Facing Down Fifty
Reflections on half a century
My wife and I will be reaching our one hundredth birthday this year and obviously when Ana again turns 29 – as she has done every year since even before we met – I will be celebrating my 71st this coming Friday.
On the basis that you’re as old as the woman you feel, that also works for me.
I’m not sure a despatch like this is the correct place to out my wife’s fib, but with daughter Oda soon to be passing 26, it’s becoming harder to convince other people.
So yes, this year we will both hit our half century, celebrate our golden jubilee - our golden birthday – we will become demi-centurions, although any talk of mid-points or “half-life” seems a little optimistic if not downright nuclear.
Of course, as everyone says with a shrug and a flap of the hand, reaching a big birthday is just another day...just another year...just another birthday...
But it is the big Five-O and these passing decades are landmarks for both reflecting on the past and pondering the future.
They stir up feelings of opportunities lost and opportunities taken, of time speeding up and of fading immortality.
I have always treated big birthdays as subconscious targets...to achieve a certain thing by a certain age.
I didn’t plan to give up my career at 48 to move into remote rural Portugal and off the grid with a still unfolding half-cocked plan for a new career as an entrepreneur developer, hotelier and wine expert.
But as a policeman might say, I do have previous.
Firstly I consider myself a risk taker rather than a risk maker.
And secondly while happy to regret doing anything, I’ve never wanted to be someone who regrets not doing something.
I’d much rather say “if only I hadn’t” than “if only I had.” Active regret trumps passive regret every time.
THIRTY came rushing towards me as I sat frustrated by a desk-bound news-processing job in London and decided I needed to be somewhere fun for the first big landmark.
Foreign correspondent jobs don’t come to those without experience, and so I gave up my job at the BBC to move to South Africa and work freelance for the...er...BBC.
“A big risk,” people said.
It was actually unpaid leave, so the worst thing that could happen was I’d be back at my desk in a year’s time with a bit of debt and my tail between my legs, so I took out a loan and – helped by a crashing rand – moved to Cape Town to be paid by the story.
I never looked (or moved) back.
FORTY wasn’t looking like a realistic expectation as my crazy decade of war and natural disasters started in Cape Town and ended in California.
It included years living in South Africa, Afghanistan, Thailand and twice in the US of A, while travelling to countless countries in various states of collapse.
My first war was Liberia and it was a madness of heavily armed drugged up cross-dressing teenagers.
But soon I was crossing front lines in Iraq, riding out Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and then living in Kabul with regular frontline forays embedded with British troops.
Having survived that, and with a fortieth birthday back on the cards, I made the strange decision of heading somewhere new and becoming Ignorant in Asia, but on the grid at least.
I knew it was an odd choice and I might have regretted moving there were it not for meeting and marrying to the marvellous Ana and becoming step-dad to the wonderful Oda.
Los Angeles was an even crazier decision – I’m far more comfortable in a flak jacket than on a red carpet – but I have my old boss Jon Williams to thank for coming up with that idea to ease me off the war drug.
My fifth decade took us from LA to Nairobi for four professionally wonderful years.
I discovered what it is to be a grown up: by discovering there’s no such thing as grown-ups.
Having done more journalistic embeds than any previous Afghanistan correspondent, I set out to do more safaris than any former Africa correspondent and knocked that one out of the park.
I found joy in deep dives, in making documentaries, in experimenting with new technologies like Virtual Reality and I was given the wonderful chance to spend a year thinking about it all at Stanford University on a JSK Fellowship.
Brimming over with ideas, I came back to a BBC that was in a turmoil of job cuts and savings and with little to offer than a desk-bound news-processing job.
With a strong Plan B in place I became an early adopter of The Great Resignation.
And so I’m Facing Down Fifty with a more accidental change of scenery, but comfortable in the knowledge that the easy option was to not do something – to not leave my old job.
Every day in Vale das Estrelas is a school day with so much to learn...from a little more Portuguese language each day to the fascinating history and odd quirks of a country that leaps out at the foreign correspondent.
And there are still some strong echoes of the past: visitors are still wowed by our virtual reality documentaries which I strap onto their faces after a few drinks.
I walk our hills and valleys pondering the metaverse and how this growing tech will soon dominate our lives and I wonder...
I’ll admit I have been pining a little for my old life at the BBC this week as great change is happening and the opportunities for innovation and experimentation appear to be returning, but realistically, just how transferrable are my new skills?
I mean, when next door neighbour Daniel’s water was disappearing and his internet went down I knew exactly how to dig up and repair his broken pipe, prime his filters and get the power back on...not exactly key requirements for a desk job in London W1A.
We sometimes question the risks we’re making to take on a big loan, build a tourist lodge and a business based around Portuguese wine, storytelling...and a great view.
But hopefully the experience of living in weird and wonderful places will continue to help us cope with the delays and frustrations of bureaucracy, the challenges of a pioneer life of self-sustainability, and weathering a lengthening period where we’re not making any money.
And at least it gives me plenty to write about, to think about and to podcast about...although that’s still a work in progress.
And what better way to move into my sixth decade with daily challenges way outside my comfort zone, with a madcap plan and with the woman I love as she turns 29 again?