St Bride's: News - Peter Hopkirk Memorial

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St Bride's: News

Peter Hopkirk Memorial

On Thursday 22nd January, 2015, at 11:30am a service to celebrate the life of Peter Hopkirk, journalist and author, was held at St Bride's Church, Fleet Street.


The Revd Canon Dr Alison Joyce delivered the bidding:-

May I welcome you very warmly to St Bride's. 

We are here to honour the memory and to give thanks for the life of Peter Hopkirk: journalist, author and adventurer: a man who was charismatic, courageous, charming, and an inspiration to many. Today we give thanks for all that he has meant to us, and for all that he was.

An opening prayer by the priest and poet John Donne:

Bring us, O Lord, at our last awakening into the house and gate of heaven, to enter into that gate and dwell in that house where shall be no darkness nor dazzling, but one equal light; no noise nor silence, but one equal music; no fears nor hopes, but one equal possession: no ends nor beginnings, but one equal eternity in the habitations of your glory and dominion world without end.  



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Listen to Address: 

Denis Taylor

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One day in May 1958 a fresh-faced ITN reporter walked unguarded into the Algiers casbah. The war between the French and the Algerian rebels had been under way for three-and-a half years, but the journalist was not wearing a helmet or a flackjacket emblazoned with the word " PRESS ". Watching the 27-year old Peter Hopkirk in his lightweight suit stepping past a heavily veiled woman reminded me of a scene from an early James Bond film.

Two days before ITN had shown Peter's interview with Jacques Soustelle, mastermind of the Algerie Francaise insurrection against the Government in Paris, and at the time a supporter of General de Gaulle, who would soon be Prime Minister after 12 years in the wilderness.

In a complete contrast with today's television performers Peter - who, as one of Independent Television's first newscasters already had a fan club - was not the star. We saw the back of his head as he faced Soustelle and his aides seated behind an imposing desk. Peter's face was shown only intermittently when he asked a question. The cameras stayed on Soustelle, the man at the centre of what was then THE biggest foreign story. The interview went round the world.

Muslim lands were to play an important part in Peter's life. He once considered going to the School of Oriental and African Studies for formal training in Turkish and Arabic. Perhaps we were lucky that he did not do so. If he had been tethered to lectures and academic essays, would we have had his immensely readable volumes ?

He was inspired by the work of another Times correspondent, and like himself the son of a clergyman : John Buchan. Peter's was not a gung-ho view of the world, but as with the celebrated Scottish author, he was drawn to exotic times and places.

Peter was a Scot by descent and Scots have always been lured by far horizons. Uganda was his baptism of fire , doing his National Service as a second lieutenant in the King's Own African Rifles. When Major-General Idi Amin seized power 44 years ago this week, this rang a bell with Peter, now on The Times and in the London office when it happened " Amin, " he said. " I think he was in my platoon. "

He got on the phone to Kampala, trying to track down his old subordinate and still making the splash on January 26, 1971.

Peter had joined the paper from the Daily Express in 1966 How could he manage the transition from foot-in-the door reporter to " a gentleman from The Times? " He consulted Rita Marshall, who had made a similar move the year before. " Write exactly the same, darling, ", she told him. " Just make your paragraphs twice as long. "

Peter had worked for the Express in New York and remembered the competitive fear engendered by Lord Beaverbrook and his news editors. But Beaverbrook was LITERALLY to prove his saviour.

In 1961 he spent what he described " an unpleasant week " in a Cuban secret police cell accused of being a spy and heard fellow prisoners being taken out and shot. Beaverbrook worked through contacts in Mexico to get Peter out of jail and out of Castro's Cuba.

That was the most dangerous time of his life.

But there was another acutely perilous event to come.

In 1974 he was on a flight from Beirut, where he had once been arrested and given a hard time by his captors for crossing his legs and inadvertently showing the soles of his shoes, an insult in the Arab world.

This time his plane was hi-jacked by Palestinian terrorists. They doused the inside of the cabin with whisky and passengers feared it would be set alight.

