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Profile: Rory Stewart

One of 25 hand picked for the Foreign Office fast track, Rory Stewart quit after five years to go wa

Early life

Stewart was born in Hong Kong in 1973. His father Brian, a military man had fought on the beaches of Normandy and then became a diplomat, while his mother Sally, is an academic and economist. He has two older half sisters and one younger sister.

At eight he came to the UK where he was educated at Eton and Oxford, with a stint in the Black Watch in between.

While in his third year Stewart was ‘half talked into’ applying for the Foreign Office (FC0) by his mother. Despite his reluctance he was one of 25 hand picked to join the coveted FCO career fast track.

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

It was September 1995 when Stewart started working at the FO in London. For the first time, he says, he felt like he was actually doing something. “I was living in London,in my own flat, getting to walk across St James’ park in the mornings, going to work in a beautiful building.”

Despite flying around to different embassies and feeling the job was a joy he was starting to get tired. Exhausted from chasing girls, partying and, of course, working, his next move, two years later, was Indonesia.

“Suddenly I was in a suburb on East Java and living with a family, learning Indonesian. Everything about growing up in Malaysia came flooding back to me. I felt fitter, brighter and happier.”

After a couple of months he was put into the embassy in Jakarta, running the economic section. It was shortly after his start that the Asian financial crisis of 1997 hit. “It was very exciting and not too dissimilar to what is happening here now. The experience taught me that experts don’t always know what’s going on.”

Despite everyone saying the economy was going so well, Stewart says he was one of the pessimistic people who predicted the depth of that crisis. “Everyone’s predictions go out of the window. And I believe we’re still there.”

After two years, Stewart was then posted to Montenegro in the wake of the Kosovo campaign. This time he wasn’t a member of a large team but on his own.

“I definitely had one of those moments, where you take a step back and look at what you’re doing and think ‘this is ridiculous!' I was sent as the British representative and I was only 26."

It was prestigious, interesting and his closest boss was in London.

Was he taken seriously though being so young? “I might have had more luck if I was older but at the time I wasn’t conscious of my age being a problem. Everyone was very polite and obviously people did want to be seen to be working with Britain.”

Stewart sees both Indonesia and Montenegro as unusual postings. “They were surreal and almost comical, I had to give the impression obviously that this was all totally natural.”

Walking and books

Once his time in Montenegro was up, Stewart decided to leave. He'd been with the FCO for five years. It was at this point that he began the walk that would lead to his critically acclaimed book, The Places in Between. He had previously taken a two week walk while in Indonesia to Irian Jaya with two friends. This time around it was to last 20 months and he was to be alone for most of it.

Stewart has claimed that he didn’t feel he was cut out for a standard FCO posting and so wanted to just try something new. Stewart says walking is his way to free his mind, to contemplate and learn. Initially Stewart planned to walk around the world, however, plans change and in the late summer of 2000 he headed East from the Turkish-Iranian border.

He began moving across Iran with ‘protection’ but after three months of both suspicion and hospitality he couldn’t get his visa renewed and so moved on to the next country.

It was a journey fraught with difficulties though. He was barred from entering Afghanistan, then Pakistani officials prevented him from entering Baluchistan. He then trekked from Pakistan to India, adopting a local look (a turban, salwar kameez, turban and walking stick) in order to make life easier. Then on to Nepal.

It was by January 2002 that he began his trek across Afghanistan. It was to take him six weeks. The US troops had just invaded and had toppled the Taliban. “I watched how communities worked, how villages interacted with one another. I learnt their customs, rules and codes.” It came to be an invaluable understanding of societies suffering in the aftermath of conflict.


In 2003 the invasion of Iraq was about to take place and, supporting the decision, Stewart was keen to get out there and help in any way he could.

He constantly sent emails but was getting no response. “I decided to get a taxi from Jordan to Baghdad, just me and the taxi driver.” He arrived in Baghdad and immediately reported to the Director of Operations who was pleased to see the eager volunteer told him to go home and await instruction.

