Thank you, Graham, for sharing a small piece of your journey.
BTW, there’s probably a book in this journey of yours, though you’re probably too self-deprecating to write it.
A young man recently wrote to me as follows: “I’m 21 years of age and now that I know better, I realise that I can’t live the same way as everybody else. Is there any advice you could give me on how to get by and how to make a living whilst promoting the cause? (Without supporting the corruption?) How did you/do you do it? Do you think I should write a book? How did you make your money at the start/start your career? Do you have any contacts to recommend? I want to offer what I have to the world and be able to live securely whilst doing that. I have no idea how to go about it, though.”
Here’s my reply, which I hope may be of interest to others with similar questions:
Well done on being such a wide awake character so young! It’s good that you know who you are and where you want to go. As to how to get there, I’m afraid there are no easy answers. You just have to follow your path and hope for the best. Making a living out of following your path is very hit-and-miss and there is no sure-fire formula on how to do it. Sometimes you get lucky; sometimes you don’t. I’ve always winged it and lived a very financially edgy life for many years. In 1975 at age 25 I managed to persuade the Leverhulme Foundation to give me a research grant to go and live in Somalia for a year (ostensibly to study the effects of the writing of the Somali language — unwritten until 1972 — on journalism there). It was a pittance. I and my first wife, who I’d met in London but happened to be Somali — lived on next to nothing, but somehow we got by. I did sell a few articles on Somalia to magazines while I was there so when we came back in 1976 I had some cred as an “Africa journalist” and got a job with New Internationalist Magazine as one of their co-editors. While working full-time for magazines, which I did until 1979 when I was 29, I always hussled to write freelance pieces on the side, drawing on my strengths (for example I covered the Ogaden war between Somalia and Ethiopia for the Sunday Times in 1977 during a month’s unpaid leave of absence from New Internationalist). In late 1979 I went freelance completely and in ’81 the Economist appointed me as their stringer (“East Africa Correspondent”) based out of Nairobi. The only guaranteed income from the Economist was a £50 per month retainer but I got paid for each story I succeeded in placing in the magazine. On top of that I did whatever freelance work I could. I also wrote my first book, “Journey Through Pakistan”, published in ’82 — a project with my great friend the photographer Mohamed Amin who unfortunately was killed in the Ethiopian Airlines hijack in ’96.
So to cut a long story short I supported myself with various freelance writing, editing and publishing activities throughout the 1980’s (returned to London from Kenya in 1983). It was often very lean, and I kept getting deeper and deeper into debt, sometimes hardly able to make it from one month to the next, always threatened by banks and maxed out credit cards, etc. But I was building my track record as an author with a series of books mainly on current affairs and travel related issues, so that each time it got easier to extract a (usually very small) advance from publishers for the next book. I had begun to follow the story of what would be my first bestseller — “The Sign and the Seal” — when I was visiting Ethiopia as a journalist in 82/83 but it took a long time before I knew there was a book in it and the contract was signed with various publishers in 1989. It was the first time I got paid anything like a decent sum of money to write a book, but the research costs were huge and when “The Sign and The Seal” was published in ’92 (reaching No 6 on the Sunday Times non-fiction bestseller list) it didn’t recoup what I had spent on it and I fell even deeper into debt. I remember being totally depressed for most of the next year by continuous financial hassles, unable to open the latest threatening letter from banks, credit cards etc, but I was by then working on “Fingerprints of the Gods”. Again there was a healthy advance from publishers but not enough to live on for three years and pay all the huge research and travel costs so somehow I managed to borrow more money from the bank, remortgaged my house thrice, and maxed out on more credit cards. I was, by this time, seriously, cripplingly in debt and on the verge of bankruptcy. But miracle of miracles when “Fingerprints” was published in 1995 (by which time I was 45 years old) it became an instant bestseller in many counties (something I hadn’t counted on or expected in any way) and eventually cleared all my massive debts.
So I was lucky. I followed my heart, I took risks and eventually I wrote a book that compensated those risks and finally put me in a place where I didn’t need to explain myself to bankers and other creditors and could live a blessed free and adventurous life with some financial security as well. But the price I paid for living a free life before that was pretty much 20 years of continuous financial stress and insecurity!
I would always advise follow your heart, take the financial risks, work incredibly hard all the time and trust in the universe to look after you in the end, but there are no guarantees and sometimes the risks don’t pay off. That is the nature of the game. We do all have to make a living, keep a roof over our heads, have clothes to wear, and if we’re adventurous we want to — need to! — travel and explore. So you have to find a way, I would suggest through your writing, to support yourself at least minimally while you follow your dream. The bad bargain most people make is that they don’t follow their dream and focus totally on financial security and that leads to great dissatisfaction and frustration. On the other hand being constantly in debt and struggling is also dissatisfying and frustrating! As I say there are no easy answers.
Wishing you luck and joy on your path.