Essex: An adventure abroad – and Israel: right or wrong?

MEMOIRS sometimes promise the earth but turn out as dull as ditchwater. Not Walter Schwarz’s. From the time his family fled Austria in the late 1930s, anticipating the Nazi threat, his life was marked by travel and adventure – along with the accompanying emotional highs and lows. Determined to sidestep traps such as the mundane office job, he yearned to become a foreign correspondent. And he did.

As Nigeria began to disintegrate, Walter was the first resident British correspondent to be deported from a Commonwealth country – something that prompted a question in the House of Commons. Worse, he spent 11 days in a Biafran jail, sharing a corridor with convicted killers. The journalist went on to drink whisky with Pakistan’s President Bhutto, and interview Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and Israel’s Moshe Dayan – although that last encounter was ruined because Walter had inadvertently eaten hash cakes and was stoned...

He once found a loaded pistol in his daughter’s toy box, hidden by a Nobel Prize-winning writer who later used it to hold up a Nigeria radio station, forcing it to broadcast the truth about a rigged election.

Walter enjoyed a foreign correspondent’s life in the days before CNN and the world wide web, when copy was dictated over crackly phone lines or had to depend on a remote cable office to get through.

His book doesn’t just concentrate on triumphs and scrapes in journalism, however. Woven into the tapestry is a parallel account of a colourful domestic life with wife Dorothy and their five children – not to mention dogs, horses and, latterly, 20-odd parrots. Walter doesn’t flinch in hanging out the kind of dirty washing most folk would rather hide in the laundry basket. He admits his 55 years or so with his wife have sometimes been turbulent – “crockery hurled, blows struck, partings for ever, love letters, laughter, infidelities. Best of all: adventure”.

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He dissects, too, highly-personal memories: writing, for instance, about the painful death of their first child, who had spina bifida. Walter also talks about the decline of bright and brilliant daughter Zo�, whose spark was dulled cruelly by bipolar disorder. Zo�, still in her 20s, killed herself on the main railway line in Essex in 2000.

It is very frank. Was he never tempted to hold back in some areas?

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Walter, who lives outside Colchester, tells the EADT: “Some two years ago I felt that I had had a very good life doing the job I had wanted to do since I was 13. It had turned out every bit as exciting, interesting, and as much fun as I had imagined. I wanted to record that in a memoir.

“Dorothy and the children were a key part of that story, so naturally they come into it a lot. My childhood is put in as a prelude, to put the story in a better context. And for my own pleasure in reliving my childhood.”

And what about the impetus, the spark, to write one’s life story?

“The motivation in my case was as stated above. In addition there was, of course, an old man’s natural urge to take stock of his life.

“Also, since I had started ‘practising’ to be a foreign correspondent from the age of 13, in letters and diaries that have survived, I felt I had an unusually good store of raw material.

“My ‘honesty’ arises because I didn’t want the memoir to be a show-off exercise, which would have been rightly resented by colleagues, many of whom were as good as or better journalists than I. But, really, I wanted to tell my story warts-and-all as far as possible.”

Walter was born in Vienna in 1930 – a dreamy boy – but a life originally smooth and comfortable changed when his family moved to England in 1936.

While many in Austria wrote off Hitler as a crazed windbag who wasn’t a credible threat to them, the lad’s father read things differently. An importer and exporter of textiles, he had contacts in Britain and moved his wife and children a couple of years before the Nazis crossed the border.

Home became a block of flats in Hammersmith, where night-time brought out bloated cockroaches, before the Schwarzes moved north to Manchester.

Walter read modern history at Oxford – medieval, specifically – but the college was packed with ex-servicemen and he felt out of his depth. “Still a dreamy boy, I lacked the discipline and concentration to tackle a world where everything you knew turned out to be only a theory, needing to be supported by facts that were elusive and contradicted by other facts.”

Nevertheless, he stuck with it and got a Third.

National service was spent in the Army – “I loved new places and new people”. One of his fellow cadets at officer training school – in the next bed, in fact – was David McCallum, who would become famous as Illya Kuryakin in the 1960s TV series The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

“David was a good room-mate and we spent the last exhausted hour of each day on our backs, discussing all that had happened.”

Walter joined the Manchester Regiment and bought a swagger-stick in Jermyn Street.

In Malaya, he was in charge of a platoon protecting rubber plantations from the Malayan National Liberation Army. Setting up ambushes, soldiers had to endure leeches attaching themselves to sensitive parts of their anatomy.

Back to England, where his family had moved to a house backing on to Golders Hill Park. He got a reporter’s job on the Oxford Mail and after six months moved to the Evening Standard’s Londoner’s Diary team.

The journalist met Dorothy at a party. Mistress of a fierce Papillon called Tio, she came from Golders Green and a family that had grown prosperous through the textile business.

