This book exhausts superlatives and arouses emotion to the point of catharsis. It filled this reader with profound regret. In part, this was selfish. I wish I had known Juliet Peck. But there was also a deep sadness, that such a lambent girl should have died so young after such suffering. Admittedly, she poured heart and mind, body and soul into her 45 years, but there was so much more to do, to give. Published on the tenth anniversary of her death, these fifty essays capture the excitement, the fun, and the heartache.
Juliet studied art history at Edinburgh. One friend insists that she did not devote her entire time to alcohol, parties and sex. Well, perhaps not the entire time. The point is also made that her 2.2 degree was an academic miracle. After Edinburgh, she came forth into the world with no small destiny in mind. She too might have been seeking a second Troy to burn. Aflame to throw herself into great causes, she found a route, via a small office in London, which she ran with the aid of a fox terrier. At that stage, Robert Cranborne (now Salisbury) and other like-minded friends saw no reason why the Soviets should have a monopoly of liberation movements. So they had started Afghanaid, to assist the rebels. From the first moment she went on board, Juliet had one aim: to have herself moved onwards as rapidly as possible to Peshawar, the front line, danger.
Robert thought that this was a seriously bad idea. Here was a young girl with no relevant experience who knew little or nothing about local customs or the Islamic world: who would have no defences against the perils which she would undoubtedly encounter. For once, he was confronted by a will stronger than his own. After his surrender, her parents complained: what did he think he was doing, posting their daughter to all the risks of a guerilla-war zone? Robert explained that there was no alternative. If he did not send her, she would find another way of getting there, which would be even more hazardous.
So she went, and tragedy did ensue. A superb photographer, Dominique Vergos was also a wild, devil-may-care romantic, a Dolohov, a beau sabreur, a breaker of hearts – the perfect husband for such a dauntless girl. Juliet’s parents were appalled. Who could blame them? It availed them naught. At one stage, there was trouble. Dominique would drink too much and the evening would end with bruises for her, scratches for him, and his firing off Kalashnikov rounds to relieve his feelings. Yet it is still possible that she could have tamed him; there was no Petruchio born of woman to master that Kate. But he had embroiled himself in the murk of factional politics and come in conflict with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a militia leader whom the Americans had insisted on backing, against Robert Cranborne’s advice and despite his warnings. Dominique was murdered.
Knocked sideways, with a baby son, Fynn , Juliet persevered. From a distance, another war photographer had fallen in love with her. Rory Peck was an altogether gentler, more suitable character. One has the impression that ultimately, Dominique was most in love with himself. Rory too had been married before. But at the risk of outraging the sacramentally-inclined, a second marriage can refute Dr Johnson and be more than the triumph of hope over experience. Thus it was with Rory and Juliet. He laid his love at her feet, with no reservations. Indeed, he approached her tentatively, fearful to trespass on a widow’s feelings. Finally, they met for dinner at the Capital Hotel. They left four days later.
Married, they settled in Moscow, where Rory had plenty of work. They had a delightful dacha, which sounds to have been one of the most fun-inspiring residences in the world, though that was also true of Juliet’s houses in Yorkshire and Maine. At the dacha, there was riding in the woods; another child, a daughter, the gloriously named Hero Zuleika Lettice Peck; an endless supply of laughter, friendship, love and caviar. Surely they would now live happily ever after? What could go wrong?
That question received a rapid and brutal answer. Everything. In the fighting for the White House during the anti-Yeltsin coup, Rory pushed forward to take the epic photograph that would define the moment for posterity. This would be his Red Flag above the Reichstag, his Marines raising Old Glory on Iwo Jima: his path to immortality. Mortality supervened . He was shot. A few weeks later, Juliet was diagnosed with cancer and lost an eye.
There followed a period of unimaginable grief and abandoned weeping, though only when she did not realise that she could be overheard. Friends feared that she had been broken. Not so. No force on earth could break that girl. She had children to bring up and money to earn. She also set up the Rory Peck Trust, designed to preserve his memory by bringing help to journalists who are determined to do what is necessary to get the story: journalists scornful of safety – journalists like Rory and Juliet. She despised self-pity. Bloody but unbowed, she persevered, finding joy where she could, spreading joy wherever she went. One of the recipients was Frank Houghton Brown, who was the huntsman of the Middleton hounds in Yorkshire for fourteen seasons. His conclusion: ‘I still now look to Juliet for strength, and hope that I may be blessed with a tiny fraction of the strength she had.’