Mercifully, this did not happen. The plane landed at Amsterdam. Peter reached the tarmac while armed police were converging on the aircraft. The Palestinians still had their guns and he managed to talk them into dropping their weapons.

Once inside the terminal, he got through to The Times foreign desk. " Tell my wife I'm alright ", he urged. At the other end of the line human feeling was trumped by news. " I'll put you through to copy ", was the response to his plea.

Appointed the paper's chief reporter Peter came into the office with passport and bag packed ready to be sent anywhere at a moment's notice . Such a position sometimes arouses envy. But in this case there was no resentment from the rest of the newsroom. He was too popular for that. He was also a generous mentor of new arrivals.

He worked hard on polishing his copy, particularly on getting exactly the right crisp intro.

Later he joined the foreign side of special reports. Some were inclined to disparage this outfit as purveyors of mere advertising supplements. But Peter proved otherwise and thought he had the best job on the paper.

Free from the daily new agenda he could travel to Sudan, Afghanistan and other countries in Africa and Asia, interviewing whom he liked. In a sense it was back to Buchan and the freewheeling reporting of an earlier era. And when a story did break, like the Turkish generals' overthrow of their elected government in 1980, he could provide instant analysis.

His new role gave him the time to seek out area specialists and museum curators in London, Berlin, Moscow or wherever his nose led him. He had more time to do research in his chosen area, the Muslim arc sweeping from the former Ottoman Empire in the Balkans to Chinese Turkestan, taking in Central Asia and therefore adding Russia and India.

Going to Afghanistan inspired him to write The Great Game, which President Najibullah, the last Soviet-backed ruler of Afghanistan, spent his final days translating into Persian in the belief that contemporary Afghans could still learn lessons from Peter's account of the Nineteenth Century Anglo-Russian Russian contest for Central Asia.

Peter used to say that drafting extended country profiles gave him the confidence to write books, which he began to do getting up at dawn before coming to the office, a bit like Trollope. Unlike most journalists, he rarely broke off for a proper lunch and although not a teetotaller I can never remember him joining the rest of us for a liquid one.

This parson's son was frugal, spending little on clothes and Polish-made shoes, but his was not an austere personality. He was an enthusiast who always seemed to be having fun and totally devoid of the cynicism for which his trade is famous. His boyish zest inevitably earned him the nickname Peter Pan.

I have a vivid memory of meeting him in the lobby of the Ottoman-era Pera Palace hotel in Istanbul, where the marble columns were pockmarked with bullet holes from an ancient shootout. He had travelled from London and I from Tehran. We almost shook hands, and then remembered we were British.

Asked how he was, he always answered : "Seriously well ! " As today is a celebration of his life, not a wake, that is how we should remember him.

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Listen to Address: 

Gail Pirkis

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Peter would never have written his six books on Great Power rivalry had it not been for his passion for collecting rare books. And very early on he learned that collecting could be as ferociously competitive as the Great Game itself, and almost as exciting. If you stood any chance at all of carrying off the real prizes you had to strike like lightning. So whenever a dealer’s catalogue landed on his doormat, he would rip open the envelope with one hand and reach for the phone with the other. Then he would feverishly race through the contents, desperately searching for hidden treasures. For he knew that the enemy, which was how he regarded rival collectors, was doing just the same. In those days his post often arrived at eight-thirty, before the dealer had arrived in his shop. So Peter would let the phone ring continuously, for half an hour if necessary, until it was answered, lest one of his rivals got there first.

But he didn’t just acquire his books through catalogues. During his long years of newspaper reporting abroad he ran to earth books in the second-hand shops of Istanbul, Jerusalem, Algiers, Belgrade, Tokyo, Peking, even Moscow. The resulting collection spanned Central Asia and the Caucasus, the Middle East and the Balkans, and included classic works of travel and exploration, history, war, diplomacy, politics, natural history, archaeology, memoirs and of course the Great Game between British India and Tsarist Russia.

