Since I was able to hold a pencil I wrote continually (and spelled erratically). As soon as I could raise any cash, I travelled everywhere swamped by a second-hand woollen trench coat. But I never thought of myself as a writer. After I graduated from university in the ‘me’ epoch of the 80s, I spent several years doing voluntary work, assisting immigration lawyers, designing a know-your-rights newsletter working in alienated estates, going from flat-to-flat to solicit support from people who dived from door knocks . It ended badly: a police raid, daily visits to holding cells, the protracted defence of community activists facing surreal charges. Witnesses had to be gathered, statements drawn, rebuttals written. The pressure was crushing.
An organised friend was heading to do a post-grad journalism course and, punch-drunk, I traipsed after her, getting a late interview, winning a place when someone else dropped out. Suddenly all of my previous lives came into play. The courts. The duty inspector’s office. And when it came to door knocks and cold calls I recognised the chaotic lives in front of me.
Nothing prepares you for your first days on a real newspaper. Pages to fill. And deadlines. How could anyone contemplate filing an accurate court report, balancing a Tandy on your knees by the time the judge delivers sentence? Or a council planning story, improvised on the minute, grey screen, with its brick-like cursor, a device that was then coupled via two large prophylactics to a public call box.
Somehow I landed a job on the Burton Daily Mail, a brewery paper that punched above its weight. Then came the Bolton Evening News where a sharp news desk worked everyone hard. I spent weekends shifting on the Liverpool Post, then a grand provincial daily, and the benchmark for quality in an age when print ruled. Finally, I settled down on the Yorkshire Post, a regional broadsheet that gave me lots of rope. A great writer there had worked on The Sunday Times and persuaded me to go for an interview. I got shifts, and then a contract that became a staff job and eventually I became deputy editor in the paper’s Insight investigative unit, leaving to become a foreign correspondent, reporting from South Asia for The Sunday Times magazine and newspaper, racking up stories from the Jaffna peninsula, before it fell to the LTTE to the Khyber Pass, before it was vacated by the Taliban. I left again in 1999 to specialise in foreign reportage, contributing regularly to The Sunday Times magazine, before joining the Guardian’s Weekend magazine, and then writing for the The Times magazine. To us, it has always been about the journeys and the people. But there was some nice words from publishers too. In 2002, El Mundo, in Spain, and Courier International, in France, described as among ‘the best of courageous European journalism’. In 2004, we won the One World award for foreign reporting, and in 2009 were made Press Journalists of the Year.
Television: In 2000 we presented a 50-minute film on C4 and the History Channel, The Search For Kurtz, on the hunt for the maverick US marine and CIA agent whose career aped that of the notorious Brando character in Apocalypse Now. In 2002, we co-produced a one-hour film on Asia’s war against drugs for BBC 1 as part of the MacIntyre Investigates series. Working with True Vision, in 2010, we produced, City of Fear, following the police and citizens of Islamabad during the capital’s bloodiest year. The film was nominated for an award at the Edinburgh International Television Festival. In 2012, we produced for C4 Kashmir’s Torture Trail, which is a finalist in the Amnesty International Media Awards 2013, and Chinese Murder Mystery, which was long-listed for a BAFTA and nominated for the Monte Carlo Television Awards 2013. Currently we are filming several new projects in South Asia.
Radio: we have broadcast regularly for BBC Radio and BBC World Service and in 2001 made Stone of Heaven, a series for BBC Radio 4 on the history of jade.
Books: The Stone of Heaven, 2001 (finalist in Borders New Voices competition). The Amber Room, 2004 (New York Times Notable Book). Deception, 2008 (Washington Post Book of the Year, finalist in the Royal United Services Institute, Duke of Westminster’s medal for Military History), The Meadow, 2012. The Siege, an account of the 16/11 assaults on Mumbai, will be published by Penguin, in India, the UK and the US, in October 2013.