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Phoenix from the flames. By David Ambrose

Articles | By David Ambrose

Harriet: writer, politician and translator

Plucky Harriet Crawley – who lost her two brothers, mother and husband in tragic accidents – has written a gripping thriller. By David Ambrose

Harriet Crawley’s mantra has always been ‘Life is not a sprint, but a marathon.’

This is just as well, considering the head-spinning number of careers, relationships, tragedies and triumphs she has packed into her 74 years.

We have been friends for 55 of those years. I’ve just been to the packed launch party of her fourth novel, The Translator, flagged by both the Times and the Sunday Times as their Thriller of the Month.

But it had not been plain sailing. On its initial submissions, even though it was in the hands of a top literary agent, the novel hit the buffers.

Her son, Spencer, who works in venture capital, tried to keep her spirits up, saying, ‘Mum, all you need is one person to say “yes”.’

That person turned out to be François von Hurter, founder of Bitter Lemon Press, a small independent publisher.

The Translator deals with a Russian plot to cut the undersea communication cables linking Britain to America and cripple our economy. Recently the First Sea Lord warned of just such a possibility. Where had Harriet got the idea from? From a paper written for the Policy Exchange think tank in 2017 by a little-known MP called Rishi Sunak.

I have known Harriet since she published her first book at 19. A Degree of Defiance was about the student riots in Europe in 1968. Her fluency in French, German and Italian, a great help in the endeavour, was a legacy of a bohemian yet sophisticated education and an interesting background.

Her father was Aidan Crawley (1908-93), first-class cricketer, fighter pilot, a Labour and Tory MP, writer and pioneering TV journalist and editor.

Her brilliant and elegant American mother, Virginia Cowles, had been one of the great war correspondents of the Second World War before turning her hand to history and biography – until her death in a car crash in 1983.

All this left Harriet and her two brothers, Andrew and Randall, with a lot to live up to. The family was noisy, close- knit and adventurous. And not rich. Everyone had to earn their own living.

Harriet kicked off in television and radio. Within a few years she and her brothers had started an art business, and were living first in Tehran, then in Hong Kong, then travelling the world. Her first novel, The Goddaughter, was published in 1975.

She stood as a Conservative candidate for Brent East against Ken Livingstone in 1987. She announced she was pregnant after a brief affair and would not be naming the father.

‘Why embarrass him?’ she told me. ‘He doesn’t want to be a father. But I do want to be a mother. And I can support myself.’

She had the full backing of her association, and she slashed Livingstone’s majority.

She was preparing to stand as a candidate for London Central in the European Parliament when tragedy struck. On 10th September 1988, her two brothers took off from Turin in a Cessna to fly to Oxfordshire and join Harriet for her 40th birthday. The plane crashed and they were both killed, leaving small children and pregnant wives.

‘When my brothers died, I knew there was only one way forward: work and change.’

She lived with her grieving father until he died, published a second novel and

then married Gleb Shestakov, a Russian 17 years her junior. They moved to a writers’ village outside Moscow and placed her son in a state school. ‘With Gleb, I could put all the terrible sadness behind me and start a new life.’

It was around this time that she lost all her money in Lloyd’s. She says, with a sigh, ‘That was another nightmare.’

She restored her fortunes by starting her own art business in Moscow. The marriage to Gleb didn’t last, although they have stayed friends and he is devoted to her son.

In 1999, in London, she met the love of her life, Julian Ayer, adopted son of the philosopher Freddie Ayer. ‘I had five years with Julian,’ she told me, ‘five years that changed my life. I loved him with every fibre of my being.’

In 2004, they went to watch Spencer play cricket for Harrow in Sri Lanka, and on 26th December Julian drowned in the tsunami:

‘We were in a public bus together. He pushed me through an open window ... he saved my life, but he couldn’t save his own.’

Even though she was only 55, she knew with absolute certainty that she would never have another relationship. ‘No one could follow Julian.’

A few months later, a Russian friend who ran a gas processing company in Moscow offered her a job at a technical publishing company. She would translate impossibly complicated books such as Gas Well De-Liquification from English into Russian.

‘I thought he was mad,’ she said, ‘but it was a lifeline.’

The job lasted ten years. Then Putin put the squeeze on small independent companies, and her friend went under. She left Moscow for good in 2016 and started The Translator. Topical, suspenseful and above all a love story.

‘Of course,’ she says. ‘What else could it be?’

The Translator (Bitter Lemon Press, £16.99) by Harriet Crawley is out now


This story was from August 2023 issue. Subscribe Now