Peter HopkirkThe name of Peter Hopkirk will long be associated with the “Great Game”, the cloak-and-dagger struggle between Britain and Russia for control over swathes of central Asia that raged through the 19th century.

The vast and sparsely populated regions stretching from the southern reaches of Russia to the northwest frontier of India had fascinated him since he read Rudyard Kipling’s Kim as a boy. However, Hopkirk was no armchair historian. He was an intrepid traveler who adeptly shrugged off the region’s ever-watchful authorities to piece together his rip-roaring histories. In his now classic accounts Foreign Devils on the Silk Road and Trespassers on the Roof of the World, he expertly evoked the lives of the fanatical archaeologist-adventurers who dug up and carried off the contents of ancient Silk Road libraries buried beneath the desert and the mapmakers who illicitly scaled ice-clad Himalayan peaks disguised as horse-traders or religious men.

There was always more than a touch of John Buchan about Hopkirk. When he was interviewed by The Times in 2006 he had a copy of Buchan’s Greenmantle sticking out of his pocket and a mini radio set about his neck to keep up to date with the World Service. One of his books, On Secret Service East of Constantinople, about German attempts in 1914 to unleash a holy war against the British and Russian empires, was even inspired by Greenmantle.

Hopkirk’s years as a foreign correspondent stood him in good stead. Known as something of a daredevil on Fleet Street – where he reported for The Times for two decades and for The Daily Express – Hopkirk had spent his career chasing stories from Cuba to Beirut. He was twice flung into jail and survived a plane hijacking. A journalist to his core, he told the authorities who wanted to interview him afterwards: “I must ring my newsdesk and you can overhear my call.” His story made the front page of The Times the next day.

Hopkirk produced more than exciting adventure stories. His travels through Asia resulted in six books and he was arguably the leading 20th–century expert on the region. President Muhammad Najibullah, the last Soviet-backed ruler of Afghanistan, spent his time sheltering in the UN compound in Kabul translating Hopkirk’s The Great Game into Farsi before he was dragged outside and killed on the day the Taliban took over the capital. Najibullah believed Hopkirk’s dramatic account of 19th-century Anglo-Russian rivalry in central Asia was on the Ministry of Defence’s required reading list for British soldiers who were deployed to Afghanistan.

Hopkirk did his homework in the India Office archives at the British Library and knew and consulted academics and museum curators. He had a huge collection of books on the region – many of them rare, primary sources – which filled his house in Fulham, west London, to the extend that his wife feared it might sink.

In the 1970s he travelled widely through central Asia and also covered the Times-sponsored exhibition of Tutankhamun’s treasures at the British Museum and a show of newly excavated Chinese treasures by the Royal Academy. He began to piece together the tale that would become his first book: Foreign Devils on the Silk Road (1980), describing the race between western archaeologists for the lost cities and treasures of the old trading routes of Chinese central Asia. He chronicled how paintings, silks, manuscripts, bronzes and coins lying buried in monasteries and temples beneath the sands were excavated and removed by the ton by camel and ox-cart, to be scattered among European museums. Sir Aurel Stein, for instance, carried 29 cases from one sealed chamber over bleak wastelands and ice-clad passes of Chinese Turkestan, which cost him the toes of his right foot.

Hopkirk read all there was to read and visited where possible all the sites. Although the region was still largely closed except to strictly monitored tour groups, Hopkirk became adept at seeking out individuals with recollections of key events and personalities: “Whenever my minders’ backs were turned I would sneak off to find where key events in the Great Game took place.” He was sometimes accompanied by Kathleen, his third wife and an author, who did much initial research and helped with inquiries in Peking, Tokyo and Delhi.

His second book, Trespassers on the Roof of the World, published in 1982, concentrated on the increasingly frenzied – at times lunatic – attempts by Europeans to reach Lhasa, the Forbidden City, and to achieve domination of the huge Tibetan plateau. He uncovered the stories of the Indian pundit-spies employed by the British, one of whom travelled for four and a half years in Tibet disguised as a holy man, counting his five million steps on a rosary. This book established Hopkirk as an authority not only on the Great Game but on the region in which it was played.

