I have nothing but bad advice for the young. If I could do it all again, I think I’d have to do it the same way, but with gritted teeth and a sense of deep embarrassment. You see, all the good things that ever happened to me happened after I’d acted – as I now realise – stupidly.
If I hadn’t stormed out of my boarding school at 15, in a state of petulant, adolescent rage, then I would probably have ended up at Oxford or Cambridge, and by now I might be a history lecturer in, say, Nottingham. I’ve nothing special against Nottingham, and there is a lot of pleasure to be had in history, but that other, conventional life looks rather thin to me now. Because I sabotaged my schooling, I came to York instead, and incidentally took up revolutionary socialism.
If I hadn’t done that, I’d never have met the woman who’s now my wife, nor met my children. Nor, I am certain, would I have infiltrated Fleet Street when it really was Fleet Street, felt the thunder of the presses under my feet at midnight, and rejoiced at my early bylines with a delight it’s now hardly possible to imagine. I wouldn’t have been part of the tumult of news and raw history in which I have lived, precariously but with much enjoyment, for the past 35 years.
I’d never have seen the nasty dead-eyed face of war, or nearly been lynched by a mob in the Congo. I’d never have been part of the Velvet Revolution or hidden under my bed to dodge gunfire in Bucharest. I’d never have sat and chatted about foreign policy with Margaret Thatcher, or teased the awful Blair creature to his face, or been personally recommended for decommissioning by Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein.
I’d never have lived in an elite apartment in Moscow with KGB neighbours, nor dined in a hilltop farmhouse in Soviet Georgia, half a mile from a civil war, with swallows flying in one window and out of the other. I’d never have run away (surprisingly fast) from the People’s Police in East Berlin. I’d have missed thousands of daily tutorials on what the world is really like. I’d never have walked on the scorched, irradiated plains of Kazakhstan where the Soviet H-bomb was tested, nor spent a weekend under the sea in a nuclear missile submarine.
And all because I wasn’t sensible, before or since. Even after I arrived at York, I had a nagging feeling that I should drop this revolutionary politics stuff and beg the great Gwyn Williams to let me study history instead, which I really ought to have done. But I had a revolution to foment, so I did the wrong thing. And that has made all the difference. But please, don’t listen to me.