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
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The Independent Online
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."