Peter Hopkirk was born in Nottingham, the son of a prison chaplain. He grew up in Danbury, Essex, where he recalled his mother reading him Greenmantle. He used to dream of being sent on a secret mission by Kim’s spymaster, Colonel Creighton, and later always carried the novel in his saddlebag. As a boy he haunted oriental bookshops around the British Museum and saved up to buy a brass camel with a mysterious inscription that he kept on his desk.(Go here to read about Peter's parents, Frank Stuart Hopkirk and Mary Phemister Kirkham, and his ancestors.)

Competitive from an early age, he played rugby at the Dragon School against Antonia Pakenham, now Lady Antonia Fraser, and shot at Bisley for the Marlborough eight. He began his National Service in 1949 with a secondment to the King’s African Rifles, chasing armed bandits on the Italian Somaliland border. Years later, when Idi Amin seized power in Uganda, his name rang a bell with Hopkirk (“I think he was in my battalion”) and he made great efforts to contact him.

Peter Hopkirk, King's African Rifles 1949(From 1949, Peter in the King's African Rifles. Our thanks goes to his daughter Elizabeth for supplying this great photo)

He was inspired by Sir Fitzroy Maclean’s Eastern Approaches to seek a life of adventure. With the Cold War at its height, journalism appeared the best option. He joined The Sunday Express and was assigned to the French counter-insurgency war in Algeria in 1955, where he accompanied French troops in helicopter assaults on rebels strongholds. He was then invited by the South African diamond millionaire Jim Bailey to edit his West African news magazine Drum. He took his first wife, Delphine, with whom he had a son, Tim (now a reputational risk management consultant). The couple later divorced.

After a stint at ITN as a newscaster he joined The Daily Express, and was based in New York. During the 1961 Bay of Pigs fiasco, and while working in Havana, he was arrested by the Cuban secret police and accused of spying for Washington. He was thrown into an overcrowded cell from which fellow captives were taken out to be shot. It was seemingly only thanks to the efforts of the owner of the Express, Lord Beaverbrook, and his contacts in Mexico that his release was secured. A year later, having been reassigned to the Middle East, he was arrested in Beirut and then expelled from Lebanon.

When Hopkirk joined The Times in 1966 he wondered how he would fare on a more serious newspaper. A colleague said: “Write exactly the same way. Just make your paragraphs twice as long.” He was for six years the newspaper’s chief reporter before becoming a Middle and Far East expert. He was on a plane from Beirut hi-jacked by Palestinian terrorists in 1974. With the aircraft on the ground at Amsterdam, he found himself on the tarmac between Dutch troops and the still-armed hijackers. He courageously persuaded the Palestinians to drop their weapons and avoid a firefight.

He relished being a reporter but now focused on his books. The Great Game (1990) drew under single cover his work. He then followed the itinerary of his boyhood hero Kim from Lahore to Varanasi and into the Himalayas, speculating on the models for Kipling’s characters in Quest for Kim: In Search of Kipling’s Great Game. Hopkirk’s second wife was the journalist Joyce Hopkirk, with whom he had a daughter, Victoria, a landscape gardener. He met his third wife, Kathleen Partridge, at an archaeology lecture. They married in 1970; their children, James and Elizabeth, are both journalists.

“It’s extraordinary to see how history is repeating itself,” he said of the current situation in Afghanistan. “Some of the players are different, but the Game goes on. Perhaps my books should be read as cautionary tales.”

Peter Hopkirk, reading newspaper(From the early 2000's, Peter reading a newspaper. Again, our thanks goes to his daughter Elizabeth for supplying this photo.)
Peter Hopkirk, author, was born on December 15, 1930. He died on August 22, 2014, aged 83

Obituary courtesy of The Times

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This page was last updated on January 25, 2015