Giving a talk about That Woman – what else? -the other night I was thrown an interesting question from a well-known journalist in the audience.
Did I think – he asked – that I would have made the risky journey to the Mexican desert to interview a man I had never met had I not been a journalist at heart? Journalists go for people and human interest stories whereas academic historians rely on sober printed sources and would never expect an encounter with a stranger in such a bizarre and beautiful location to yield useful documents or to provide reliable information. On balance, I think he is right. It was both my journalist’s instinct and the fact that he gave me almost no time to dither or deliberate, that decided me to go. The man – a champion free diver who ran a diving camp on the edge of the magnificently beautiful Sea of Cortes, offered me a window of opportunity when he could see me and after that – well, he said, he couldn’t promise anything. At least I would see some amazing sea lions, he promised.
So what was to lose? My life perhaps! It didn’t feel too risky at the time but, in addition to the machete my new friend took with us on the journey (to kill snakes he insisted) and the lack of phone signal for several days in the desert , Mexican Swine ‘ flu took hold while I was there resulting in hundreds of deaths and I was seriously at risk. Airport officials almost refused me entry back into London. But I didn’t know any of that when I decided to fly out and meet him, any more than I knew that the journey would result, albeit indirectly, in my finding a new archive about Wallis Simpson and the Abdication – a find of serious historical significance that truly changes perspective of the Abdication crisis.
So, at a time when being a journalist carries a whiff of deepest unpleasantness, I was pleased this week to own up to being one. Luckily I consider myself a historian as well and think both disciplines combine rather well.