Remembering Dame Ann Leslie by Julia Langdon

3 July, 2023

One of the things that distinguished Ann Leslie from the common herd of journalists of our age was just exactly that. She was never a member of any herd.

It meant that on any story where Fleet Street’s finest were to be found in massed expectation, all carefully keeping the competition under scrutiny, Ann would always be somewhere else.

She didn’t worry about what the others were up to. She wasn’t anxious about missing the story that everybody else was writing. She went out and found the story for herself and she would beat the opposition every which way.

She’d be in the taxi with the key player when the herd was still trying to hire cars. She was resourceful and fast-thinking and, most importantly, she was also fearless, so she didn’t need the safety of the herd. She might turn up at the presidential press conference, but only because she had already nabbed the president’s main minion earlier, filed the story – and also fixed with the fixer to be called for a question, just to give her piece a newsy nose.

She could talk her way out of trouble and into anything. She had the tradecraft of the trained spy and could pass herself off as anybody. She was quick and clever and she had that rat-like cunning which Nick Tomalin so memorably defined as one of the three primary requisites of a competent journalist.

So mostly she’d be off on her own, dressed up to the nines if that was going to get her past the goons on the gate, or dressed down to the dowdy if today’s game was going to be avoiding unwanted attention Not that Ann ever did dowdy, of course. She could put on a headscarf and leave off the lipstick, but she still looked a million dollars as soon as she flashed those eyes.

She didn’t often remove her nail varnish. But did it matter? I saw her entrance starving children at a Mother Teresa’s hospice by making her scarlet fingernails dance for their delight. It seems incongruous, an affront even – and yet it brought smiles, a moment of happiness. And I have never known anyone who could type as fast as she could with nails as long as hers.

Her skill as a reporter – and it was being a reporter that mattered to her – was that she related whatever it was that she was writing about to the commonplace. She could explain a war or a riot or a revolution by telling her readers what it meant to the person on the street in Moscow or Manila or Maputo. So she got out there, found a translator, got on to the streets of wherever she was and talked to the men and women – particularly the women – who could help her put the human perspective into her reporting.

She could do that because she also possessed Nick Tomalin’s second necessity for a successful journalist. She had a plausible manner. She was friendly and sympathetic and people would naturally want to talk to her and confide in her and tell her their stories and give her the colour with which she so enriched her stories.

I seem to have known her for ever but we became close when covering the famine in Ethiopia nearly 40 years ago. Circumstances obliged us to share a room in some sort of garden shack in the grounds of the British embassy and she was so feisty and funny about everything, despite the heart-rending horror on which we were reporting, that we became friends for life.

She wasn’t a feminist, but she wasn’t “one of the boys” either. She enjoyed her femininity and used it whenever she could to get her way, to get her story, to get someone to do what she wanted. She couldn’t be bothered to waste her time with feminist issues because she just got on with it and proved that she was better than the blokes by doing so. Times change; Ann didn’t. That was just the way she was. She would tease me because we disagreed – about feminism, about politics, abut all sorts – but we would always end up laughing and that was good because really the one thing that she couldn’t stand was anyone being boring.

And Ann was never boring. Life was fun and she made it funnier. Like so many others, I would feel my heart lift when I learned that Ann was in town – only to sink, of course,  a moment later at the thought of the story she would be filing when the time came. Nick Tomalin’s third journalistic requirement was “a little literary ability” and Ann didn’t have a little – she had a lot. But I still loved her. I can’t bear it that she’s gone.