The author on assignment in Afghanistan: living much longer “time becomes elastic. Sixty is halfway through, not some deadline” © Thomas Dworzak/Magnum
When I was 28, I distinctly remember thinking: shit I’m 28 and I haven’t written a book and I haven’t achieved anything. When I was 35, I panicked that I didn’t have a husband yet. Now I am 42 and I still haven’t bought a flat. My brilliant idea to write a bestseller just as the western economy tanked and house prices fell does not seem to be working out so well. Sometimes I think I am simply slower than everyone else at figuring this stuff out, but sometimes, in conversation with old friends (or someone I have just met who is slightly drunk and given to admission) others will confide a certain degree of existential crisis: we’re behind, we haven’t done what we wanted to do yet, we got waylaid in some cul de sac or marriage or job that took too long to get out of. Ten or 15 years ago I would console friends (and myself) with a homemade platitude: life is long and complicated, there was plenty of time for adventures and misadventures. But now, as Merryn, my best friend since I was 12, put it bluntly, worrying about the worry lines on her forehead, “we’re middle aged.” Shit. Blink and we’ll be 60, and it’s all over.
I have now published two books and am working on my third. It’s about the Egyptian revolution, since you ask. The first one was about Georgia (the country not the state) and I invented a little mantra to keep myself going through the year of self-doubt it took to write. You’re not wrong, I used to whisper to myself. I don’t know where this voice or phrase came from, except that it meant to me: believe in yourself and just maybe a little nicely written travelogue about a place no one can find on a map will turn out OK. My next book was about an Iraqi general in the time of Saddam, written against the backdrop of my reporting in Baghdad after the American invasion in 2003-5. Every journalist I knew was writing an Iraq book and mine took four years to figure out how to structure. This time my mantra, as the years and…