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Sixty Seconds with George Alagiah

The newsreader, 63, on his debut novel, facing warlords and coping with stage-four bowel cancer

What’s your new novel, The Burning Land, about?

It delves into the spaces in between my reporting. With reporting you can’t go into people’s motivation — why good people go bad, why bad people go good — and these are the things that didn’t go into my journalism. The Burning Land is about what happens when climate change kicks in and more places in the world find it impossible to grow food. You will get governments and investors looking for land in other countries — often poor countries and often land that’s been used communally, and there will be deals over those people’s heads. It’s about how the thirst for investment in land drives a business that leaves people at the bottom with no say about what happens to their livelihoods.

It’s set in South Africa. How long did you work there for?

Four years — I was an Africa editor in print before I went into television. I feel it in a way other journalists don’t. My stint from 1994 was the Mandela presidency years. In 1995 South Africa won the Rugby World Cup and there was an outpouring of joy across the whole nation. The book looks at what happened to that optimism.

Have you had a work-related brush with death?

Most of my reporting was in conflict zones — Rwanda, Liberia, Afghanistan — and I’ve been held at gunpoint. That happened in Somalia. I was being escorted by one warlord’s gunmen and there was an argument about if I’d paid them for petrol. Of course I had. Someone pointed a gun at me. I was a grey-haired guy and said, ‘I’m old enough to be your dad, what are you doing?’, which defused the situation. On another occasion I went into a house in Afghanistan for an interview but had left my equipment bag outside. I went back out to get it and as I walked out of the building it was hit by a shell. I was very lucky.

Optimism: SA’s rugby win

Do you miss the danger?

No, I’m not one of these people who gets off on conflict. I went into conflict zones as it’s the only way to tell the story. There came a point where I knew I’d done enough and I had no more language to describe things I was seeing for the second or third time. I took the opportunity to work in the studio.

Was that an anti-climax?

Not at all. It’s an important task going into people’s living rooms every day and saying, ‘Listen to me, this is what me and my team think is a reasonable résumé of what’s gone on around the world today.’ It’s a massive responsibility. It was a new challenge for me.

What’s the situation with your cancer treatment?

I don’t know. I’m in that category where no one has said I’ll be cured but it can be managed. I’m in limbo. I’ve learned over the last five years I’ve been living with cancer that things change. I tell myself nothing is certain but anything is possible. I live each day as best I can given what’s happening. Five and a half years ago I was in the ‘sort your affairs out’ territory but I’m still around. We’ll see what the next day brings.

But if you’d lived in Scotland the outcome might have been better?

In England in 2014 you got screened at 60 and beyond, in Scotland it was 50 and beyond. That’s changing but I don’t think it’s been rolled out yet. When I was diagnosed then, if I’d lived in Scotland I’d have been screened three times and it’s likely my cancer would have been spotted. With cancer, early diagnosis is everything. I was as late as you can be. I’m at stage four and there is no stage five. Most of Europe screens earlier than England.

Mandela years: Alagiah was Africa editor

So you were only diagnosed when you had symptoms?

Yes, I finally woke up to the symptoms and went to my GP. I was busy, I was at the top of my game in 2014, and I ignored the signs. It’s worth listening to your body.

Do you find it irritating to be asked if this has taught you anything?

Not at all, there’s still a taboo around cancer and I’m happy to talk about it. I’ve gained an appreciation for my family, friends, community and place that I wouldn’t have had if I hadn’t been diagnosed. I’m not suggesting we should all get cancer just to live our lives more fully but it certainly gives you a different perspective on life.

Does it make daily minor irritations even more annoying?

No, if anything I’m more chilled than I’ve ever been. Everything seems pretty insignificant compared with going to bed at night thinking, ‘Am I going to be around tomorrow? Yes I am.’ That’s a fantastic feeling, I can tell you.

The Burning Land is out now, published by Canongate