The Writing Life: The Past Never Leaves You, Or Does It?

I have often said that my worst professional mistake was leaving the clangorous world of daily newspapers for magazines and book writing. Of course, that was back in 1985, a very different time for the media, and for the world.

The digital era had not yet dawned, and we "hacks" - as print journalists, particularly foreign correspondents, were known - scrambled around in search of stories. We then scrambled around some more to find a post office with a telex machine to file our dispatches to our home offices. No email in those days, no satellite phones either. Your dispatches depended on the caprice of the telex operation. He was more influenced by the graft you gave than the novelty, timeliness and piquancy of your stories.

My search for stories took me to Africa, where the New York Times had posted me in the lovely Kenyan capital of Nairobi. From there I crisscrossed the vast continent. I felt a little bit like Marlow, the narrator of "Heart of Darkness," the celebrated novella by Polish-British novelist Joseph Conrad, about a voyage up the Congo River into the Congo Free State, in the heart of Africa.

That novella has been the basis of several films, perhaps the best known being Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now," released in 1979. As Wikipedia puts it: "In Vietnam in 1970, Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) takes a perilous and increasingly hallucinatory journey upriver to find and terminate Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando), a once-promising officer who has reportedly gone completely mad. In the company of a Navy patrol boat filled with street-smart kids, a surfing-obsessed Air Cavalry officer (Robert Duvall), and a crazed freelance photographer (Dennis Hopper), Willard travels further and further into the heart of darkness."

It was a romantic time to be a foreign correspondent. The Times was generous with travel budgets; it no longer is. But, on occasion, a skeptical accountant at headquarters would ask if it was really necessary to fly to Paris from Nairobi in East Africa in order to get to the Senegalese capital of Dakar in West Africa. Well, yes. Especially if the stopover in Paris lasted at least a day during which to sample the delights of Montmartre. After all, being a hack in those days wasn't easy - all that traveling, all those stopovers, all those missed flights. You understand, right? The accountant didn't, and would scrutinize my travel expenses with a beady eye.

I still remember him well. Turned out to be a jolly fellow who, after a pint of ale or two, regaled me with hilarious stories of the outrageous expense reports that some correspondents filed.

I'm now at that age when memories are far more restive than anticipation of the future. The journalism that I grew up in, that nourished me, that transported me around the world, that offered me opportunities to listen to dramatic stories of everyday people and the exaggerations of potentates - that journalist era has evaporated, and its great practitioners are dead or dying.

But what adventures they were, however long ago.

I ask myself: Did it all really happen? Was I really that fortunate? And what happened to the scores of people I met in a multitude of societies, and ate with and laughed with and sometimes shed tears with? Did their dreams of a better life materialize? And what about the ambitions of their children in a world that, because of technology and the exigencies of politics, would soon be so different from the one in which their forebears were raised?

They may be part of my increasingly receding past. But the past never really leaves you alone. You may want to push parts of it away, the unpleasant ones anyway, but those episodes and characters surface when you least expect it. Which is mostly all the time.