Ruwenzori Mountains, Uganda.
I remember as if it was yesterday the moment that I decided to become a writer. I was curled up with a book in a tent in a remote part of western Uganda. There are stupendously high and permanently snowcapped mountains there, the Ruwenzori—the Mountains of the Moon, as they were called in ancient times—and I was employed to look for copper in the canyons that led down from their peaks. I was a geologist with a brand-new Oxford University degree from my native England. Since I was looking forward to traveling the world, this job seemed a pretty good start. So there I was in Uganda, armed with a geologist’s quartet of eternal best friends: a hammer, a magnifying glass, a compass, and a bottle of acid.
Except. Yes, I loved geology. But—and it was a big but—I had long felt a burning urge to become a writer, too. Each time I climbed a mountain and gazed at the jungles below, I wanted to jot it all down and then have someone far away read about what a good time I was having.
On that fateful day in Uganda in the winter of 1966, I read a book from the local library called Coronation Everest by James Morris. It is about the first successful ascent of the world’s highest mountain, Mount Everest in the Himalayas, by New Zealand’s Sir Edmund Hillary and Nepal’s Tenzing Norgay back in 1953.
The book’s author was a special correspondent for the London Times. Though he had never climbed before, Morris managed to get himself some 25,000 feet (7,620 m) up the mountainside, and was perfectly placed for the moment when Hillary and Tenzing triumphantly reached the summit. Using all kinds of secret codes and cunning wiles Morris was the first to get the news back to London, in time to be published on the morning of the coronation of England’s new queen, Elizabeth II. It was a royal gift and journalistic scoop of the highest order! Reading Morris’s thrilling account and recognizing that this author’s work seemed to allow him to travel the world, I decided, there and then, right in my little tent, that I wanted his job. I wanted to be him. I wanted to swap geology for journalism, and change the direction of my life in a profound way.
Headed for the Kamchatka Peninsula in far eastern Russia, home to twenty-nine active volcanoes.
I wrote to Morris, asking for advice. If you think you can write, he replied,then do so. It is the best job imaginable. You’ll never get rich, but you’ll have a whale of a time. Give up being a geologist. Come back to England, right away, and see what you can do.
So I did as bidden. I went back to England and managed to get a reporter’s job on a small-town newspaper where I found myself writing about science quite often, which seemed a good way of making use of my university education. I loved every minute of it. After two years or so on the local scene, I joined one of the big English national daily papers,The Guardian. And James Morris, who insisted on reading all of my early writings, proved an enthusiastic supporter. We became (and have remained) the best of friends, as my own career as a newspaper correspondent began slowly to take shape and then to take off.
Just in time for an eruption! Keeping an eye on the Zhupanovsky volcano.
For the next thirty years I wandered the world for The Guardian and other great newspapers. I was stationed in Ireland, America, Hong Kong, America again, India. I visited almost every country in the world. I covered wars and scandals, revolutions and assassinations. I interviewed presidents, kings, musicians, despots, geniuses, and film stars. I was put in prison for three months on spying charges in Argentina during the nasty little war over the British-claimed Falkland Islands. I learned to sail and traveled thousands of miles on small boats. I lived an unforgettable life, rootless and wandering and eternally content.
But then in 1998, I had an unexpected success with a book I wrote about the making of the famous Oxford English Dictionary. And soon afterward I decided, just as I had back in Africa thirty years before, that my life should take another profound change in direction. I would leave the world of daily journalism and try instead to make a living from the writing of books.