Martha Gellhorn, 88, files her last war report - from Wales

One of the world's great reporters tells Tim Minogue why she revisited some survivors of the miners' strike

Veteran American war correspondent Martha Gellhorn, survivor of 10 major conflicts - not including three marriages, one of which was to Ernest Hemingway - has filed her last story. Offered the chance by the BBC to report on any subject she wished for a new series of foreign writers' views of Britain, Gellhorn, 88, chose to revisit the scene of her last major piece of front-line reporting - the South Wales village, Newbridge, where she watched the miners' strike of 1984-85 unfold.

Although physically fit apart from a touch of arthritis and mentally more than a match for anyone 50 years her junior, Gellhorn has been partially sighted since a "botched" cataract operation five years ago. On a desk in her uncluttered London flat, with a great view across the rooftops to the Kensington museums which she can no longer see, sits her portable manual typewriter, untouched.

Thirteen years ago, she says, when she first visited the Welsh miners, "I had no notion of age at all". But that was when she was a mere 75. She will be 90 next year and at last, she says, "I've noticed it. I've been writing on a manual typewriter all my life but now I can't see. I can't start dictating now." So she will not be writing any more. "Radio is easy enough, you just listen and talk, but I'd never master the technical bits. I'm too old," she says matter-of-factly.

One does not get that impression from A View From Abroad (today, 11.45am, Radio 4). Nor does it seem ironic, coming from Martha Gellhorn, for an 88-year-old to say that her first impression, on revisiting people up to 50 years younger, was of how much they had all aged.

She once said she had no time for "all that objectivity shit". The reporter's job, she says, is simple: "To limit yourself to what you see and hear and not suppress or invent. I can't do an abstract piece about industrial relations. I can only go see a bunch of people, listen to what they have to say, look at how they are living and report that exactly." That was what she did when she reported on the impact of civil war on the "good people" of Spain in the Thirties, on D-Day, at the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp and in Vietnam. She wrote about war as the tragedy of civilians and ordinary soldiers caught up in the follies of generals and politicians, and she speaks about the miners' strike in the same way

"In 1984 I was living in Wales in a cottage, watching it on telly, with increasing indignation. The police looked as I had never seen British cops before - the helmets, the long shields and batons, the black uniforms, like stormtroopers. As the cameras were behind the cops it always looked as if the miners were attacking, which was ridiculous - they were bare- headed, in tee-shirts and sneakers ... they were getting a terrible beating.

"I saw it as a war with two generals - Mrs Thatcher, ruthless and clever, and Mr Scargill, a fool. Then came the day when Thatcher used that really disgusting phrase, 'the Enemy Within'. So I went. It was exactly like a war: they were fighting for their territory, their community. They said 'if the mine closes, the village dies'. Mrs Thatcher had all the money and the power of the state against these people who took home something like pounds 100 a week.

"Eventually, of course, they lost. So when the BBC asked me to take part in this series I thought I would like to see if anything or anybody was left.

"My first thought was that they all looked terribly old. The women, who had been in stout, blooming middle-age seemed 100 years old, yet they were only 60 or so. Many of the men had died of lung disease. Still the people were spirited. But the town now has everything going: youth unemployment, crime, vandalism, drugs. They were right, the sense of a community is gone.

"We all know about history being re-written, but in Wales history has been turfed over. This place had a mine every block, it was solid coal; now there's no sign there ever were mines here. lt's a most extraordinary example of how history can be erased.

"There was something about the camaraderie of the miners, the dependence of one man upon another, which is not found in factory life. It's a tough and dangerous job, but they knew how to do it and had the guts to do it. lt gave them a solidarity in the way a man in a good infantry company has complete belief in his comrades."

Although Gellhorn, who has lived in France, Cuba, Mexico, Italy and Kenya, has based herself in Britain for many years, she still views this country through American eyes. She hates the snobbery of Tories who refuse to see working people as 'real' people. Special loathing is reserved for Margaret Thatcher. "She made a revolution in this country and I think it was an evil one. Her kind of lower middle-class conservatives hate the working class. They are like the white tenant farmers in the US South, the white trash, who need someone to look down on, so they look down on the blacks."

Despite having reported for more than 60 years on the tragedies of ordinary people caught up in conflicts, Gellhorn remains an optimist. She was immensely bucked by 1 May: "Since the election there is some hope that humanity will come back into government in this country. I was delighted to hear Robin Cook say he would try to conduct an ethical foreign policy. The word 'ethical' had not been used by a minister for 18 years. That cheered me up a great deal."

Susan Sarandon described David Bowie as
peopleSusan Sarandon reveals more on her David Bowie romance
Arsenal supporters gather for a recent ‘fan party’ in New Jersey
sportDidier Drogba returns to Chelsea on one-year deal
Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Life and Style
Balmain's autumn/winter 2014 campaign, shot by Mario Sorrenti and featuring Binx Walton, Cara Delevingne, Jourdan Dunn, Ysaunny Brito, Issa Lish and Kayla Scott
fashionHow Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film
filmFifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral outrage in US
BBC broadcaster and presenter Evan Davis, who will be taking over from Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight
peopleForget Paxman - what will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Life and Style
fashionCustomer complained about the visibly protruding ribs
The new dawn heralded by George Osborne has yet to rise
voicesJames Moore: As the Tories rub their hands together, the average voter will be asking why they're not getting a piece of the action
Dejan Lovren celebrates scoring for Southampton although the goal was later credited to Adam Lallana
newsComedy club forced to apologise as maggots eating a dead pigeon fall out of air-conditioning
Arts and Entertainment
Jo Brand says she's mellowed a lot
tvJo Brand says shows encourage people to laugh at the vulnerable
Life and Style
People may feel that they're procrastinating by watching TV in the evening
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

£600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

Commercial Litigation Associate

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - GLOBAL...

Systems Manager - Dynamics AX

£65000 - £75000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: The client is a...

Service Delivery Manager (Software Development, Testing)

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A well-established software house ba...

Day In a Page

Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

Finding the names for America’s shame

The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

Inside a church for Born Again Christians

As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

Incredible survival story of David Tovey

Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little