Obituary: Harry Hodgkinson
Tuesday 04 October 1994
HARRY HODGKINSON was a great Balkanist and friend of Albania, and a distinguished travel writer. In a long and varied life he was also an intelligence officer, Liberal Party ideologue and oil company executive.
He was born of strong Liberal farming stock in Lancashire, and showed early academic promise, winning a scholarship at the age of nine to Kirkham Grammar School. After leaving school at the age of 16, he became a cub reporter on a local newspaper, then graduated to the Blackpool Times, which he later described as 'a decrepit newspaper founded by my great- uncle as a Liberal witness in Tory Blackpool'. After it went bankrupt in 1933, he joined the Bradford Telegraph until moving to London in 1937 for a full-time job at the Liberal Party headquarters.
But Hodgkinson's horizons were wider than those of many of his contemporaries, and he became an obsessive traveller in all the Balkan countries. In 1936 he walked from Charing Cross to Damascus Gate in Jerusalem. He visited the Albania of King Zog in 1937, fell in love with the country immediately, and joined the Anglo-Albanian Association on his return to England.
As a result, he met the great pioneering ethnologist Edith Durham, author of The Struggle for Scutari (1904) and High Albania (1909), then in the final years of her life, and began to form social and political contacts with Albanians, and the Albanian government itself, that were to prove invaluable to the British government in the post-war period. Hodgkinson's basic outlook on Balkan politics was formed at this time, and throughout his life he fought for the Albanian cause and took up strong anti-Serb and anti-Bulgarian positions. He was part of the circle of King Zog when he fled to London, and of his exiled court near Pangbourne in the Thames valley.
On the outbreak of the Second World War Hodgkinson first joined the Palace of Westminster Home Guard, then the Navy in 1942 after a course in wireless telegraphy. With the collapse of Mussolini's regime in Italy he was transferred to Special Operations Executive in the Adriatic at Bari HQ, and operated in Yugoslavia and Albania during and after the German occupation, and was mentioned in despatches. He returned to England for a short period before the 1945 General Election and acted as editor of the Liberal campaign manifesto, but soon returned to the Navy and took charge of the Yugoslav and Albanian desk for Naval Intelligence. He was closely involved in the protracted political controversy and legal proceedings that followed the Corfu Channel incident in October 1946 when Royal Navy ships were blown up by mines between Corfu and the Albanian coast.
Hodgkinson left the Navy in 1955 and joined Shell-Mex, in charge of business intelligence, and acted as Secretary for the UK Petroleum Advisory Committee. In the same year, he published The Adriatic Sea, one of the finest travel books of the period, a distillation of over 20 years' travel, wartime, and intelligence experience. It is much more than a travel book, more a reflection on a beloved country in the tradition of an Edith Durham or a Patrick Leigh Fermor, full of brilliant observation mediated by deep learning, love of the sea, and inner passion for landscapes described.
After his retirement in 1972 he devoted most of his time to the Anglo-Albanian Association, acting as a generous friend and adviser in countless refugee cases with people on the run from Enver Hoxha's dictatorship in Albania, then later, from Serbian occupation of the Republic of Kosovo in former Yugoslavia. Hodgkinson was a warm, hospitable and cheerful man, with a sharp wit, and he consistently encouraged the younger generation in London, even when he did not share their views. People from every background found a visit to his tiny, gloomy, bookladen house tucked away near Regent's Park a memorable experience, with the inevitable smoked salmon sandwiches and large glasses of Isle of Jura malt.
He had foreseen the disintegration of Yugoslavia long before the foreign policy establishment in Britain, and was not slow to point out the years of fatal ignorance of Balkan realities in official circles that has led to so many tragic policy errors. Although strongly pro-Europe personally, he had no illusions about the role of the European Community in the Balkan crisis, or the fatal complacency the Maastricht process had engendered in Foreign Office thinking about the region.
In the last year of his life he was working towards the unification of the disparate groups of Albanianists in Britain, a task he considered urgent in order to assist the struggle for the freedom of Kosovo, a cause that was perhaps closest to his heart of any that he supported. He bore his last illness with characteristic humour, dignity and stoicism, his final instruction to his friends being to bring him adequate quantities of champagne to speed his passing.
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