If you want to make my wife, Alex Crawford, angry you might either call her a female reporter or suggest she does not care much about her children. If you want to end it all you could mix a fatal cocktail of the two. Tell her that a woman journalist should not be going to war zones, especially when there are kids back home to cuddle. It would be a swifter end than strychnine.
As she told the Edinburgh Festival on Saturday, the question of parental responsibility is never mentioned in connection with her male counterparts. And they are never called male journalists.
We (I like to consider myself an integral part of the team) now find ourselves on a third tour of duty, in Johannesburg, following deployments in Delhi and Dubai. Yet we have been on the road for only six years.
When Alex first told me she had landed the India job and confirmed we would finally be leaving the white cliffs, I tried not to let her see me gulp. I had enjoyed a fabulous run at The Independent for 20 years and worked with some great people, principally my patient racing editor, John Cobb. But I had seen this look in Alex's eye before. We were off.
There are elements of Alex's character which frighten some people, especially men. But she doesn't scare me – a point I once made to her through a crack in the door. The reality is that she has come to this foreign life late and has no time to waste. In fact, she has very little nonsense time at all. Her job has become a way of life and those who do not demonstrate the same commitment are shown limited tolerance.
The origins of all this come from Alex's upbringing across Africa, and if she has any residual sorrow it is that her hugely supportive parents, Max and Emma, are no longer around to share whatever success she has achieved. Alex's childhood was happy enough that she wants to pass on much of the same to her own offspring. We are always told our kids must be growing up relatively mature and responsible with their global seasoning. If that's true, there must be a lot of young scallywags out there.
Whenever Alex leaves for a story there are always household recriminations among the troops. Frankie, 14, asks why Mum can't have a proper job. Florence, nine, bursts into tears. The worrying roles, however, are quickly reversed. The children drop into their lifestyles and Mummy rings when she can from whichever bad place she happens to be in.
"How are you, my little darling baby?" she asks. "What?" a little voice replies. "I can't talk because Hannah Montana is coming back on."
I, of course, take a bit more of an interest. I never issue outgoing telephone fire from home. (I always, shrewdly, assume Alex has more to worry about than where the instructions for the Dyson are.) But I delight in the incoming. It's not always that agreeable to hear your wife's voice, but when she's been out of contact in hell's kitchen for a week, it is always sweet comfort. I never know whom I'm most relieved for. When a coming-home date is revealed, we all scramble. The house is tidied, the florist gets an unexpected visit and rudimentary "Welcome Home" signs are made. As Alex touches down after a stinking fortnight in a war zone she is at her hygienic worst. We, on the other hand, are always at our fragrant best.
We, nevertheless, hug this vaguely familiar beast plopped back into our lives. Frankie resumes the psychological warfare. And Flo cries again.
It is a blissful time, tempered only slightly by the fact that the whole cycle is soon to be repeated. A cycle that may be unique to us, but essentially the same as any other family with working parents.
When Alex returns – as she does tomorrow morning – it will be on the back of another traumatic visit to Libya. She has fought to get her message out and fought those who tried to pigeonhole her as a woman, wife and mother. Only one supreme challenge remains: the swaying pile of dirty crockery that has built up over the past two weeks.Reuse content