SUE LLOYD ROBERTS – in Fornalutx

Photograph by RACHEL FOX

It started with a kiss …

A family holiday in Fornalutx at age 15 prepared Sue Lloyd Roberts for freedom and adventure. She didn’t register very much of the beauty that surrounded her as she was too busy having fun. The restrictive, proper boarding school of Cheltenham was her lot in life just then and a school holiday in the mountains meant just one thing – freedom. Fiesta nights in the square with live music and dancing, kids flirting with each other and hiding from their parents in the back lanes and maze that is Fornalutx streets. The gentle,comparative sophistication of Soller and the delights of the beach became filed in her memory box under the title ‘teenage holiday in Majorca’. The one event that is easy to recall was the first delicious kiss given by a local Don Juan (who still lives in the village). Another memory of that holiday was being present at Robert Graves 70th birthday party in Deya. A stepmother with literary aspirations inveigled a family invitation to that special event and Sue was encouraged to be polite and mingle. She remembers asking Robert Graves what his proudest memories were – He replied ‘translating Winnie the Pooh into Latin’. These were her recollections of Fornalutx and the Hidden Valley until life brought her back for a second visit some forty years later.

Sue Lloyd Roberts MBE, journalist of the Year 2013, EMMY award winner, shortly to collect her CBE from the palace gave me some of her precious time this week and I was honoured. Hers is a name I have known and a career I have followed for the whole of mine. We have North London in common and at times have either lived or worked very near to one another. We were sliding doors narrowly missing one another in our lives in Swiss Cottage and Muswell Hill.

Sue’s Welsh surname came from Caernarvon in North Wales. This was the birthplace of her orthopaedic surgeon father who relocated to London and created a very English life for his children. The love of mountains and beautiful scenery was born there and to climb a mountain still remains Sue’s passion in life. In fact she has climbed both sides of the Himalayas and Kilimanjaro, alone and in the company of her two children who have inherited her love for the skill and solitude of the climb.

As a female graduate trainee with ITN and a move to the BBC in 1990 her opportunities were limited to start with. A spell as the Royal Reporter and general journalism took her into the three horse stable. Always working as part of a three man crew her role was often that as a typecast woman and her crew’s glorified nanny.
She remembers a hard world in the 1970’s – opportunities for women were there but family life paid a very high price while careers were carved out of essentially a mans world. She remembers her children’s childhoods with huge regret that often her job had to come first. She was a single parent in this period of her life so suffered the double guilt for the amount of time she was able to spend with them. Holiday times and climbing were the cement that bound them together and these days they enjoy each others company enormously. Sue was certainly very wistful on this subject and the desire to set the clock back and do the early years mother thing again was very evident

Human Rights with all the issues of the day set the course for the next stage of her career. There was one invention that changed everything for her and set her on course to be an undercover human rights reporter. In 1988 Sony produced the machine that enabled her to operate alone with a Sony Domestic Camera and this was the revolution that news and Sue Lloyd Roberts were waiting for. Prior to this machine Sue was one of the ‘taxi rank’ reporters which meant she never knew where she would be that night. This was a huge challenge to the life of a single mother of two which was why the advent of the small camera was both personally and professionally liberating. She could now pursue human rights issues in countries which forbade official three man crews, undercover using a small camera. Her material was therefore exclusive and she could go, more or less, where she wanted when she wanted – ideal if you are trying to make it to the School Sports Day!

The coded instructions and stealth of these operations were more James Bond than BBC. Stories of arrests, strip searches at borders and near misses are enough to cause the adrenalin to flow just listening to them. The border guards taken in by stories of her being a hapless academic researching her next thesis was often how she got into the most unlikely countries. Her intellectual approach bored the guards into submission and they were happy to send her on her way.

Sue has covered stories in this way in Zimbabwe, Africa, Asia,India, China,Russia, Beirut, Bosnia, Romania , Korea,Argentina,Peru,Burma and Tibet amongst other countries and continents. She was blacklisted in Burma after filming a gem trader agreeing to send the precious jewels anywhere she wanted in the world. There are sanctions against gem trade in Burma because of their history of repression and record on human right abuses. Her one person covert operation had huge repercussions and resulted in her being lucky to get out of the country in one piece. To talk to the people affected by the regimes in which they live is where Sue’s skill is foremost. She knows how to listen and pull out the bits of information that will have the desired effect. She wants the world to listen to all the terrible things that she has proved go on in our world today. She is motivated by a desire to bring the atrocities into the open so that political and personal will can change the lot for the countries and people involved.

All this comes at a great personal price, she is deeply affected by all she hears and decided very early on in her career that she had to pay something back to all the countries she has worked in. She knows that she makes her living out of other peoples hardship, conditions and abuses. To reconcile this was very important to her and she has always donated 10% of her income to charities in the countries she worked in that financial year. In addition to this she is very involved in charities in
Burma and Tibet and supports work with children in Romania and Bosnia.

