(This will probably be a rambling blog post following my train of thoughts this morning.)
It’s interesting to look back and think about how we ended up where we ended up. I was just reading my Kindle (a chapter on Ugandan authoritarianism and aid, co-written as it happens, by my master’s thesis supervisor. Yesterday I was thinking about the 11 years since I was at Oxford after seeing matriculation photos of a friend from Freetown who just started a masters there, choosing St Antony’s on my recommendation. I bought the book on aid after reading a review on the LSE Africa blog), switching on the wifi to download my latest book purchase, ‘The Places in Between’ by Rory Stewart.
I’d bought Stewart’s book after reading a blog post by Owen Barder on an event/discussion he’d held with Rory Stewart who is apparently now a minister in the new UK Government. I’d looked up Stewart’s profile on Wikipedia, as I like to see how interesting people get to where they are (perhaps to confirm my suspicions that it’s often a privileged path to the top), and I saw that he’d written a bestselling book about walking across Afghanistan (well from Herat to Kabul). That provoked two thoughts – firstly that in 2014 I was in Herat and Kabul, and that I’d been rather intrigued by the area in between, though sadly a planned trip had fallen through (I think principally because of heavy snow). Secondly, I recall reading a review in the Sunday Times when Stewart’s book came out, which must be over a decade ago, and I’d filed it in my brain as a book I’d like to read sometime.
Some time in my early teens, our family started to get the Sunday Times. I actually have no idea why this happened, but it quickly became a Sunday tradition after church, and each of us would have our favourite parts. It may have been that the first time we ever bought the paper was while on holiday in Switzerland, to get some news of back home, though this could be wrong. I was probably more thorough than most in flicking through every single part (job adverts aside), but my particular favourite bit was the book reviews (which later became a ‘Culture’ section as the paper grew exponentially in size and cost over the years). This led directly to my first book purchases on Amazon, which if my memory serves me correctly were a travel book (by another Stewart (Stanley) about riding across Mongolia on horseback. I recently recommended this book to a British colleague working in our Nigeria office who in August was riding across Mongolia on horseback) and Ryszard Kapuscinki’s Shadow of the Sun, a memoir of the Polish journalist’s time in Africa.
(The days before Amazon were distinctly odd. In my early teens I had an interest in the history of the Spanish Main after many hours spent playing ‘Pirates’ on our Amiga computer. I remember going to our local bookshop, and saying I wanted to buy a book on pirates. The old man fired up the computer and had some odd black and green database which showed up books with the word ‘Pirates’ in them. We chose one and ordered, though we can have had very little idea on whether the book was suitable. I don’t recall being too impressed by it. The two other books pre-Amazon I remember buying were a massive chronicle of the Second World War, which I received as a school prize giving gift (I had to combine several book vouchers from different prizes), and a book called ‘Darwin on Trial’ from an early flirtation with anti-evolution theory. The bookshop has long since closed.)
Shadow of the Sun is one of the books I think of when I wonder how I got this fixation with becoming a journalist in Africa (I read a blog post by ex BBC Angola correspondent Lara Pawson on this theme yesterday). Foreign correspondents often come from families with former colonial district commissioners, just like writers often come from academic/teacher/writer parents. In my case, it was a long time before I met an actual journalist or writer, so I think the encounter with Kapuscinski’s writings was formative. Other elements that I think pushed me in this direction were a Swiss friend I very much admired, who once suggested that he would give up teaching and do missionary work and freelance journalism in Africa (he did the former, I did the latter). I also knew from career books that journalism was one of the things that history graduates did after leaving university (the other main choice seemed to be teaching).
But I also think back to the odd sudden arrival of the Sunday Times in our lives, which actually later expanded into receiving The Times every day of the week (I think we got some extraordinary price for the paper through a mail offer). For several years, I would read the paper cover to cover after getting back from school. It must have pushed me to expand my horizons. Coincidentally this morning I had breakfast to a Tim Ferris podcast in which he was giving advice to parents that in their mid-teens, children would really benefit from becoming better at reading, good writing and public speaking – skills that pay off later on in almost every area of life.