It was this collection that he used as a personal research library when he began to write his own books. In his house in Parson’s Green two whole rooms were lined from floor to ceiling with books – James Abbott’s Narrative of a Journey from Heraut to Khiva, Sven Hedin’s My Life as an Explorer, Robert Shaw’s Visits to High Tartary, Yarkand and Kashgar, Aurel Stein’s Sand-buried Ruins of Khotan, Blacker’s On Secret Patrol in High Asia. The people who inhabited his books, the rivalries fought out more than a century ago, the epic journeys across steppe and mountain pass – they were all there in those rooms, in serried rows of buckram and fine morocco bindings, their gilded spines echoing the allure of Samarkand and Bokhara, Lhasa and Tashkent.

And from their pages Peter distilled six wonderful books, each meticulously researched, each written with a newspaperman’s verve, each conjuring up another world – one of espionage and danger, exploration and discovery, murder and intrigue. This was marvellous history, brought to life with great skill and an unerring eye for a story. Here is Peter, following in the tracks of a young British army officer:

Had one been travelling through northern Baluchistan in the spring of 1810, one might have observed a small party of armed men mounted on camels leaving the remote oasis village of Nushki and making for the Afghan frontier. Ahead of them in the distance, vivid sheets of lightning lit up the blackened sky, while now and again in the surrounding mountains the rumble of thunder could be heard. A heavy storm seemed imminent, and instinctively the riders drew their cloaks about them as they headed into the desert.

One of the men stood out from the others, his skin being noticeably lighter than that of his companions. They believed him to be a Tartar horse-dealer, for that is what he had told them, and never having seen one before they had no reason to doubt him. He had hired them to escort him though the dangerous, bandit-infested country lying between Nushki and the ancient walled city of Herat, 400 miles to the north-west, on the Afghan-Persian frontier. There, the fair-complexioned one explained, he hoped to purchase horses for his rich Hindu master in far-off India. For Herat was one of the great caravan towns of Central Asia, and especially renowned for its horses. It also happened to be of considerable interest to those responsible for the defence of British India.

For Peter, history was a living thing, and when you read his books you are there with Charles Stoddart and Arthur Connolly kneeling in the dust in the great square before the Emir’s palace in Bokhara, facing execution. With Francis Younghusband in the Hindu Kush you climb up a zigzag path towards a fortress perched on the top of a near vertical cliff, uncertain of the reception that is awaiting you at the top. With Aurel Stein you unearth Buddhist frescoes that have not seen the light of day for a thousand years and you face the scouring winds and the scorching temperatures of the Taklamakan.

Peter himself had an air of Central Asia about him. He would sweep into the John Murray office at No. 50 Albemarle Street in an enormous white coat, as if he has just that minute arrived from the distant steppe. He was in some ways a man of mystery too, a Greenmantle on the loose. He always carried a small portable radio suspended on a string round his neck and permanently tuned to the World Service, as if news of the outbreak of a war in a distant land might require immediate action from him. He told tales of being imprisoned in a foreign jail, of being arrested as a spy in Cuba, or being hijacked in the Middle East, and they were all true.

To the occasional discomfort of his publishers he sometimes carried this sense of mystery and secrecy to extremes. It was impossible to get hold of him on the phone. You had to ring and leave a message, and he’s call you back from a location that was never disclosed. Indeed I often half-wondered if he worked for the Secret Service.

As a writer he was a perfectionist. He wrote every book on a manual typewriter, and once the first round of editing had been completed he would retype every page and produce a pristine new copy. Indeed some editorial comments prompted a complete revision of an entire chapter or even, as happened with The Great Game, the entire book.

He wanted to see every stage of proof and would not rest until all was right. I still remember with some pain a phone call from him at 10 o’clock on a Sunday night about the position of a comma. And though I and my colleagues at John Murray, his publishing house, were very fond of him, he did drive us all to distraction over the design of each book jacket. A rough would be prepared by the designer and Peter would then show it to his friends, or so he always claimed. Miraculously the friends always agreed with him that yes, the rough simply would not do, and the designer would have to start all over again. The jacket for Foreign Devils on the Silk Road had to be reprinted three times before Peter was satisfied with its colour.