Life changed in 2002 when Sue couldn’t remain detached from the stories she heard on a daily basis and started crying. Family life was tricky as her daughter was unwell and all in all this was a watershed moment. Now married to Nick Guthrie – a fellow journalist they took a holiday in Fornalutx at the house of Nick’s uncle. Sue remembered with such pleasure her introduction to the valley when she was 15 and now here it was again as a re introduction by her beloved husband.

The Soller Valley weaved its magic spell and the Guthries decided to give up news and Sue’s life as a spy and run a small hotel in Fornalutx. The peace and tranquility of the Valley, the mountain walks and a gentle life was what her soul was yearning. In 2003 they sold everything in the UK apart from a small North London apartment and put all their money into Can Reus – a nine bedroomed hotel with the most stunning view of the mountains and the valley. They inherited three Romanian staff and set about learning a new trade and making all the mistakes that even clever people do when they make such a life changing move. This was a different world but the conversational skills used to such effect in Bosnia or Tibet were just as useful here in Majorca. The guests that came for walking and relaxation holidays opened up to Sue on the mountain walks she led. She learnt so much about the lives of hard working people in the UK who came to Fornalutx for the same reasons that she did.

Fornalutx is Sue and Nick’s home and their very special place where all is well with their world. After a year of pinching themselves because they couldn’t believe how lucky they were to be in this paradise they woke up. Sue had stopped crying and admitted to herself that there were many battles still to be fought and stories to be gathered. Human rights abuses had not stopped while she was being domestic in Fornalutx – it was time to go back to work. The Majorca home and the soothing of the soul when she returned to it helped her contemplate the next chapter of her life. This era has been the one that has seen awards and acknowledgements for the importance of her work being poured on her head.

Sue is a frequent visitor to Syria and has a unique perspective on the current happenings. Her work with victims of female genital mutilation is a crusade she will not give up. The statistic that 90% of Egyptian women have been subjected to this practise shows how much work there is still to do. She is complimentary to the French government because they have taken over 100 of these mutilators through the courts and prosecuted them for child abuse. In the UK so far no prosecutions have been brought even though it is well known that this practice occurs in some communities. Other countries have stories that need exposing and Sue has her sights set on Peru at the moment which has now climbed the dubious ladder to becoming the largest cocaine producer in the world. So many stories, so much work and Sue knows that she has a great privilege in being able to be the news bearer.

The life of a hotelier in Fornalutx is a different world but challenge and controversy are never far from the surface. Would it surprise you to know that recently Sue was fined 350€ by the Guardia Civil for insubordination? A taxi arrived bringing guests to her hotel in the middle of the night from the airport. Sue stood at the door to welcome them and couldn’t believe the price that the driver was proposing to charge. She sent him away with an imperious ‘Don’t be ridiculous’ resounding in his ears. The police returned to the hotel with the irate taxi driver and a noisy confrontation took place. Sue says that she has a deep respect for law and order and the practitioners but she is always going to have her say and stand her ground. End result of this one was a few weeks later the fine arrived in the post for ‘gross insubordination’.

Making fruit salad for breakfast and discussing the price of toilet cleaner is a daily routine and sometimes added to that is the planning stage for another clandestine trip. She laughs with wry amusement when she thinks of the guests who have overheard her on the very open hotel reception phone arranging alternative passports and disguises. The local printer in Soller is quite used to her turning up and asking for business cards to be printed with fictitious names and details to give credence to her other lives. The business card she used for the Burma trip where she posed as an international gems dealer was produced in down town Soller.

The combination life of the worlds insanity and the peace and tranquillity of the Soller Valley is a challenge but Sue balances it by being interested in everything around her – wherever she is. She is a passionate historian and is looking forward to a time in the future when she can devote herself to unravelling Spain. The legacy of the Spanish civil war particularly intrigues as does the history of Catalonian independence. She has already mentally prepared the beginnings of a thesis on the Moorish occupation of the Balearic Islands and there is much more to come.

Sue Lloyd Roberts MBE is off to the palace on the 10th October to collect a CBE honouring her work as one of the finest investigative journalists of our era. Hers is a life that has had far reaching consequences for a mass of humanity by declaring their story and shaming politicians into action. Her own ambitions to effect change are undiminished and she has many new projects to work on. She is not retiring yet to the full time life in Fornalutx that she dreams one day will be hers. To integrate into the community and understand what make the people of Soller tick will be a walk in the park for her after all she has done.

Sue loves to walk, to climb mountains, to dance, to sing and open herself to all the good things in life. She can do this with an energy not given to most of us because she has looked into the cesspit’s of hell and has been an instrument of significant change.

The Soller Valley is proud of this adopted daughter and honoured that she calls this place her home.

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