Rebel in Pearls

Juliet Peck, who died at the age of 45, was a courageous foreign news reporter.  She was fearless, beautiful, opinionated and fiercely independent.  Drawn to conflict-stricken corners of the world, she was by turns an aid-worker, a reporter and ultimately a spy.  Twice widowed by the age of 35, she lost both husbands (war cameramen) to gunfire - Dominique Vergos in Peshawar and Rory Peck while trying to film the siege of the White House in Moscow in 1993. Immediately after Rory’s death, she lost an eye to cancer; but the eyepatch only added to her mystique.

To mark the tenth anniversary of her death, her children Fynn Crawley Vergos and Lettice Crawley Peck asked colleagues, friends and family to share their memories of their mother.  This collection of 50 original essays, edited by Georgiana Campbell has created an extraordinary vision of Juliet, whose adventurous life allowed her to establish homes in Pakistan, Moscow, the USA and Yorkshire.  The various segments of her life are described by journalists, aristocrats, spies, aid-workers, huntsman and friends who fell under her spell.

Here she is remembered by our editor and her friend Rose Baring.

Rebel in Pearls

It seemed apt that I should discover Juliet living in Russia when I was there. And apt that rather than living in Moscow like the vast majority of foreigners, she was living in Peredelkino, a retreat from the city where wooden dachas sheltered improbably but cosily, like mushrooms, in the all-encompassing forest. Like Churchill’s description of the country itself, she had always been to me something of ‘a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma’.
Our paths first crossed in Nick Bunch’s History ‘A’ level class at Marlborough, where the ‘Marseillaise’ was played at full volume on a portable gramophone, complete with detachable horn, to get us in the spirit for classes on the French Revolution. It took place in a corner classroom, which always felt remote from the rest of the school, and there was a hint of mild anarchy in the class. Juliet arrived at the school a term after the rest of us sixth-form girls, sporting a blue Guernsey sweater, a blue A-line skirt, and what would become known as a Lady Di collar and pearls. She seemed very far from anarchy – as traditional as you could get, in fact. There were a couple of boys who sat in the back row, both cheeky and funny, with whom I’d become friends. They were irreverent, somewhat lazy, and offered barefaced excuses for failing to hand in their prep. One was a talented rugby player, the other an inspired painter, and history was not their priority. They brought as many scowls as smiles to Nick Bunch’s face. I’d migrated to the middle row to sit just in front of them. When Juliet arrived she did as I had done and sat with the more conscientious students at the front of the class, but it wasn’t long before she was sitting in the back row with Godfrey and Alex, flirting particularly with Godfrey who I realise now was as close as I had ever come to a natural anarchist. When I bumped into both of them at a recent school reunion, Alex was as charming as ever, now balding, and a home-counties businessman in a Savile Row suit. Godfrey was all hair and dishevelment. He told me he had been living high up a Welsh valley in a house he built himself. He had never deviated from his passion for painting and refused to have anything to do with the art establishment.
Juliet and I crossed paths regularly in the eleven years between school and Russia, and I’d kept up with the dramatic, adventurous and at times tragic trajectory of her life. It was good to hear that she was in Russia and when she invited me for the weekend in Peredelkino I was delighted. On top of the pleasure of seeing her, I’d long felt that the pollution in central Moscow was killing me. I leaped at any excuse to escape into the countryside. I’d been living the life of a single Russian woman – renting a room in a communal apartment with six Russian neighbours ranging in age and politics from a Stalinist granny, through a once-underground painter to a twenty-year-old would-be businessman – so it came as a surprise to find myself in a recognisably British family, even if it was playing itself out beneath a Russian canopy of trees. We went for a walk after lunch and picked mushrooms, eating a large, ragged chicken-of-the-woods which was in a perfect state of ripeness, with our meaty supper. The dogs needed feeding. Lettice’s nanny was going back to the city for the night. On Sunday morning Juliet headed into Moscow for church. So far, so normal.
But in the background were the horses, which Juliet had shipped with her to Moscow from Pakistan. Two were tethered in opposite corners of the garden, while another, a mare in season, was being kept in what I remember as a makeshift stable with a pair of rails separating her from the garden. The simmering sexual tension outside communicated itself from time to time to us inside in the form of a whinny or a snort, and on one occasion with over-excited, strangled neighing and high-pitched cries, when the stallion managed to worry his stake loose and tried to break through the rails to the object of his desire. In the evening Juliet said the horses needed exercising, that it would calm them down, and I agreed to accompany her after church. Little did I realise that what she had in mind was for the two of us to ride the pair that seemed to me to have only one thing on their minds, which wasn’t a quiet hack. But yes, I was to ride the stallion while Juliet saddled up the mare. They were skittish from the outset and never settled into any kind of rhythm. Though ostensibly on the same ride, we weren’t able to trot companionably side by side, but had to keep a sensible distance between us. The stallion was spooked, and when we tried to cross a little stream at the bottom of a steep bank he point blank refused. Juliet and the mare were now at the top of the far bank and the stallion chuntered from left to right trying to make up his mind to leap it. A firmer rider might have done it, but I hadn’t been on a horse for some time. Juliet shouted down to me to dismount and lead him over, which worked easily. But once on the other side, he remembered what he wanted and bolted up the bank, pulling the reins from my hands.
I scrambled to the top, only to see the stallion climbing aboard the mare from behind, with Juliet still in the saddle. A Russian family with young children had chosen this sunny clearing for a picnic and were staring aghast at the unusual interruption, all the stranger for happening to a pair of foreigners. A few years earlier a foreign voice in Peredelkino would have been deeply suspicious. It was home to many a prominent member of the Union of Writers, most famously Pasternak, whose novel Doctor Zhivago had been smuggled to the West for publication and who had won the Nobel Prize for Literature in the following year, to the fury of the Soviet Communist Party.
Juliet jumped off and we managed to pull the horses apart before they got too engaged. She disappeared into the forest, telling me to wait for a few minutes before following her back
home. My horse was in a lather of excitement. I walked him round and round the green clearing before venturing back into the brown beneath the conifers. It was laid out on a grid, each avenue lined intermittently with stacks of logs, and it was only when back in the gloom that I realised I’d paid no attention to our route. All avenues looked identical, but I plunged down what I thought was the right one. A couple of times I tried to remount from one of the log piles, but the stallion would not stay still, shifting his hindquarters skittishly out of reach each time I managed to align him. Miraculously, I emerged from the forest not far from the house.
We laughed that evening over dinner, particularly at the expressions on the faces of the Russian picnickers in the face of such unbridled passion. But there was talk between Colin (Peck), Rory and Juliet over selling some footage from Chechnya, and planning their next trip in the days to come. Compared to the Chechen War, our ride was a walk in the park, and I recognised, again, that Juliet and I were made of very different stuff.
Looking back on our school days now, I think what Godfrey and Juliet had in common was an inner refusal to play by the rules for the rules’ sake. Where Godfrey’s was on the surface, Juliet’s rebellion was hidden from view and rarely articulated, even when she was clearly ignoring those rules for the sake of what she felt was important. She was one of nature’s rebels, a free-thinker, camouflaged in pearls.

© Rose Baring

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