A week ago, John Rettie, my best friend of nearly 32 years, passed away in Yorkshire, at the age of 83. He had visited Chile last in November 2006, to achieve a long standing dream of celebrating his birthday in Easter Island, and this we managed to accomplish. I am reproducing below his excellent obituary written by our good mutual friend, writer and journalist Richard Gott, which is being published in London's The Guardian..
JOHN RETTIE By Richard Gott
John Rettie, who has died after a short illness aged 83, was among the
last of a generation of gentleman foreign reporters who deployed their
linguistic skills and historical understanding to illuminate the
countries in which they were stationed. Writing over nearly half a
century, mostly for the Guardian and for Reuters, and broadcasting for
the BBC World Service, Rettie took a particular interest in Russia and
Latin America, and he carved a niche for himself as a radical and
fiercely independent correspondent in several parts of the world
including Finland, the Soviet Union, Mexico, Sri Lanka, and India.
Politically he was an old-fashioned Liberal, an enthusiastic supporter
of national independence and highly critical of the empires of the
Soviet Union and (increasingly) of the United States. Endlessly witty
and amusing, a wonderful storyteller and teacher, he had an immense
army of loyal friends with a global reach, though he also had a
caustic tongue and did not suffer fools gladly. Famously, long ago in
1956, he brought the news from Moscow to the outside world of the
details of Nikita Khrushchev's secret speech, denouncing the crimes of
Stalin, a scoop of which he remained justly proud.
Born in 1925 in Ceylon, where his father and grandfather had owned
and managed tea estates for fifty years, Rettie came to England when
he was four to live in Yorkshire, where his mother's family owned a
handful of farms in Coverdale within sight of Penhill. Educated at
Rugby, he enlisted in the RAF and was sent to Canada to learn to fly.
His training was cut short by the end of the European war in May 1945,
and he enrolled as an early recruit to the services' Russian language
course organised at Cambridge, as the grey clouds of the Cold War
gathered. He moved seamlessly on to Peterhouse where he studied
Russian and Spanish, acquiring a lifelong fascination with language
and linguistics, as well as a low-tolerance level for grammatical
imperfection that in a less genial critic might have verged on
Joining Reuters as a fledgling reporter, he was despatched first to
Helsinki where he married a Finnish woman, Oili Lehtonen. Then, in
1954, he went to Moscow, as one of only a handful of foreign
correspondents living there at that time.
He had unprecedented access to the Soviet high command, explaining
years later how Khrushchev had understood that foreign journalists
would provide the easiest way for him to present himself to the world
as a human being you could do business with, rather than as the ogre
of the Kremlin of Stalin's day. Khrushchev and his colleagues in the
Politburo came frequently to diplomatic receptions, and enjoyed
drinking, chatting and arguing with diplomats and journalists alike.
Rettie watched him at close quarters for three years, once or twice a
week, sometimes shouting and bullying, but sometimes silent and
listening. "It all made great copy," Rettie recorded later,
"especially the drinking." On one occasion, he had drunk Khrushchev's
glass of aquavit when the Soviet leader thrust it at him in the
Norwegian embassy, saying: "This is a lot better than that whisky we
had in your embassy last week - here, try it!".
Shortly after Khrushchev had delivered his secret speech denouncing
Stalin in February 1956, Rettie was approached by a Soviet contact,
Kostya Orlov, who gave him a full account of what had been said, with
extraordinary details. One dealt with the unrest the speech had
caused, particularly in Georgia. Another concerned Khrushchev's
description of how Stalin used to humiliate those around him. "Once he
turned to me," Khrushchev had declared in his speech, "and said: 'Oi,
you, khokhol, dance the gopak.' So I danced." Khokhol is a derogatory
term for a Ukrainian, while the gopak is a fast and intricate
Ukrainian dance in the execution of which the portly Khrushchev would
have looked ridiculous.
Could Orlov's story be believed? Was he an agent provocateur, as
some of Rettie's colleagues believed, or under the control of the KGB?
Could Reuters put out a story that had a single and rather dubious
source? Rettie and his boss at Reuters, Sidney Weiland, concluded that
they had to believe the story. Rettie left on the plane for Stockholm
the next day with his notebooks, and Reuters published his anonymous
story with a Bonn dateline. It was front page news across the world.
Years later, he concluded that Khrushchev personally had authorised
the leak of the speech, a probability vouched for by Sergo Mikoyan,
son of the formidable Anastas Mikoyan, as well as by Khrushchev's son
Rettie left Moscow in 1957, alarmed by what appeared to be KGB
threats, and depressed by the fact that his wife had eloped with the
correspondent of the Agence France Press. Back in London, he joined
the foreign desk of the News Chronicle, along with Willie Forrest, Tom
Baistow, and James Cameron, but the Chronicle soon collapsed under him
and Rettie joined that small group of journalists that never bought
Cadbury's chocolates. Cadbury had been the owner of the Chronicle and
had closed it down, although it still had a circulation of over a
Rettie now moved continents and established himself as a free-lance
reporter in Mexico, marrying his second wife, Vanda Summers, with whom
he had a son and a daughter.
He came back to England in 1964, to stand in the Liberal interest at
the general election that year in Middlesbrough West. He came third,
with 5,816 votes, the winner (a Labour gain) being Jeremy Bray. The
following year he was in the Dominican Republic, sending vivid reports
to the Guardian on the US invasion of the island, ordered by President
Settling back in Britain in 1967, he helped set up Latin American
Newsletters, a weekly review of Latin American affairs, based
initially on the reports of two European news agencies, the Italian
Inter Press Service and the Spanish EFE, but soon acquiring a network
of experienced correspondents throughout the continent, as well as a
bunch of enthusiastic young journalists working in London.
