Holly Watt’s job as an investigative journalist has taken her everywhere from the cockpit of Air Force One, to chasing pirates across the Indian Ocean and accidentally sitting front row at London Fashion Week. The award-winning writer broke the parliamentary expenses scandal in the UK and worked on the Panama Papers leak. Now, she’s used her incredible life experiences as inspiration for a novel, To The Lions, which follows journalist Casey Benedict from glitzy St Tropez to the deserts of Libya and to the very darkest corners of the human mind. Dun dun dunn. Here, Watt reveals the wildest experiences she’s had in real-life…
- THE PIRATE PROPOSAL
A few years ago, piracy on the Indian Ocean became a major crisis. Huge ships travelling through the Red Sea and surrounding areas were being targeted by Somali pirates. Desperate men would attack massive ships from tiny speedboats, and somehow fight their way on board. I was sent out to cover the story, sailing from Oman for three weeks with the Navy. One day, the Royal Marines caught 14 pirates – a helicopter overhead firing at the little Somali ship, while the Marines stormed over the waves in boats. A short while later, I went out to the little Somali dhow. I was the only woman, and stood out in civilian dress. One pirate looked up. He had six fingers on each hand and six toes on each foot, and a certain charm. We quickly established he couldn’t speak English, and I couldn’t speak his language. But we could both speak French. We chatted for a bit – he had a cousin in Manchester, it turned out – and then he asked me to marry him. I thought for a bit, then said it probably wouldn’t work. He shrugged, and nodded.
- THE UNDERCOVER MATH GENIUS
I did a lot of undercover work for years, taking a whole raft of roles – everything from personal assistant to lobbyist to medical devices executive. At one point, I was told that teachers from certain British schools were getting special training from exam boards in how to train students to ace exams. The schools – mainly private – would pay a lot of money for “seminars” on upcoming exams. During the seminars, hints would be dropped about future papers. Unfortunately, this meant that a colleague and I had to pass ourselves off as teachers and join the small seminar groups undercover. My colleague immediately bagsied English and History, so – rather dangerously – this left me passing myself off as a science and maths teacher. I hadn’t done either science or maths for a decade, so started cramming again. All was going well until we started working our way through a maths exam paper. Each teacher was taking it in turns to answer a question. Looking round the room, I worked out that “my” question was going to be about the area of a parallelogram. This was problematic, because I had no idea how to work out the area of a parallelogram. Terrible flashbacks to school ensued. I went for my phone. No reception. My life flashed before my eyes. Finally, the whole room of teachers stared at me, waiting for me to answer the question. “Would you believe it?” I giggled. “My mind’s gone completely blank!” Not my finest hour.
- THE REFUGEE CAMP
In the middle of the Syrian refugee crisis, I was dispatched to Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, close to the Syrian border. I travelled out with Will, a photographer I had known for a few years, who had become a good friend. Will – happy with his girlfriend – found my disastrous lovelife endlessly entertaining. We made our way round the fast-growing camp, talking to dozens of refugees. The scale of the crisis was shocking – today the camp has around 80,000 inhabitants. People fleeing the horror of the Syrian warzones had found themselves marooned in the middle of the Jordanian desert with no proper future. At one point, I began speaking to a group of women, who invited me into a tent to drink tea. Will came too. We sat discussing their old lives and their new lives. We mainly spoke through a translator, but some of the women spoke basic English. Eventually, one turned to us, gesturing to me and Will. “Are you married?” she asked.
“God no,” said Will, with an unchivalrous firmness.
“I’m not married,” I clarified.
“No children?” the English-speaking woman said in horror. She explained to the others, and worried whispers went round the tent. All the women simultaneously put their heads to one side, and looked despairing. “This is,” one woman said, “so sad.”
“You’re even,” Will started laughing, “being pitied by Syrian refugees.”
To The Lions by Holly Watt (Raven Books, $29.99) is out now.