The early summer of 1956 saw their wedding at Golders Green synagogue and a honeymoon night at the Grosvenor House hotel. They ate at the Caprice. Among the fellow diners that day was Charles Chaplin.

Walter tired of the routine life of Londoner’s Diary and ached for excitement abroad, a dream he’d nurtured since he was 13. Perhaps he could make a go of it as a freelance.

Thoughts turned to the young country of Israel, birthplace of Dorothy’s father and where Walter had relatives. The couple went out in mid-1957, driving overland and sleeping in their car.

For 18 months they lived on their wits, eating well when payment for an article came in. Then, when the sense of adventure palled, they returned to England. Walter became assistant editor of West Africa magazine.

Their first child, Nicola, was born with spina bifida and died aged one after contracting meningitis. Later, in the summer of 1962, came daughter Habie.

Walter still hankered for the life of a foreign correspondent. It came via an unconventional route.

Andre Deutsch, “a brilliant, charming, vindictive, peevish Hungarian-born publisher”, had founded African Universities Press to publish school books he hoped would become set-texts in English-speaking Africa. He had installed a manager in Nigeria, quarrelled bitterly with him, and chose Walter as a replacement. “I was impressed with Andre and I served as best I could until he quarrelled bitterly with me.”

The role did, though, allow Walter to write in his spare time, with The Observer and The Guardian interested in his stories.

The timing was good. A general election approached and there were accusations that politicians were preparing to rig the vote. There was much to write about.

African Universities Press decided not to renew his contract but, with the country in a state of political crisis, Walter opted to stay in Nigeria as a freelance journalist.

Son Ben arrived in the autumn of 1964. There was a different drama the following year when playwright and activist Wole Soyinka, who often stayed at the Schwarz abode, was arrested. To ensure he got a fair trial, Amnesty International sent John Mortimer as legal observer. Mortimer – later to become famous for his fictional barrister Rumpole of the Bailey –stayed with the family. (Soyinka, by the way, was acquitted.)

Walter was there early in 1966 for a coup and the nation began to disintegrate. Unfortunately, the faltering regime took against his articles. One afternoon six policemen arrived and told him he was being deported – the first resident British correspondent to be kicked out of a Commonwealth country. A question was even asked in the House of Commons. “At Heathrow I give interviews, a celebrity,” he recalls.

Happily, The Guardian offers him a job as a leader writer, giving the newspaper’s opinion on foreign issues. Though he was able to talk with some knowledge about Israel and Nigeria, he admits having felt out of his depth most of the time.

“Between 3pm and 7pm I had to produce 600 wise words, telling the rulers of countries I’d barely heard of what to do. How do I get the facts? There was no Google, no BBC-news-online, no Uruguay government website, no blogger in any of these exotic places. Only a single Reuters cable with the news I had to pontificate on. For background there was our library of battered cardboard folders containing browned old cuttings.”

Then in 1967 old friends visiting from Nigeria – top officials – persuaded him to return to report on a country on the brink of civil war. They said issues surrounding the deportation had been fixed. He went.

The eastern part of Nigeria had become a rogue state – Biafra – and Walter obviously needed to go there in order to tell readers what was happening.

Walter was detained for seven hours upon entering Biafra. He realised he was seen as the citizen of a hostile country: a man who must have been deported for a reason and who was “no doubt plotting on behalf of murderous northerners”.

In the early hours of the morning he was taken to the state capital, Enugu, and on to the prison – locked in a cell four paces by five on the “best” corridor. It happened to be death row; his neighbours condemned murderers. Outside, the civil war started.

Then, at 2am on his 11th night in the prison, he was woken by three men with shotguns. The journalist wasn’t frightened, just apprehensive. He was driven away . . . was there worse to come? . . . but found himself released.

“What got me out I still do not know,” he reflects. “There had been questions about me in the House of Commons. Two editorials in the Guardian explained to Ojukwu (of the rebel regime) why holding on to Schwarz would not be in his best interests.

“Dorothy had lobbied every Biafran she knew, laid siege to the Biafran delegation’s office in Kensington. Perhaps Chinua Achebe (the country’s best-known novelist and an old friend) finally got back to Ojukwu’s headquarters and said Schwarz was OK.”

The war lasted 30 months and brought the deaths of a million civilians, along with 100,000 soldiers.

Domestically, the family size rose by one in the summer of 1969 when Tanya was born. Professionally, Walter was tiring of leader-writing. Aching to be a proper foreign correspondent, he arranged to become the joint Guardian and Observer man in Israel.

The country was never out of the news for 48 hours, what with attacks, counter-attacks, controversies, peace plans and plans for conflict.

Habie stayed in London to finish her school term, but six-year-old Ben and young Tanya came out.

The family rented a house “on the windswept slopes where Jerusalem ends in a cul-de-sac and Bethlehem begins. With two Arab horses we could explore the Judean Desert, with the Moab hills and a blue sliver of the Dead Sea in the far background”.

