Who do you think you are?
Ian Hislop

Ian Hislop

A colonial upbringing

In his work as a journalist and commentator in print and on television Ian Hislop constantly demonstrates a healthy scepticism towards people in positions of power. Could his attitude be a consequence of his family history? His research into his background went some way towards helping him find out.

Ian grew up enjoying the privileges of post-colonial life. He attended a traditional public school and flew to join his civil engineer father and his mother, Helen, for holidays in the various foreign countries to which his father had been posted.

Despite the travel, the exotic lifestyle that his parents enjoyed, and the obvious benefits that were bestowed upon him, this peripatetic way of living left him with little sense of his 'roots'. All he knew before embarking on his research was that his father was Scottish, his mother came from Jersey, and that both had left the small communities they had grown up in behind them.

Ian feels he has inherited his talent for words from his mother, Helen Rosemarie Beddows - it seems she was very literate, and good at things like crosswords and Scrabble. She grew up on Jersey and was living there when the Nazis occupied the Channel Islands in 1940, but she rarely talked to Ian about this time, and the occupation of the Channel Islands remains in general one of the least described episodes of World War Two.

The simple facts are well enough known. Faced with the prospect of Nazi occupation of the Channel Islands, the British government announced that the islands were to be abandoned. Residents felt they had two options - they could either try and evacuate to the mainland, an opportunity seized by thousands, or stay in their homes and take their chances under the Nazis. Ian's mother's family chose the latter.

Nazi occupation

The aftershock of the occupation is still felt now, 60 years after its end, as Ian discovered. People accused islanders of collaborating with the Nazis, and suggested they could have done more to defy and thwart the occupiers. Some islanders, however, did fight back with acts of defiance. Among them was Iris Le Feuvre's family, who hid an escaped Russian prisoner of war, and fed and sheltered him throughout the occupation - Iris was a great friend of Helen, Ian's mother.

Most islanders hoped that that the Nazis would be defeated and that life in Jersey would return to normal. This hope became fervent after 1942, when orders came through for the authorities to deport 2,000 people from the island for internment on the European mainland.

Top of the list of those to be deported were Jews, ex-servicemen, and those born on Britain's mainland. On the day that these people were deported, a group of islanders went down to watch the ship depart. As the deportees sailed away they struck up a chorus of 'There'll Always be an England'. From across the waves they could hear the deportees joining in.

Battle of Spion Kop

Helen Rosemarie's cousin William was one of those shipped, but the Nazis ignored her father (Ian's grandfather) William, despite that fact that he had joined the army in 1895 and fought in five major campaigns of the Boer War, including the Battle of Spion Kop, perhaps the most famous of them.

In this encounter around 1,300 British soldiers died trying to retain hold of a hill in the face of relentless shelling from the Boers. William's regiment, the Royal Lancasters, suffered heavy losses in the battle, and the appalling sights he must have seen would have stayed with him until his death. This did not prevent him from signing up in 1906 for a further ten years' service, though, as a sergeant stationed in Jersey, his life would have been far less eventful than it was in Africa.

Paternal grandfather

Ian knew less about his father's family history, but his research helped him flesh out the story of his paternal grandfather, David Murdoch Hislop. He was raised in Ayr, and was an enigmatic, distant and mysterious figure in Ian's early life. He was a strict headmaster, a lay preacher and a stern moralist.

During the Great War he went to the front line in 1918, and was part of the 9th Highland Infantry that fought in the battle of Targelle Ravine on 29 September, one of many futile battles fought in that war. David Hislop's regiment suffered grievous losses during one morning of battle for little gain, and fought for two weeks before breaking through the front line.

So both Ian's grandfathers had fought in bitter wars, and had been obliged to follow orders they perhaps did not agree with. His mother had been forced to live under a Nazi regime. These ancestors could all have felt that superior powers tend to abuse the authority they hold. Could it be that this scepticism has been passed on to Ian, helping him to forge an interesting career?

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