OBITUARY: Kenneth Matthews
Friday 13 January 1995
Kenneth Matthews was the first of the BBC's corps of foreign correspondents and the author of a dozen books ranging from philosophy through translations from Greek and Slovene to international affairs and chess. He wrote with wit and clarity.
In 1943 the BBC's European Service sent Matthews to Cairo to cover the Balkans and the Middle East. He was instructed to "find out who Tito is, if there is such a person". One branch of British Intelligence had decided that "Tito" was the initials of a revolutionary organisation. There was a rumour that Tito was a woman. The Middle East Command smuggled Matthews into German-occupied Yugoslavia to join the partisans and he was the first Western journalist to interview Tito.
Shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War Matthews had been recruited as a Greek expert by the Joint Broadcasting Committee, an independent body sponsored by the Foreign Office to provide recorded programmes for clandestine distribution in enemy countries and for use in neutral and friendly countries. The BBC was distrustful of the JBC, of which Guy Burgess was a member. After the declaration of war its Transcription Service took over the JBC and Matthews joined the BBC staff.
The non-religious son of a Methodist minister, he went up to Peterhouse, Cambridge, with a major scholarship in Classics and graduated with a First in Philosophy. He then went cycling round Greece and met his first wife, Ruth Davis. His knowledge of modern Greek derived from his time teaching at a prestigious Greek boarding school on the island of Spetsai. In his book Greek Salad (1935), he gave a light-hearted account of trying to teach the boys to play cricket. His second wife, Lydia Zwitter, was a Slovene; their only child, Dusha, is now married to the Provost of King's College, Cambridge.
After the war Matthews sent vivid reports of the first War Crimes trials at Nuremberg before again becoming the BBC's Balkans correspondent and covering the Greek civil war. In October 1948 he was captured by a Communist armed band at Mycenae and held prisoner in the Peloponnese for 16 days. The guerrillas were hoping, vainly, to get favourable BBC publicity.
A year earlier the trussed body of George Polk, CBS's Middle East correspondent, had been found in Salonika harbour. When Matthews was reported missing there were fears that he might have suffered a similar fate. The relief at his safe return was tempered when it emerged that he had not only gone into guerrilla-held territory voluntarily but also in the company of a female colleague from the JBC. On both scores Matthews's BBC bosses were outraged. George Barnes, the newly created and oddly designated Director of the Spoken Word, sent him to the BBC equivalent of the salt-mines. For several years he was limited to the preparation of obituaries. O tempora, o mores.
Eventually Matthews was allowed to resume broadcasting. He went to Brazil and was stranded in the jungle, where he encountered the naked tribes of the Xingu River. His book Brazilian Interior (1956) tells the fascinating story.
Matthews was then transferred to television news at Alexandra Palace and for four years provided incisive news commentaries on foreign affairs. In the late 1950s he grew tired of commuting a hundred miles from his home in Suffolk, or of spending days on end in London. He moved to Norwich to take charge of the BBC's new Regional News office. He retired in 1968 - to broadcast about one of his favourite pastimes: chess. He went to Belgrade to cover, on radio, the chess championship of the world.
Kenneth Matthews had great charm of manner, but was not gregarious. He was by nature romantic and solitary. His books are a pleasure to read and he was delighted when he was elected to a Fellowship of the Royal Society of Literature.
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