ended his increasingly erratic rule in 1987. In typical fashion, she had received an early morning call from an old Tunisian girlfriend in Paris telling her, "Get to work, you have a new regime!" Two years earlier, Matthews had had an equally notable success: she was the first journalist inside the PLO compound near Tunis after it had been bombed by Israeli jets.

Tanya Matthews began life as Tatiana Borissova in the Chechen capital, Grozny, in 1913. She married young, to a revolutionary cameraman. They fled to Moscow after she got into trouble with the KGB. It was there that she met and fell in love with the British correspondent Ronnie Matthews. She divorced her husband and fled Russia in 1944 with her new British spouse and baby son, Christopher, but she was forced to leave Anna, the daughter from her first marriage, behind.

The couple made their way to Paris where, having fallen on hard times, Tanya played the casinos to keep the family afloat. Ronnie encouraged her to write and her two-volume autobiography, Russian Child and Russian Wife in 1949 - the first account of life inside Stalin's Russia - and Russian Wife Goes West (1955), made quite a stir. In London, Ronnie was recruited by the BBC and sent in the late Fifties to Tunis to cover the Algerian war of independence. When Ronnie died in Tunis in 1966, it was to Tanya - by this time with formidable local contacts and knowledge - that the BBC African Service looked to be its reporter.

Tanya Matthews's journalism was pure and simple, with no holds barred. Any other foreign reporter would have been expelled for writing half as much as she got away with. Only she could describe Tunisia as a police state without being bundled on to the first plane. But she was smart - she had an amazing network of influential friends to discourage any rash move by the authorities.

It wasn't unusual to go to dinner with her and find yourself in the company of a dozen or more ambassadors; she collected them. She counted local politicians at the heart of power among her friends too: she had taught many of them English when they were younger. When she was knocked over and hurt by a Tunisian policemen, it was a government minister who rushed to her hospital bedside with a bouquet of flowers almost as large as himself.

Matthews wasn't always easy to work with; she was ferociously competitive, even with her BBC colleagues. She wouldn't speak to me for days after the Tunisian prime minister rescheduled a joint interview. I had been unable to reach her to tell her about the new time because she was out playing golf. She didn't believe I had tried because I was "obviously intent on an exclusive!"

The competitiveness found another outlet in the golf, which she took up in her sixties and became a passion every bit as strong as journalism. She was a familiar sight hacking her way through the dust mounds that pass for a golf course in Tunis every afternoon, invariably giving the ball some "unnatural" propulsion towards the hole.

Before golf there had been table tennis. Apparently, she was an outstanding player in her youth in the Caucasus. She delighted in thrashing her ambassador friends until one day the Chinese ambassador challenged her to play his young companion. He turned out to be a member of the national youth squad. Matthews, for once, was speechless.

She was stunningly attractive as a younger woman and extremely elegant in old age. She was a working journalist to the very end. Although in poor health for some time, and despite an operation which had affected her voice, she continued to send her reports by phone to London. Only a few weeks before her death, she sent a despatch relating how she had got her greatest scoop, the coup against Bourguiba. There seemed to be no reason for her to file it at the time; but, fortunately it had been recorded and on the day she died, the BBC African Service broadcast the piece on its evening transmission. She would have liked that.

Tatiana Svetlova Borissova (Tania Matthews), journalist and author: born Grozny, Russia 31 August 1913; MBE 1997; twice married (one son, one daughter, and one adopted son); died Tunis 3 March 1999.