During the 1970s, when much of Latin America fell under military rule
and censorship prevailed, the Newsletter became an important and much
respected source of news. Rettie put his capital and his energies into
making it a success, but eventually he fell out with two of his
partners, Hugh O'Shaughnessy and Christopher Roper, and he was voted
off the board (together with the writer of this notice) in 1980. Not
usually a man to bear a grudge, he never willingly spoke to them
again. At much the same time, a Middlesbrough engineering firm, James
Brown, with which his family was connected, and of which Rettie had
been the non-executive chairman, collapsed. He was left at the age of
53 with no job, no pension, and no income.
Fortunately, the Latin American service of the BBC came to his
rescue, and for some years he worked happily at Bush House, where,
because of his love and knowledge of Mexico and Mexican food, his love
of tequila and mezcal, his accent when he spoke Spanish, and his
affection for "dusky maidens" (a favourite expression), he was
considered as "an honorary Mexican". His tequila-infused evenings were
legendary, so much so that Julia Zapata, his producer for Thursday
morning programmes, requested a curfew on Wednesday night. He obeyed
her command, reminding her on the way to the studio of the magnitude
of his sacrifice. The Guardian also helped out, and he went on several
reporting trips to Latin America, notably during the Falklands war.
One day in 1986, someone at a BBC meeting convened to find a
volunteer to go to Sri Lanka, asked if anyone knew anything about the
country. "Yes", replied Rettie, "I was born there." Soon he was on the
plane to Colombo, reporting from there for both the BBC and the
Guardian for the next two years. It was a time of increasing violence
with frequent assassinations of politicians and bombs targeting
civilians. Rettie came away with the view that Sri Lanka politicians
"were more devious than any others I know", though he enjoyed living
in the colonial-era Galle Face hotel in Colombo where he had first
stayed at the age of three months.
Returning to London in 1989, and again at a loose end and without an
income, the Guardian asked if he would like to return to Moscow, then
at the height of the Gorbachev reforms, to join their existing
correspondent, Jonathan Steele. Rettie covered the furious and
increasingly public debates and splits in the Communist party which
led to its collapse in 1991 and to the implosion of the Soviet Union
Thanks partly to his knowledge of Finnish, he took an interest in the
Baltic republics, in particular Estonia which has a kindred language,
and he made regular trips to the region as the independence movements
developed. He did not disguise his excitement that they were breaking
away. He also loved travelling around Russia itself, a pleasure that
had not been possible for Western journalists in the 1950s.
By then in his mid-sixties, Rettie enjoyed mastering new technology.
He spent hours devising ways for the Guardian's computers to route
their copy through complex "packet-switching" to Helsinki and thence
on to London. He took crocodile clips with him to the ageing Soviet
hotels - the only option for most Western journalists to send stories
from Moscow - and found ways to unscrew phone sockets and link
straight to the wires. He was hugely generous to colleagues, including
the new corps of young Russian journalists who had to learn how to
abandon the self-censorship of the Soviet era and to write stories
graphically and quickly.
Returning to London, the Guardian suggested that he might like to
return to the sub-continent as their Delhi correspondent. "You have
just made an old man very happy", Rettie told Martin Woollacott, the
foreign editor, and at the age of 67 he set off for India, his final
posting. There he took an interest in the country's underclass - its
peasants and its Dalits, India's "untouchable" caste - as he had once
done in Latin America, though he was obliged to spend much time
dealing with the domestic problems of half a dozen local employees
recruited by previous correspondents.
When Rettie finally retired, he established himself in the small
gamekeeper's house on the family estate in Coverdale, much to the
surprise of his London friends who could not imagine such a
cosmopolitan character burying himself in the country. They were
wrong. Rettie lived alone and he rarely ventured south, but he had
soon recruited a legion of new friends among the farmers, publicans,
journalists, game-keepers, beaters and breadmakers of Yorkshire. He
amused himself by inviting his leftwing friends, including Tariq Ali,
to shoot pheasants in the winter, and he took a lasting interest in
Ukrainian affairs by organising regular visits to Yorkshire of
children affected by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. He remained on
friendly terms with his two wives, and is survived by them, his two
children, and his well-loved sister. He appeared to live most of the
time in his kitchen, keeping warm by the Aga, cooking venison from the
deep freeze, and drinking from his substantial wine store, stacked up
in the drawing room. His deep pessimism about the approaching
environmental crisis was reflected in his perennial remark (inherited
from his friend the late Harry Riley) that "t'human race has outlived
its usefulness", yet this invariably led on to another, much favoured
request to "open another bottle!"
John Cartmel Alexander Rettie, journalist, born in Sri Lanka, November
24, 1925; died in Yorkshire, January 10, 2009
HUEVADA DE LA SEMANA To ward off any complaints about the lack of consistency in this column, and despite the somber moment, I will stay within the British realm, nominating this week HM Queen Elizabeth II, her government and all those who sail in her.
On November 18 last, I wrote to the British Consul General in Santiago, with a copy to the Honorary Consul in Valparaiso, explaining that we as a family were under serious threat and not getting due process from the authorities. On November 25, Ms. Elizabeth Coghlan, British Consul General, dismissed the request with the following sentence "Many thanks for your email informing us of the nature of the problem which you and your family are currently facing. Unfortunately the British Embassy cannot get involved in legal disputes" (sic). The "honorary" consul in Valparaiso did not even bother to reply.
On December 30, I read whilst in England, that the latter had been nominated Member of the British Empire (MBE) in the Queen's New Year's Honours List. Explaining the award, the British Embassy's website referred to his "outstanding service to British interests in Chile,and in particular to British citizens in need of assistance". What next, the Nobel Peace prize for the Israeli Army?