A few years ago, after I'd done an interview with the Libyan leader Colonel Gaddafi in his famous tent in Tripoli, he asked me, making the obligatory small talk, how it was that I came to work as a television journalist in London. Gaddafi was particularly interested in my decision to leave the West Indies, after a reasonable start to a career there. In my final days in the anchor's chair at ITN, I've been pondering that myself and trying to work out, too, how it was that I managed to stay in one place for more than 30 years.
Great good fortune, helpful and forgiving colleagues and the chance to do an incredible variety of things certainly explain it in part. Although my mother may have detected in my reluctance to try my hand elsewhere a lack of what she liked to call "gumption". But being sent to follow American presidential campaigns (occasionally riding at the back of Air Force One), and reporting from Moscow, Beirut, Paris, New Delhi, Johannesburg and Baghdad, in addition to anchoring news programmes in London, is not a bad way to encourage someone to stay put.
The great challenge of the news presenting work boiled down to the impossibility of following with any distinction those who made ITN news such a force in British television journalism. Robin Day inaugurated an age of inquiring reporting. Reggie Bosanquet, infuriatingly charming and idiosyncratic, became a household name and helped to make News at Ten such a hit. Alastair Burnet was incisive and brilliant and Sandy Gall enhanced the credibility of news presenters by covering wars in Africa and pursuing the mujahedin to freezing mountain hideouts in Afghanistan. Nobody ever said it explicitly, but I was aware that I was supposed to honour that formidable tradition. That was made slightly more difficult than it might have been when ITN decided to switch from two presenters to one on the main late evening news bulletins. I've always been terribly gratified that I survived.
Leaving an all-consuming job after so long, one tries to tot up successes and failures. Failures are grand and numerous and frame the way you're judged by critics. So against the odds, you try to find tiny successes worthy of recall. There are two events, insignificant and randomly chosen, of which I remain very proud. Just before Nelson Mandela was released, I went to the then Natal Province in South Africa to report on the bloody feud between the African National Congress and the mainly Zulu Inkatha Freedom Party.
One afternoon we came across a group of about 200 ANC supporters who had been burnt out of their homes, allegedly by supporters of Inkatha. They'd lost everything, and had no food. Their spokesperson, who found temporary shelter in a run-down school, was a woman who looked like my mother. Her attackers, she told me, were so unconcerned that they hadn't even bothered to conceal their identities. As we talked, 20 or 30 young children played outside in a filthy dung heap. I persuaded my colleagues to give the refugees all the money we had. It was only a few hundred pounds and, in the larger picture, a meaningless gesture. But as we tried to leave, they all assembled on the steps of the school to sing us on our way.
We were reduced to tears by this show of gratitude and I apologised that we couldn't do more. But I was told our money meant that the children at least could be fed for two weeks. If true, then that was infinitely better than any political exegesis I'd ever made in all my years as a journalist.
A few years before, in Hong Kong, I was taken by police to a point in the harbour where boatloads of Vietnamese refugees were intercepted and interrogated on a floating pontoon. They were a pathetic sight, having completed a dangerous journey in tiny, unseaworthy boats, and faced a future of hopeless incarceration.
That is, unless they could convince the Hong Kong authorities that somewhere in the world there was someone willing to take them. One man told me he hoped he might somehow get to America where his brother lived. On a whim, I asked him precisely where in America that was and offered to try to contact him. I left the pontoon, did as I promised and forgot all about it.
About nine months later I received a letter from a man in Los Angeles, who chided me for mangling his address by getting the wrong house number and wrong area code, but said that he'd been reunited with his brother who had sent his regards. How we who trade in doom and gloom love happy endings.