Ready to fly anywhere at a moment’s notice, BBC journalist Emily Maitlis on how she’s a master of the compact pack
She’s on the (suit) case ...
In the hotel room kitchenette I can hear my miniature stove-top espresso pot banging ominously. I ignore it for a moment — they’re always noisy. It has come with me, as it always does when I travel. I am Master of the Perfectly Packed Tiny Carry-on Suitcase. Everything in it must earn its space and fold inside something else. Even dental floss — threaded on a needle — must double up as a sewing kit.
The banging lid gets louder. Then a ribbon of white starts to snake out of the top of the coffee. I draw close and see it is, in fact, my sock. The sock that I had forgotten to remove from its ingenious home — the dead space inside the cavity of the coffee machine. Okay, so maybe things don’t always go to plan. I, Master of the Perfectly Packed Tiny Carry-on Suitcase, on a mission to travel more lightly than any human ever before, have just boiled my own sock. And the coffee has never tasted quite the same. But the mission, nevertheless, continues on a daily basis.
In the corner of my bedroom at home is a small triangular cupboard. It contains my grab bag — the first place I go when I’m deployed on a story overseas. When Fidel Castro died I headed to Cuba without even waiting for the visa (we spent some difficult hours in a local county jail). When pro-democracy students faced tear gas on the streets of Hong Kong (the struggle would become known as the Umbrella Protests in recognition of the makeshift defence they had to use), I was in Asia 12 hours later. That was the week I discovered there is nothing more cumbersome in hand luggage than a gas mask. But I was glad to have it.
When the Bataclan terror attacks hit Paris I had just landed at Heathrow from two weeks on the US presidential campaign trail. It seemed simpler not to unpack and I headed to France with the same case (the endlessly expanding soft Kipling in bright purple so I can spot it at 100 metres).
After the mass shooting in Orlando, I was on the ground 50 minutes before Newsnight began. We made it as lead story thanks to kind immigration staff and a very small bag.
Each time the call comes I empty the contents of the grab bag on to the bed and pick my way through it: the Diane von Furstenberg faux-croc-case world adapter for every conceivable shape of plug, a miniature bottle of Tabasco, Twinings teabags nicked from the BA lounge, Nuxe Huile Prodigieuse to stop my hair going curly in 98% humidity and an amazing device that can break a windscreen if you’re locked inside a car with no escape. This is now easy-peasy. Second nature.
The hard stuff starts with the clothes. The day I interviewed Anthony Scaramucci — Trump’s former director of communications — on the White House lawn I had actually been trying to film a poultry farm in Delaware for the chlorinated chicken story. What began as my dress-down leggings day ended up with an outfit splashed across every late-night US comedy show. That’s some sartorial dilemma: would I look more stupid wearing wellies in the West Wing or tailored to within an inch of my life on a farm, with chicken s*** stuck to open-toe sandals?
It was the same thing at the Democratic National Convention. We had begun the day filming in the ganglands of Philadelphia. I had ended the evening behind the main stage of the Wells Fargo Center thrusting a mic in the face of Nancy Pelosi just before she did the warm-up act for Hillary Clinton. Something told me la Pelosi, Grande Dame of Congress, wouldn’t stop for jeans and Converse pumps, but our hotel by the airport was too far for a detour. Not for the first time, I used our hire car as my own personal Tardis for a rapid change. My cameraman, Pete, has learnt to avoid the rear-view mirror at certain strategic times when driving to preserve my modesty and our working relationship.
The hardest thing about dressing for Newsnight is the moving cameras. Something that looks fine when you’re standing or sitting at a desk can look completely different when shot with a low camera angle. And I don’t get a clothes allowance, sadly.
Over the years I’ve learnt to keep it simple: the same three Tara Jarmon dresses come with me each time. All A-line, which allows for a speedy, unclingy change. All back-zipping for easy access to the mic pack, which perches on the back of my bra. One is black, inevitably for sombre news, one is white — for dark nights when we’re short on lighting kit and I need to use the colour reflectively to brighten the shot — and one is uncompromising red — for when you need to grab someone’s attention in a crowded press room. I take heels with me for confidence — and for when you are live and need four extra inches to frame the shot against the right backdrop. The camera crew decides when the heels come or go.
Then there’s the coat — which, I’ve learnt, can define on-air appearances more than you realise. For the six months I wore a navy Zara coat with gold buttons, my editor insisted on calling me Captain Birdseye. I can’t remember if I got sick of the coat before the jokes or vice versa. But when I took it to a New Hampshire Trump rally on Veterans’ Day I got pushed to the front of the queue by his new press officer. I’m sure she assumed I was armed forces.
For every other occasion I take my Sweaty Betty running kit. Partly because it’s my daily staple that allows me the chance to clear my head each morning, and partly because it’s a way of being quietly and comfortably invisible for those moments when you are trying to fade into the background on a complicated shoot. An airline blanket doubles as a scarf and occasionally a changing room. A blue sleeveless Uniqlo puffa is my last obsession. Inside pockets work well when you think you’re about to be mugged.
It may sound neurotic, this over-concentration on wardrobe, but it no longer seems that way. What you wear says volumes about you. It’s not just about practicality, or temperature, or modesty. It speaks to whether you have understood the story you’re covering and the situations it may take you into.
And what of the coffee pot? Has it remained a core item post-sock boiling? It has. It came to Cleveland, Ohio. It caught fire. Its handle melted all over the Gaggenau gas ring of our Airbnb. I, Master of the Perfectly Packed Carry-on Tiny Suitcase, am currently rethinking that one. I’ll keep you posted.