From War Reporter to Baby Minder / Times Magazine
A few years ago I was what is known within journalism as a “foreign fireman” for The Times. Whenever a war, natural disaster or crisis occurred elsewhere in the world there was a fair chance that I would be sent to cover it, often at a moment’s notice. Thus I reported on the conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Somalia, the Arab Spring uprisings in Egypt and Libya, the earthquake in Haiti, Iran’s “green” revolution, Zimbabwe’s implosion and much else besides.
Today I’m a childminder. That is to say that three days a week, at 5pm, I collect my seven-month-old grandson, Sonny, from his nursery, take him home, feed him, bathe him and put him to bed. I do this because my daughter, Hannah, and her husband, Wes, both work well into the evening.
This radical change of role is not entirely a matter of choice. To an extent it reflects the realities of modern British life – parents who both work, ever longer office hours and the soaring cost of childcare.
Hannah and Wes pay a hefty £1,400 a month for the nursery, which is more than the fees charged by the boys’ prep school where my wife, Katy, is the librarian. By contrast, my younger daughter, Imogen, pays barely €40 a month – £35 – to send Enid, her two-year-old daughter, to a government-subsidised nursery in Berlin.
For Hannah and Wes to pay yet more to have someone else look after Sonny in the evenings would be too much. For Sonny, yet more time spent with strangers would be too much. So within our household, as in so many others across Britain, the idea of the extended family seems to be coming back into fashion.
Do I mind? Yes – and no.
There are times when I miss the excitement of getting up each morning never quite knowing where I would end up that night, of dropping everything for a mad dash to Heathrow or Gatwick, of landing at airports just as hordes of people are frantically seeking to escape some violent, anarchic or devastated country. I miss the adrenaline rush of venturing into the unknown, of flirting with danger, of operating in countries where all the normal rules and conventions of civilised life have been suspended.
I felt privileged to witness momentous events first hand – the fall of Egypt’s President Mubarak, which was marked by the tanks surrounding his palace abruptly turning their gun turrets away from the angry multitudes gathered outside; joining an unstoppable tide of Libyan rebels as they stormed Bab al-Azizia, Colonel Gaddafi’s heavily fortified compound in Tripoli; watching, with damp eyes, Chilean miners being miraculously rescued, one by one, from the tiny cavern far beneath the Atacama Desert in which they had been entombed for 69 days.
There were the tremendous highs of getting (occasional) exclusives, usually through outrageous strokes of luck. Flying to Libya the day after the Lockerbie bomber was released, I found myself sitting next to someone who knew his address, and thus secured the first interview with Abdul Baset Ali al-Megrahi scarcely two hours after landing.
There was the exquisite pleasure of drinking cold beers (albeit non-alcoholic ones in Muslim countries) with colleagues after filing our stories at the end of long, fraught days in hellholes; the camaraderie that you forged with photographers and fixers through shared adventures and adversity; the relief of flying home knowing you’d delivered and survived.
I confess that I still feel slight stirrings of envy when my friend and former colleague, the war correspondent Anthony Loyd, unveils yet another terrific scoop such as his recent interview with the Islamic State bride Shamima Begum. Journalism is a highly competitive – as well as collegial – profession.
But I’m in my sixties now, and there is much I do not miss. I don’t miss the relentless pressure to produce. I don’t miss having weekends, holidays and family occasions disrupted. I don’t miss having to hit the ground running after all-night flights from London.
I don’t miss sleeping on cold concrete floors surrounded by young Islamic rebels cradling AK47s, and being woken before dawn by their morning prayers. I don’t miss being harassed, detained or occasionally arrested by the jumped-up henchmen of unsavoury regimes or, on one occasion, the thugs of the Syrian intelligence service in Homs. I don’t miss wearing flak jackets and helmets in 40C temperatures while jolting along Iraqi or Afghan roads in US Humvees, never quite knowing whether an IED awaits you. One once did, in the Afghan province of Wardak. Happily, only the detonator went off – not the explosives.
Nor do I miss the horrors – walking on the smoking rubble of the World Trade Center after 9/11; watching mutilated bodies float down the Tigris in Baghdad; recoiling from the stench of decomposing corpses in the rubble of Port-au-Prince after the Haitian earthquake; standing in the heart of some Syrian town reduced to dusty grey ruins by President Assad’s bombs; having hundreds of tiny, imploring children clutching desperately at my trouser legs in a Congolese orphanage.
