The first thing Hella Pick wants to do post lockdown is go to the hairdresser, she tells me with a short laugh. We are speaking on Zoom, and as she apologises about the state of her hair, she pats a few strands, revealing slender fingers bejewelled with stylish, chunky gold rings.
At almost 92, the former Guardian journalist and writer has spent much of the last year writing her memoir, Invisible Walls. Having that focus during this time has been a saving grace, she says, revealing the faintest trace of an accent, a remnant of her early childhood in Vienna. “Every morning, I would settle down to writing and try to forget what was going on in the world.” She has also just recorded the audio version of the book, an experience she relished. “The idea of having some normal working relations —being in a studio with a producer. It was really such a release.”
But events could have been very different. In late 2019, arriving at a friend’s house for dinner, Pick lost her balance going up the front steps, falling backwards, breaking a few ribs, her pelvis and her neck. “November 11 is a date I will never forget,” she says. Recovery took several weeks, first in hospital followed by a period of rehabilitation. She thinks her impatience to return to work on her book aided her recuperation. “I decided I had to finish it. And there was no doubt that being locked up helped, as I had nothing else to do.”
Pick’s career began with a stint on the weekly London-based publication, West Africa, before moving to the Guardian in 1961 where she worked for almost 35 years as one of its first female foreign correspondents and later as a diplomatic editor. She was UN correspondent and held posts in Washington and Eastern Europe, covering many of the major global events that shaped the 20th century from the Cuban Missile Crisis and the American civil rights movement to Watergate and the end of the Cold War. In 2000, she received a CBE for services to journalism.
She has been referred to as a trailblazer for women in journalism. Does she agree? “Well, to some extent I was, but perhaps not enough of one,” she says. “I didn’t do enough. I could have involved myself much more with the other women [journalists] who were emerging. They were far more active than I was in getting together, promoting the work of women and gaining a kind of equal status, which I think women journalists now have, more or less.”
Invisible Walls chronicles Pick’s extraordinary professional life and is full of anecdotes, such as when she somehow stumbled and fell into J F Kennedy’s arms at a party. “A rather nice accident! At least I’d seen him face to face and shoulder to shoulder!” But she also writes about the long-term impact of being a child refugee.
Pick came to England from Vienna on the Kindertransport in 1939, shortly before her 11th birthday. She was sent to live in the Lake District, where her mother joined her a few months later, having found employment as a cook — her parents had divorced when she was three. After Austria was annexed in March 1938, her father emigrated to America. She never saw him again.
Pick readily admits that, despite achieving professional success, the refugee feeling of not quite belonging has never left her. “I cannot free myself from the need for reassurance, even when I am receiving public praise,” she writes. “It’s an open prison from which I have not found the key to escape. I am confined by invisible walls.”
That deep sense of insecurity has, she says, shaped much of her life, often to her disadvantage, in her personal life and relationships. “To [some degree], I owe my career to it — my constant need to prove myself to the world, and to myself. I think, inevitably, it’s linked to being uprooted as a small child.”
Pick’s memories of her early life are scant, including being reunited with her mother. “One of the worst things about writing this book is it forced me to accept, more than I ever had before, that I have such a blank about it.” She has a vague memory of her arrival at Liverpool Street station, she says, and reconstructed a little of what she could remember from postcards she had sent her mother in Vienna. “But it saddens me that it’s so dim. I’ve allowed the trauma to remain buried and the big question is why I didn’t make the effort to understand — which I can’t answer. In some ways, I’ve always regretted that I haven’t sat on that couch,” she says, smiling. “It’s too late now, so I just have to accept that it clearly must have been a huge shock. How could it not?”
Pick’s working life was exciting and fulfilling. She was driven by a curiosity about politics and world affairs, ignited by a degree in political science at the LSE. But work was also a great escape — her way of dealing with unresolved questions of exile and identity, of keeping the past firmly buried, as well as a release from her mother with whom she had a loving but difficult relationship. “Her love was very possessive and very one-sided. She was a highly intelligent woman and yet she never quite understood what was driving me. She never could forgive me for [not being married] and thought I would only be happy in a marriage with children. And I think she was right,” she says with surprising candour. “If you ask me what have I most missed in life, unquestionably it’s not having a family. But, at the same time, I can’t say I’ve been unhappy.”
Pick’s various roles led her to meet and interview many major political leaders and she singles out Polish journalist and former prime minister, Mieczysław Rakowski as among the most memorable. Another key figure was the former German Chancellor, Willy Brandt. For Pick, visiting Austria had never been problematic — she later acquired dual nationality — but for a long time, her feelings towards Germany were more complex. “[Brandt]influenced me in my attitude towards Germany and set me thinking about what it was to be Jewish as well as a Kindertransport child and refugee. It triggered a rethink of who I was.” They remained good friends until he died in 1992.
When Pick retired from the Guardian 1996, she was devastated. “I knew it had to come but I couldn’t face up to it. I really wasn’t ready. I thought I was as energetic, as curious, as hard-working as I’d ever been. And suddenly, to realise that — as my editor (Alan Rusbridger) of the time put it: ‘You’re older than most of our readers’ — was a blow. And I was absolutely terrified of somehow being retired into old age. I wanted to go on working and I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life sitting around twiddling my thumbs.”
A second career beckoned which included writing two books: a biography of the Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal and Guilty Victim: Austria from the Holocaust to Haider. Pick then went on to work at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a think tank, set up by another close friend, the publisher George Weidenfeld. He was a great influence on her Jewish identity. “What appealed to me about George was that he was a very conscious Jew, who was also completely secular. As well as his work fighting antisemitism, I learnt about finding security in being Jewish. All of that drew me closer to the Jewish community and [pride] in being a Jew.”
Brexit has unsettled Pick. “Suddenly I feel this country is no longer the country that I thought it was. This turning away from Europe doesn’t speak to me. You strive for an entire life to be fully accepted, to finally cast off that sense of insecurity and then you find yourself living in a society where you are losing any sort of common thread. I feel Britain is essentially forgetting that its past and its present are tied up with Europe, and there is [such] a cultural affinity. It’s a huge loss.”
Journalism has changed hugely from when Pick started out. “Social media makes so much of a difference that I can’t even begin to discuss it,” she says. “I think the one permanent factor you need as a professional journalist is to know how to distinguish fact from opinion and you must have an understanding of the issues you’re writing about.” Our time is almost up but before Pick goes, I ask if it’s strange to be an interviewee. “All my insecurities are there, I can promise you!” But, she adds with a glint in her eye, “I must have my hair done before this book comes out!”
Invisible Walls: A Journalist in Search of Her Life (Weidenfeld and Nicolson) is published on March 18.
Hella Pick will be in conversation with Dr Bea Lewkowicz on March 22
ajr.org.uk/event/ and on March 23 with journalist Anne McElvoy, as part of Insiders/Outsiders www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/invisible-walls-by-hella-pick-tickets-142704106825