Obituary: Nora Beloff
Saturday 15 February 1997
She worked in Paris after the Second World War for Reuters, the Economist and the Observer, and went on to become the political correspondent, and later an international roving reporter, for the Observer, covering the world, Washington as well as Moscow and Belgrade.
She belonged to a generation in which women needed to be brighter and more fearless than male rivals for plum jobs. Her obvious qualifications did not always make her friends amongst her male colleagues, whose arguments she tended to dismiss as "nonsense!" And some of her many distinguished political and diplomatic contacts flinched when she came on the telephone to bend their ears. She was incapable of allowing a sloppy thought to slip past without a challenge.
Nora Beloff was the third of the five children her emigre Russian-Jewish parents produced and brought up in Britain. Her father traded in chemicals in what is now part of Belarus; her mother was a graduate of the University of St Petersburg. The couple left Russia for England in 1909 to further the husband's business interests and changed their name from Rabinovich to Beloff. They did not attempt to disguise their origin, but they did want a short name the English could recognise and remember.
They never became fully at home in the English language, but their business enterprises prospered and they founded a brilliant dynasty. Their eldest child, Max, created an independent university and was ennobled. Another became Professor of Psychology at Edinburgh, a daughter became a headmistress, and another married a future Nobel prizewinner for chemistry. The following generation produced, among others, Michael Beloff QC.
Nora was born in 1919, and went to King Alfred's School, a progressive co-educational establishment, before reading History at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, where she graduated in 1940. During the war she worked for Political Intelligence at the Foreign Office and joined the British Embassy in Paris after the liberation of France. She left the diplomatic service in 1945 to join Reuters.
She had always asked questions as a child and been chastised for it. As a journalist, she found she was actually being paid to ask questions. Her time with Reuters was not happy: her bureau chief was an enthusiastic Gaullist, which Beloff was not, but she learned the essentials of her trade: how to get news and how to write it in a lively, readable way.
Her typing, however, remained rudimentary. She hammered her machines as if intending to destroy them, but produced coded messages only she could decipher. While a foreign correspondent she wrote the last drafts of her stories on the phone, dictating to skilled, knowledgeable copytakers. She continued to do this while covering politics in London.
She made her name during the Algerian war (1954-62), when she wrote well- informed, hard-hitting features about the torture of the women rebels Djamila Boupacha and Djamila Bouhired by French paratroops. She left France, before de Gaulle returned to power in 1968, travelled the world, and then took on Westminster and British national politics, as the Observer's political correspondent (1964-76). With the support of her editor, David Astor, she exposed the extreme left of the Labour Party in the left-of-centre Observer, which also backed Edward Heath with his battle with the trade unions. Beloff was at heart a Conservative. She was not religious.
She did not get on well with Astor's successor, Donald Trelford, and after a final quarrel with him in 1978 left the paper she had served for 30 years.
She did not, however, stop asking questions and continued to bombard her many contacts with letters and telephone calls. Her final years were concentrated on the tragedy of Yugoslavia and what she called "the avoidable war". Typically, she chose an unpopular line of argument and sought to prove that the Serbs were not the villains they had been made out to be. She argued that the international media, especially television, were incapable of getting at the truth. She defended her version of the truth with her customary energy and courage. She abandoned the book she had set out to write on Yugoslavia and concentrated on trying to influence the world's policy-makers.
Nora Beloff devoted most of her life to journalism but, in 1977, when she was 58, she married Clifford Makins, the legendary sports editor of the Observer, who died in 1990. She had no children of her own, but is remembered by her nieces and nephews as "a marvellous aunt" who kept the various branches of the family in touch with each other. Her books reflect her interests, assignments and the awkward questions which never dried up.
Nora Beloff, author and journalist: born 24 January 1919; correspondent in Paris, Washington, Moscow, Brussels, Observer 1948-78, Political Correspondent 1964-76; books include The General Says No 1963, The Transit of Britain 1973, Freedom under Foot 1976, No Travel Like Russian Travel 1979, Tito's Flawed Legacy: Yugoslavia and the West 1939-84; married 1977 Clifford Makins (died 1990); died 12 February 1997.
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