I began writing in 1994, as an intern at The Nation. Later, I became senior editor and writer at COLORS, the bilingual “global magazine about local cultures” published in 80 countries and based first in Rome, then Paris, then in a 17th century/Tadao Ando manor house near Venice. In 1999, I moved to London and began a freelance career, and have since written for the New York Times, Guardian, Independent, London Review of Books and many others. I was, briefly, war correspondent in Kosovo for Condé Nast Traveler magazine; I reported on an alternative World Cup final in Bhutan between Bhutan and Montserrat (Bhutan won); and I attended Saddam Hussein’s birthday party twice. (Yes, there was cake.)
My first book, A Life Removed: Hunting for Refuge in the Modern World, explored the daily reality of being a refugee, focusing on the situation of the millions of people displaced by Liberia’s awful wars. My second book is The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why it Matters, published by Portobello Books (UK) and Metropolitan Books (US). It was judged one of the best books of 2008 by The Economist, and one of the top ten science books of the same year by the American Library Association. My third book, on the invisible but essential world of shipping, will be published in Spring 2013.
I received a congratulatory first-class honours BA in modern languages from the University of Oxford in 1992, and an MA in international politics in 1994 from the University of Pennsylvania. I speak fluent French and Italian and live usually in Yorkshire, sometimes in a former hotel (three floors; one toilet) in south-west France; and as often as I can on a ship.
Areas of Expertise
Writing, Journalism, Public Health, sanitation, Development & Social Policy
An idea worth spreading
We all defecate. We would all notice the difference if we couldn't, or if we didn't have a clean and safe toilet. Yet 2.6 billion people, in 2013, have no sanitary facilities at all. Not even a box or a bucket. The unspeakability of defecation is directly responsible for the deaths of millions of small children and adults every year, who eat and drink food and water polluted by diseases that travel in excrement. The lack of something as banal as a toilet makes girls drop out of school, kills children, costs a fortune to states in healthcare and is still considered unspeakable, Shame and silence kill as much as e-coli, dysentery or cholera. Also if we can't talk about it, we won't know that human waste is not a waste, it's a resource. It can power lights, heat, cars, buses. It can cure you of superbugs. It can cook your rice. It is food and poison, murderous and life-saving. The real waste of human waste is our inability to talk about it.
I'm passionate about
Hidden, invisible systems that keep our world going. Sewers and toilets have added 20 years to the modern western lifespan, but firefighters are heroes & sewer workers aren't. They should be.
Talk to me about
Toilets. What sewers smell like. The Rwandan prisons that cook with gas from prisoners' latrines. Why toothbrushes should stay in drawers. Why you should hug your toilet with gratitude.
People don't know I'm good at
Running on a treadmill on a container ship that is pitching 45 degrees each way without breaking my ankle.