It is perhaps a truism that all really good writers have to be difficult in some way, that to create an pearl you need some grit in the oyster, but Peter, though maddening at times, was also supremely generous with his time and his knowledge. The list of young writers whom he encouraged in one way or another is a very long one, and I as a publisher will never forget his willingness to help in reissuing some of the Central Asian classics.

I think he was always young at heart, still the highly impressionable, romantically minded schoolboy who at the age of thirteen discovered the world of Rudyard Kipling’s Kim and was introduced to the likes of Colonel Creighton, Mahbub Ali and Lurgan Sahib. They were the subject of his last book, Quest for Kim. So let us leave him there, with Kim and the lama as they sit in the mango grove just as night is beginning to fall, their journey complete. Kipling ended his first draft of Kim thus:

He crossed his hands on his lap, as a man may who has gone through the Valley of the Shadow and knows what is beyond.

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Listen to Address: 

Gabriela Hopkirk

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You have heard from Denis and Gail of their memories of working with Peter over the years.

It is with great pride that I now stand here before you to provide you with some further insights into the life and times of my incredible grandfather.

Unfortunately, I was not blessed with his wordsmith genes. So I am going to use his words to provide you with these further insights.

In writing about how his heroes moulded and directed his life he said,

“It was their combined inspiration which made me eager to follow them and embark on an adventurous and exciting life and career albeit of my own choosing. For the world of their day had now gone forever. In no way could one attempt to emulate the exploits of Fitzroy Maclean, Colonel Bailey or T.E. Lawrence not to mention the fictional ones of Richard Hannay or Sandy Arbuthnot in Greenmantle who together formed my pantheon of heroes.

But it was this eagerness for adventure that drew me to the King’s African Rifles as an eighteen-year-old subaltern for it sounded both exotic and exciting, as indeed it proved to be.

For a wonderful year and a half, in the deserts of Somaliland and Northern Kenya, I enjoyed a Lawrence of Arabia lifestyle, living among nomadic tribes, camels, sandstorms, palm fringed oases, scorpions and ferocious heat.

I am not sure whether my fellow officers saw it quite that way, but to me it was almost too good to be true, and the next best thing to playing the Great Game. Moreover, I was being paid for being there.

But where could I possibly find such adventures and excitement back at home, I wondered anxiously as my King’s African Rifles days drew to an end. Certainly banking, teaching, accountancy or law would not provide them. Nor, in peacetime would the British Army.

Then, just as I was beginning to lose heart and resign myself to a nine-to-five life in the city, the answer suddenly came to me….

I would become a newspaper reporter, I decided. Or better still a foreign correspondent somewhere where there were lots of exciting things going on, perhaps even a war or two. It was not quite Fitzroy Maclean or Richard Hannay, but it was the next best thing.

Not for nothing, I reasoned, was Fleet Street known as “The Street of Adventure”.

So it was, that I embarked on a career in which I was to spend the next thirty five years in daily pursuit, not of the wily shifta, but of the news.

It was to take me to a hundred countries on five continents-more even than Richard Hannay and Sandy Arbuthnot had been to on their wild adventures.

It was also, more than once, to land me in serious trouble.
And at the height of the Cold War it provided a privileged entrée to the day-to-day unfolding of history, with all its dramas and crises.
Also as an early ITN reporter in the late 1950s, I frequently met face-to-face many of the world’s leaders and other prominent figures.

But all that was merely my day-job. For what little spare time I had was devoted to a quite different pursuit, one moreover which was to become a passion at times almost as exciting as the pursuit of the news.” Gail has succinctly and eloquently spoken of this. From his writing I thought however you might appreciate an insight into his book carrying ways.