I am sure that he gave her a lot in return. For Juliet, hunting was a secular religion: a blessing, when she needed blessings. Once, in Russia, she had broken her back in a fall. Yet her fearlessness was undiminished. In her final years, apart from hunting, and even though her strength was under siege from cancer, she still found the energy for travel and adventure. There must have been days when she would rather have stayed in bed, but she despised weakness. Around this time a splendidly piratical character called Christopher James set up Hakluyt, a free-lance intelligence gathering outfit. He recruited Juliet, which was an ideal choice. Inter alia, she managed to infiltrate Greenpeace at the highest level. Christopher’s account of all that is a rollicking delight and he also mentions her magnificent improvidence. She would often be in danger of running out of money for trivial items such as school fees or food. Hakluyt would give her an advance against her salary, which she would promptly spend on buying ‘another fucking horse.’ No-one outside Ireland has ever spent such a high proportion of their income – frequently in excess of 100% – on life in the saddle.
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This was partly a consolation and one can understand the need. The cancer was always lurking in the background. With it and young children, it made sense to have a base in England. Her relationship with modern England was never acquiescent. She hated the EU, petty officialdom, little Hitlerism; all the restraints and restrictions which threatened to turn namby-pambyism into a governing creed. But she found an escape for all that in the hunting field: latterly her principal outlet for excitement. Considering all that, rage is the only response to the thought that there are people in the islands who are so misguided, so deluded, so mired in moral cretinousness that they want to ban hunting. Any such persons should be forced to read this book. If they remain unrepentant, they are clearly invincibly evil and should be hunted and torn to pieces by twenty couple of rotweilers.
In any such hunt, Juliet would have made a good Venus. She shared her love of horses and hunting with the editor of this volume, which has been published for the tenth anniversary of Juliet’s death. Already an MFH, Georgiana Campbell is famous throughout the hunting countries. She has also travelled extensively in remote regions. Juliet Peck was one of the few people who could have out-rivalled her. One would be tempted to opine that In the longer fullness, George will evolve into a cross between Lady Circumference and Aunt Dahlia – except that neither of those two great ladies could have produced this book.
Throughout the pages, we hear the the pipes of Pan, always menaced by the sombre notes of tragedy. In his essay, Robert Salisbury, George’s father, Juliet’s first employer, has found plangent words worthy of his subject matter. Thinking about Juliet made him: ‘Feel like weeping for an England which seemed to have passed for everyone except her… she commanded the unswerving loyalty of her friends. Her courage and fortitude were astonishing; her jokes and joy in life a happy memory for all who knew her.’
There is only one respect in which the book left this reader dissatisfied. Juliet was brought up in a devout Evangelical household. A friend of hers said that those Crawleys took their religion to bed with them. Even some of the females in the Crawley family managed to take holy orders. As a daughter or as a sibling, Juliet cannot have been easy. There are references to estrangements. Equally, Evangelical Christianity is a form of religion that can try the patience of those who are not persuaded. Happy-clappys give this writer the heeby-jeebies.
Moreover, Juliet went through the fire. Two husbands slain, cancer: those were the tribulations of Job without his consoling conclusion. Yet Juliet remained a Christian. I wanted to learn much more about that heroic faith. But our editrix may not be entirely blame for this omission. Perhaps because she felt that too public a profession of faith might cross the threshold into the self-pity which she abhorred, Juliet refused to discuss her religion and angrily snubbed enquiries. So one can only surmise that hers would have been a God of mountains and of oceans, of the desert fathers, of the burning bush: a God who would call to her from the depths: a God of awe and challenge, the one being whom she would have acknowledged as greater than herself. She would not have admitted the need for succour to any mere mortal. So let us hope that if her strength ever did fail, her God augmented it.
As well as her other qualities, Juliet was as heart-rendingly beautiful as Job’s later daughters. At the end of a book, there is a photograph of her with tumbling black hair, her one eye glowing with a mischievous, merry and witty gleam. Has any girl girl ever looked so entrancing in an eye-patch? Le derniere acte est sanglante. In her case, the suffering began much earlier in the play. But she held it at bay for as long as she could. This book is a chronicle of triumph in adversity, of a remarkable life and a wonderful woman. It is a tribute to courage, to the glory of the human condition, to a life that was not lived in vain.