In late 1971 he was asked to cover India’s campaign for the liberation of East Pakistan (to be called Bangladesh). After that, the sub-continent became his posting for three years.

“Unreality was a constant feature of our life in India, which was luxurious, adventurous, amusing and exotic, while my reporting was mostly about droughts, riots, floods, famines, failed reforms, targets not achieved, people rioting, people in prison.”

Then came a dream posting. Paris was a city he’d fallen in love with at 17.

“Arriving from India I was struck by the triviality of ’news’ in Europe. Back there: famine, floods, wars, rebellions. Over here: a dispute over the common agricultural policy, a scandal over a gift of diamonds from an African emperor to the French president, a strike by prostitutes.”

Dorothy wanted to breed horses, so the family lived successively in three chateaux with land.

The Schwarzes enjoyed almost 10 years in France – a period that saw the arrival in 1980 of Zachary.

“Am I proud of my reporting from Paris?” wonders Walter, more than 25 years later. “My strength was staying alert when talking to people – from my kids’ friends, teachers and parents, to the shopkeeper and local farmers who spoke freely without feeling they were being interviewed, so that my reporting was flavoured by the vernacular.”

Walter was asked to cover West Germany from time to time. The big story was the rise of the peace movement and the Greens.

America had started to deploy medium-range Pershing missiles in western Europe as a counterweight to Soviet SS20s. Millions saw it as the start of preparations for a nuclear war that would wipe out Europe while leaving the U.S. safe.

After Walter had been in France for nearly a decade, the Guardian editor decided it was time for a change. Seventeen years as a foreign correspondent were over.

“We left France, but France is still with us . . . We all feel more than a little bit French, and better off for it.”

Home became (and remains) a sprawling wooden bungalow outside Colchester, overlooking a reservoir. It had seven acres and no neighbours.

Walter became a feature writer at The Guardian, often writing about environmental matters. Then, for the 10 years taking him up to retirement in 1995, he was religious affairs correspondent, covering such thorny issues as the ordination of women.

Dorothy transferred her enthusiasm for breeding horses to training German shepherd dogs. She started teaching creative writing at Colchester’s adult education institute. Some of her stories were published, or broadcast on BBC Radio 4.

After Walter’s retirement, the couple collaborated on a book portraying some of the pioneers of a simpler and greener life – a project that took them to Australia, India, America, Canada and Japan.

“I am properly retired now, content with that because I have always been lazy – energetic only when fired by ambition, a news story, a deadline or hiking in hills,” he says.

Walter sings in a choir on midweek evenings, listens to classical music on his computer, and takes dog Honey for strolls along East Anglian footpaths, “giving shameless preference to walks that lead to a pub . . . Twice a year I go to Provence, where the Luberon hills are only as demanding as a slow-walking old man can manage”.

His wife of more than 50 years has moved on from German shepherds and now keeps parrots – about 25 in an outside aviary.

Walter is grateful he was a foreign correspondent during an era when he wrote to a deadline and could then relax. He has sympathy for today’s young turks chained to a hungry, multimedia, round-the-clock newsdesk.

Despite the technological revolution in the media industry, he insists we will always need good correspondents on the spot “to reveal, relate, explain and evaluate.

“We need them to discern and highlight the heroic, the pathetic, the shameful and the grotesque in what may look like a bland environment.”

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Israel: right or wrong?

WALTER Schwarz doesn’t duck the controversial subject of Israel’s behaviour – even if he finds an answer to the question “Israel right or Israel wrong?” as elusive now as in the 1970s.

“I am pro-Israel because of the Holocaust, because of the Israeli narrative of re-possessing their (our) ancient homeland from which Arabs (conveniently) fled in the 1948 war,” he writes. “I am pro-Israel because of my Israeli relatives and friends who try to forgive my long friendships with local Arabs.

“Today, after the building of Israel’s ‘security’ wall which locks Arabs into ghettos, after the blitz on Gaza’s captive, helpless population, after the return to office of the pro-expansionist Binjamin Netanyahu, after the inhumane blockade of Gaza, I am afraid for Israel’s future.”

He concludes: “I hope, somewhat desperately, that international opinion and American pressure can find a way of coaxing, pressurising and perhaps ultimately forcing Israel to abandon its expansionism, overcome its chronic paranoia and pursue peace based on compromise.

“The odds are unfavourable and nobody can rule out a catastrophic end.”


ONE of Walter Schwarz’s writing projects during his time in France was a 1979 comparison between life in Compi�gne and its twin town of Bury St Edmunds.

He set out to talk in each place to a teacher, doctor, student, policeman, postman and butcher, to see which side of the Channel lived the better.

“My three long articles concluded that the French earned more money and had a higher standard of living, but the British lived better, with a higher quality of life.”

• Walter’s time as a foreign correspondent: Nigeria (1964-67), Israel (1970-72), India (1972-73) and France (1975-84)

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