If I do not carry a book with me I feel most uncomfortable, like forgetting to shave or clean my teeth. This almost obsessive dependence goes back to the days when I was a very young reporter on a London News Agency, where two-ex RAF radio operators listened in, around the clock, to the three emergency services wave lengths tipping off our news desk whenever they picked up anything newsworthy.

Between stories, we reporters sat around in cafes ringing in from a call-box every half hour.

Without a good book to occupy me, all this waiting for the next story to break would have been soul-destroying, for sometimes a whole morning would pass without anything happening.

The obsessive need always to have a book with me has remained with me ever since, which is how I happened to have a copy of Kim with me in my Cuban secret police cell”.

Another insight on book carrying I would like to share with you is as follows:

“When I was young I dreamed that one day I might write a book which the adventurous would want to carry with them when travelling in these regions. Imagine the joy I felt many years later when Hugh Pope, who covered Turkey and central Asia for the Independent and more recently the Wall Street Journal wrote to me saying “As you must know, your books are carried like bibles by foreign correspondents now working in this region”.

“I did not know this; though such words from a reporter of his calibre and experience mean more to me than fifty good reviews.”

Peter continuously paid tribute to the tireless and selfless assistance that Kath gave to him.

He often said and wrote,

“One reason why travellers find my books particularly user-friendly is because of the very thorough way they were indexed by my wife Kath, enabling them to look up whatever place they find themselves in and then read in graphic detail about the extraordinary events which once occurred there”.

Unfortunately time does not permit me to share any further insights or indeed talk about his unquantifiable legacies such as his gift of a collection of nearly 2000 books to the highly esteemed Bilkent University in Ankara.

Or indeed the great inspiration that he gave to others.

I will however ask you to pay tribute on behalf of my grandfather to all of his heroes. To all explorers both past and present. And To all reporters who put their lives at risk every day in pursuit of the news.


Elizabeth Hopkirk read Psalm 46

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46 God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.

Therefore will not we fear, though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea;

Though the waters thereof roar and be troubled, though the mountains shake with the swelling thereof. Selah.

There is a river, the streams whereof shall make glad the city of God, the holy place of the tabernacles of the most High.

God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved: God shall help her, and that right early.

The heathen raged, the kingdoms were moved: he uttered his voice, the earth melted.

The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah.

Come, behold the works of the Lord, what desolations he hath made in the earth.

He maketh wars to cease unto the end of the earth; he breaketh the bow, and cutteth the spear in sunder; he burneth the chariot in the fire.

10 Be still, and know that I am God: I will be exalted among the heathen, I will be exalted in the earth.

11 The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.

James Hopkirk read Eastern Approaches & The Great Game by Sir Fitzroy Maclean & Peter Hopkirk

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There were many literary influences on my father’s life and work - Greenmantle, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Kim - but perhaps the single most significant was Sir Fitzroy Maclean's Eastern Approaches. In the acknowledgements for The Great Game, Dad wrote:

“Many years ago, when a subaltern of 19, I read Fitzroy Maclean’s classic work of Central Asian travel, Eastern Approaches.

This heady tale of high adventure and politics set in the Caucasus and Turkestan during the darkest years of Stalinist rule, had a powerful effect on me, and no doubt on many others.

From that moment onwards I devoured everything I could lay hands on dealing with Central Asia, and as soon as it was opened to foreigners I began to travel there.

Thus, if only indirectly, Sir Fitzroy is partly responsible – some might say to blame – for the six books, including this latest one, which I have myself written on Central Asia.

I therefore owe him a considerable debt of gratitude for first setting my footsteps in the direction of Tbilisi and Tashkent, Kashgar and Khotan.

No finer book than Eastern Approaches has yet been written about Central Asia, and even today I cannot pick it up without a frisson of excitement.”

What Dad learnt from Sir Fitzroy, and from his many years as a reporter, was the need to grab your reader by the lapels from the off – and never let go. This, he taught me, was as true for fiction, non-fiction and journalism.

When I was a child, Dad would often read to me the first few paragraphs of Eastern Approaches – both to teach me the power of a strong intro, but also for the sheer joy of it.

