Margaret Siriol Colley (1925-2011)

by Andrew Stuttaford

A remarkable woman died this week:  Siriol Colley was clever, tenacious, occasionally bloody-minded, the possessor of a sometimes dark (she was a doctor), splendidly bone-dry sense of humor, and a proud daughter of Wales. As you can see from her website, she led a rich, varied and adventurous life.

But there was more than that. At the age of ten, Siriol had lost her much-loved Uncle Gareth, a gifted journalist of  almost Zelig ubiquity (check out this website), who had been murdered under murky circumstances in Japanese-occupied Manchuria in 1935. For decades it was a family tragedy, a private mystery, and then, well I’ll quote myself from an article I wrote for NRODT back in 2004:

The notebooks — worn, creased, and drab, but haunting nonetheless — lay carefully set out on a table in the lobby of a New York hotel. Their pages were filled with notes, comments, and calculations, jotted and scribbled in the cursive, spiky script once a hallmark of pre-war Britain’s educated classes.

Their author had, it seems, wandered through a dying village deep within Stalin’s gargoyle empire. “Woman came out and started crying. ‘They’re killing us. In my village there used to be 300 cows and now we only have 30. The horses have died. How can I feed us all?’” It was the Ukraine, March 1933, a land in the throes of a man-made famine, the latest murderous chapter in Soviet social engineering. Five, six, seven million had died, maybe more. As Khrushchev later explained, “No one was counting.”

But how had these notebooks found their way to a Hilton in Manhattan? Some years ago, in a town in Wales, an old, old lady, older than the century in which she lived, was burgled. As a result, she moved out of her home. When her niece, Siriol, came to clear up whatever was left, she found a brown leather suitcase monogrammed “G.V.R.J.” and, lying under a thick layer of dust, a black tin box. Inside them were papers, letters, and, yes, those notebooks (“nothing had been thrown away”), the last records of Gareth Jones — “G.V.R.J.” — Siriol’s “jolly,” brilliant Uncle Gareth, a polyglot traveler and journalist. In 1935 he had been killed by bandits in Manchuria, or so it was said. All that was left was grief, his writings, and the memory of a talented man cut down far, far too soon…

What Siriol did in the years that followed her discovery of that suitcase was simply extraordinary. Aided by her no less indefatigable, no less tenacious son, Nigel (who spoke at the National Press Club in Washington this week), and the tireless, selfless support of a Ukrainian-American family (they had set up the meeting in that Hilton that day) too modest to be named, she worked relentlessly for the belated recognition of this brave, and extraordinarily prescient, journalist.

And how they worked: As I said, “tenacious”. 

As writings that had been largely unseen for seven decades came back into view, the long overdue recognition arrived, in Jones’s native Wales, in England, and, above all, Ukraine. He had been one of the few foreign journalists to witness the genocidal famine—the Holodomor—that Stalin had unleashed on the Ukrainian nation in 1932/33 and he was one of the even fewer to tell the truth about what was going on.  To honor Jones, and to publicize his work, and the unique evidence that his notebooks represent, was yet another way for independent Ukraine to bring attention to a monstrosity that—even now—still remains too little understood in the West.

And it all began with a quiet country doctor finding a suitcase. Thank you, Siriol. You will be missed. RIP.