I certainly don’t miss having wonderful colleagues such as Marie Colvin of The Sunday Times, or Yasser, the much loved Times driver and fixer in Baghdad, killed. I still anguish over Sarudzai Gumbo, a destitute and desperately ill girl, just six years old, whom I found on the streets of a Harare slum and used as a symbol of Robert Mugabe’s broken Zimbabwe. Times readers spontaneously donated more than £7,000. I forwarded the money to some Jesuit priests I knew, asking them to help that sweet girl. But when I next visited Harare, I found Sarudzai alone and neglected in a filthy hospital deserted by its unpaid medics. She died soon afterwards.
There is, of course, another great compensation to saying goodbye to all that misery, death and destruction. It comes in the form of three tiny, life-affirming treasures called Sonny, Enid and Ivan – Imogen’s second child, who was born in late January. I love my children, but I had no idea how much I would adore my grandchildren, too. They may be a generation removed, but I had no inkling of what an enormous, unconditional love I would feel for them as well. That caught me completely unawares.
I see Enid and Ivan infrequently because they live in Germany, but after working at home all day, I really look forward to fetching Sonny from nursery each afternoon.
Indeed, that moment looms even as I write these words, and right on cue a text arrives from Hannah: “So, Dad, when you pick Sonny up, can you make sure they’ve found his shoes? He should also have two socks, his little blue jumper with a dog on it and his grey hoodie. As well as the usual pillow, two bottles with caps and nappy rash cream.”
Hannah, it should be said, is a little doubtful about her father’s baby-tending skills, and with reason. I still struggle to unfold Sonny’s fiendishly complicated buggy, do my best to avoid changing his nappies and tend to leave a trail of miniature socks, shoes, cloths and other items behind me.
Yesterday’s texted instructions read: “When you pick Sonny up, can you make sure they’ve put his nappy rash cream back in his black bag (it’s a bright yellow tube)? And I asked them to find his bib we left behind on Monday – white with an owl face. Can you check it’s also in his bag? You’ll also need to put on his shoes and socks …!!”
And so I leave the house, walk a few hundred yards to the nursery and join all the young mums collecting their children. Sonny is in the arms of his carer, Dionne. He smiles when he sees me – the simplest and earliest of human responses but one that always delights me. I carry him home, singing songs, pointing things out, and burbling the sort of inanities that babies invariably elicit from adults.
After warming his milk I put on some music. We sit on a sofa by the window and I feed him from his bottle. It is a long and often messy process, but one that I enjoy. It is a period of tranquillity. As Sonny glugs, I wonder at the nuclear warmth of his small body. I admire the perfection of his luminous brown eyes, his intricate ears, his tiny fingers – the latter gripping the bottle, or one of my own fingers, or sometimes stretching up to explore my face.
I marvel that Hannah entrusts me with her baby. I consider myself lucky to have this bonding time with at least one of my grandchildren. I have no memory of feeding my own children when they were Sonny’s age. Most of the time I would have been at work.
Then we play. I throw Sonny in the air, tickle him, read him baby books, make silly faces and silly noises. The object, of course, is to make him giggle – or at least to prevent him crying. Around 6pm, Sonny has his bath, then he’s put in his sleepsuit, I feed him a little more and lie him down. Then I usually send Hannah a pre-emptive text to stop her fretting. At some point later in the evening she or Wes will arrive to take him home. He will be so deep asleep he will scarcely stir.
A job that I feared would be a chore has become a joy, and a joy that only increases as Sonny grows daily more responsive. It doesn’t seem trivial and domestic. It doesn’t seem less important than flying off to war zones or getting my name on the front page.
It feels as though I’ve entered the next phase of my life, one with different responsibilities that include supporting the next generation as they pursue their own careers.
Having grandchildren has also changed my perspective. It makes me think less of the present, of the next breaking news story, and more of the future. When I read dire predictions about the state of the world 30 or 50 years hence I used to think it didn’t matter because I’d be dead. But it matters now. As I feed the tiny embodiment of innocence that is Sonny each evening, I wonder what sort of life we are bequeathing him, and that discomforts me.
I am concerned about climate change. I am concerned about any number of nasty resurgent “isms” – nationalism, authoritarianism, populism, protectionism, isolationism, racism, extremism. I am concerned about the lies and “fake news” disseminated by hostile powers, political charlatans, the conspiracy theorists of social media and others who seek to subvert our free, democratic way of life for their own nefarious purposes. Two lessons I have learnt from all that “firefighting” is that ideologues are dangerous, and that there is no immutable rule that says progress is irreversible.
Nowadays, however, my concern with such issues is less that of a journalist. It is that of a doting, thus anxious, grandfather.