In his later years, with failing eyesight, our roles were reversed, as he would ask me and other visitors to read it to him. These 184 words gave him inordinate pleasure throughout his life.

“Slowly gathering speed, the long train pulled out of the Gare du Nord.

The friends who had come to see me off waved and started to turn away; the coaches jolted as they passed over the points, and the bottles of mineral water by the window clinked gently one against the other.

Soon we had left the dingy grey suburbs of Paris behind us and were running smoothly through the rainswept landscape of northern France.

Night was falling and in my compartment it was nearly dark. I did not switch on the light at once, but sat looking out at the muddy fields and dripping woods.

I was on my way to Moscow, and, from Moscow, I was going, if it was humanly possible, to the Caucasus and Central Asia, to Tashkent, Bokhara and Samarkand.

Already, as I watched that drab, sodden countryside rushing past the window, I saw in my imagination the jagged mountains of Georgia, the golden deserts, the green oases and the sunlit domes and minarets of Turkestan.

Suddenly, as I sat there in the half light, I felt enormously excited.”

The final extract I want to read to you this morning is one of Dad’s own – the prologue from The Great Game. It is a gripping and gruesome opening - that I look forward to reading to my own son one day.

On a June morning in 1842, in the Central Asian town of Bokhara, two ragged figures could be seen kneeling in the dust in the great square before the Emir’s palace.

Their arms were tied tightly behind their backs, and they were in a pitiful condition. Filthy and half-starved, their bodies were covered with sores, their hair, beards and clothes alive with lice.

Not far away were two freshly dug graves.

Looking on in silence was a small crowd of Bokharans. Normally executions attracted little attention in this remote, and still medieval, caravan town, for under the Emir’s vicious and despotic rule they were all too frequent. But this one was different. The two men kneeling in the blazing midday sun at the executioner’s feet were British officers.

For months they had been kept by the Emir in a dark, stinking pit beneath the mud-built citadel with rats and other vermin as their sole companions.

The two men – Colonel Charles Stoddart and Captain Arthur Conolly – were about to face death together, 4,000 miles from home, at a spot where today foreign tourists step down from their Russian buses, unaware of what once happened there.

Stoddart and Conolly were to pay the price of engaging in a highly dangerous game – the Great Game, as it became known to those who risked their necks playing it.

Ironically, it was Conolly himself who had first coined the phrase, although it was Kipling who was to immortalise it many years later in his novel Kim.

The first of the two men to die on that June morning, while his friend looked on, was Stoddart. He had been sent to Bokhara by the East India Company to try to forge an alliance with the Emir against the Russians, whose advance into Central Asia was giving rise to fears about their future intentions. But things had gone badly wrong.

When Conolly, who had volunteered to try to obtain his brother officer’s freedom, reached Bokhara, he too had ended up in the Emir’s grim dungeon.

Moments after Stoddart’s beheading, Conolly was also dispatched, and today the two men’s remains lie, together with the Emir’s many other victims, in a grisly and long-forgotten graveyard somewhere beneath the square.

Stoddart and Conollly were merely two of the many officers and explorers, both British and Russian, who over the best part of a century took part in the Great Game, and whose adventures and misadventures while so engaged form the narrative of this book.

The vast chessboard on which this shadowy struggle for political ascendancy took place stretched from the snow-capped Caucasus in the west, across the great deserts and mountain ranges of Central Asia, to Chinese Turkestan and Tibet in the east.

The ultimate prize, or so it was feared in London and Calcutta, and fervently hoped by ambitious Russian officers serving in Asia, was British India.”


hopkirk2.jpgThe choir & organist of St Bride's performed the following anthems and songs:-

Locus Iste - Bruckner

O Quam Gloriosum - Victoria

Sanctus from Requiem - Fauré

The Trumpet Shall Sound from Messiah - Handel


Praise, my soul, the King of heaven

The King of love my Shepherd is

Immortal, Invisible, God only Wise


The Times

Radio Free Europe - Qishloq Ovozi

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