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Carol Sarler obit: Columnist with 'endless capacity for outrage' who exposed plight of Romanian orphans

Carol Sarler - credit: Daily Mail

In January 1991 Carol Sarler’s 11-page report on the scandal of the Romanian orphanages was published in the Sunday Times Magazine.

Headlined Shame About The Babies it was the most important of the many thousands of articles she wrote in half a century of journalism.

Heartbreaking about the terrible condition of the children, it was a savage indictment of the cruelty and racism endemic in a society whose recent liberation from Ceausescu had been so roundly applauded, as well as a searing attack on the ineptitude of the major international charities.

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As for the Dunkirk-style flotilla of kindhearted British who wanted to help, she lauded the people who made a difference but was harsh on those (and they were legion) sending “help” that was thoughtless, useless or worse. To critics of those adopting Romanian orphans she showed no mercy.

Here were many of the characteristics that made Sarler remarkable: empathy, stamina, a reporter’s nose for the telling detail and, as one of her best friends puts it, “her endless capacity for outrage, in this case properly applied.”

As a newspaper columnist on subjects great and small she was often fierce. She was never one to mince her words.

As a woman in her sixties, she contrasted her own generation’s feminism – “all about what women could do” with “today’s ninny version all about what women can’t do, the ridiculous Me Too brigade” – and told how at a party when she was in her thirties a senior male colleague kept putting his hand on her thigh.

She asked him not to and when he didn’t “I slapped him across the face then back-slapped the other cheek for good measure”. She can’t remember the man’s name but bets he can remember hers.

She had a big mouth but a bigger heart and if she could be a bad enemy she was a marvelous friend, quick and unstinting with help, support, affection and generosity. She had what she called “an absurd but enduring fondness for comedians” and became a loved figure on the alternative comedy scene, a welcome outsider in a world where journalists were often viewed with suspicion.

Writing for The Guardian in the 1980s she became the first broadsheet reviewer of stand-up, helping it onto the arts agenda and giving oxygen to new talent.

She loved Edinburgh. “It felt like no Fringe had started until Carol turned up and claimed her seat in the Club Bar,” says William Burdett-Coutts, director of the Assembly Rooms which was the Fringe’s nerve centre.

There, often dressed in long Bohemian clothes in rather eccentric colours, she held court. Possibly thanks to her expense account at the Daily Express, whose Wednesday columnist she was for several years, she was able to provide drinks to impecunious young comics as well as advice, amusement and debate.

For the chosen she cooked and even offered a place to stay. She was catalyst and enabler as well as critic, coming up with ideas and helping newcomers make contacts.

“I have produced Edinburgh shows for money (hah!) and for charity (mercifully, more profitably),” she wrote, “and spent a few years reaping titbits for newsprint. The best overheards, tragically, were always unprintable.”

In the wake of her reports on the orphanages, London Comedy Store’s Fund For Sick Children was turned to Romania – with Jo Brand, Arthur Smith and others involved – but with Sarler very much the driving force.

Charity concerts produced tens of thousands of pounds. They sent play therapists headed by a team leader from Great Ormond Street to train Romanian nurses in a children’s hospital inBrasov. When the Romanian nurses visited London Sarler showed them round and put them up in her house.

Born in Hong Kong, daughter of a major in the army pay corps (always referred to as “the Major”) she had a peripatetic childhood as he was posted to Hanover and then to Benghazi.

In 1958, when she was eight years old, the family came back to England, driving to Tripoli then up through France where the car was stripped by customs but the Libyan tortoise that the little girl had slipped into her pocket made it back to become the family pet in Surrey.

After Farnham Girls’ Grammar School till O-level, then A-levels at Guildford Tech, she did a short fashion course in London and joined Petticoat, a girls’ weekly magazine (slogan “For the young and fancy free”).

In 1972 she went to Australia with her then-husband. Her daughter Flynn was born there in 1973. They returned to England later that year. Soon she was single and she and Flynn, a journalist-turned-schoolteacher, lived together from then on as a brilliant two-woman team, joined ten years ago by Flynn’s much loved-daughter Milly.

As well as doing a sociology degree at Goldsmiths College in South London, Carol threw herself into a hectic freelance career. In 1977-8 she worked on the Look! pages of the Sunday Times where she led a heroic if quixotic campaign to persuade the Treasury to tax wives as individuals separately from their husbands (only more than a decade later did that come to pass).

In the early Eighties she did a stint as editor of the young women’s monthly magazine Honey.

She wrote for national newspapers right across the spectrum from left to right, broadsheet and red-top. Twice when she was shortlisted as columnist of the year she was beaten by people who had recently died – the very definition of misfortune for all concerned.

Her home saw many evenings of dinners, laughter and lively drink-enhanced debate (Red Red Wine is one of the two songs she requested for her sadly small socially-distanced funeral).

Long remembered will be her annual Christmas parties packed with friends from comedy, politics, television and print and the odd national pariah figure whom she supported through thick and thin, even though maybe she shouldn’t have.

Carol Sarler died aged 70 (her death was not Covid-19 related).

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