“I wasn’t completely convinced that anything would come of it.” But it did and in August 2003 Stewart found himself the deputy governor of Maysan province in Southern Iraq, with a population of 850,000 people. He was not yet 30.

“When I returned I basically tried to apply what I’d learnt on my walk. I had learnt how they spoke of government, learnt what power means.” His 20 month trek had put him in an invaluable position. “Knowledge and sensitivity is important in these situations. You’re in someone else’s country and you are there to help. This is something you need to keep reaffirming. You are here temporarily and that it’s their country but also that you have value and importance to them. You need to stress that you both have access to power and resources. And you need to have faith in people, you need to convince people that they have the capacity to change their own life.”

For Stewart, personal relationships were very important. Each governor had a different approach, some completely unlike Stewart’s. “One friend was very legalistic in his approach. He would say ‘this is my budget, this is the paper work, less personal politics’, I think if dealing with a society where state and government have collapsed and you’re working in rural areas then you’re not likely to get far by emphasising an institution and process when what they’ve seen of that has horrified them.”

They were two tough postings; jobs that involved fending off an insurgency, negotiating hostage situations and tribal vendettas but he was aided by the knowledge gained from his walk and his ability to speak Dari and Farsi, no one was better equipped.

Having supported the invasion Stewart now believes that we should leave Iraq as soon as possible.

“As time went on it was clear that Iraq was the wrong war. It was impossible; we weren’t going to make any progress.” A three day siege on his compound, led by a friend, was example of this. As the mortars fell, how did this make him feel? “I think I realised that this was a war, it’s not a personal act, it’s not that he didn’t like me, he just didn’t like the occupation. I still think he was a charming man.”


In 2006 Stewart found himself back in Afghanistan. He set up the Turquoise Mountain Foundation to work on the regeneration of the historic commercial centre of Kabul, as well as providing jobs.

One of its first tasks was to clear the city of 900 cubic metres of rubbish. Since then the Foundation has gone from one employee to 350. “I spent a long time negotiating with the community to convince them that this was a worthwhile idea; then I had to get the Afghan Government on board.” In this time they have also established the country’s first higher education Institute for Afghan Arts and Architecture, with the backing of President Karzai.

The hardest part of the job now is the money that needs to be raised. Lots of it. “This year I’ve had to raise US$22m. Lives and jobs depend on me. There is a great sense of responsibility. At the moment I’m trying to raise $2m and the winter is coming - in a city on the edge of becoming a war zone. In one month I’ve spent $550,000 on repairing 60 buildings.” Stewart hopes that it will all be complete by 2010.

What about Barack Obama’s supposed ideas for Afghanistan? “I’m very excited by Barack. People I know that work with him think he’s a good guy.” His views on Afghanistan are ones that Stewart would like to change though. “It’s a replica of the Bush administration at the moment; it’s the wrong way to look at things. Our relationship shouldn’t be electro shock therapy, there should be more patience.”


Moving away slightly from cultural restoration Stewart is due to take on the role of Professor at Harvard University in January 2009. He will be a professor of human rights – teaching and running an academic faculty as the Director of Harvard Kennedy School’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy. What about the Foundation? “I’ll remain executive chairman and Harvard have been good enough to pay for me to keep going out there.”

Is there time to relax? “I don’t get as much time as I’d like. Seeing family is important.” His parents are now in their 80s and settled at the family home in Crieff, Scotland. “Three weeks ago I went to northern Spain from New York. I had eight days free and I went along the Pilgrims route from Astorga to Compostella doing about 25 miles a day. It was the most wonderful opportunity to refresh my mind and have clear thoughts.” For the first time in three years he didn’t pick up a phone or an email.

Not only is there a new job in academia but also the movies. Hollywood has started to speak Stewart’s name and after Brad Pitt bought the rights to his life, Orlando Bloom is due to portray the young ‘adventurer’. Jokingly he says he’d really like Judi Dench to play him.

From diplomat to walker to governor to founder now the inspiration for a movie – it's quite a career for someone who is just 35.

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood