Sally left a permanent job at The Independent for freelance life when her second child had turned two, ostensibly for greater flexibility, yet found herself writing stories that I can only guess demanded more of her. How did she do it? “I had to have total focus on the job when I was away, and then was back making packed lunches and driving the children to clubs when I returned,” she says, describing the rush to get the kids to school before heading to the airport, then “the indulgence” of buying an issue each of The New Yorker and Private Eye, sitting down on the plane, and, finally, breathing. But more than anything else, Sally’s brand of storytelling is less a job than a way of life. “I thrive on immersing myself in it; I never wanted to write about myself and my family, I wanted to know about the outside world. To this day, what I love about journalism is the access it gives you; you meet people you never would normally, and I still find that thrilling.”
Some of these people include Afghan women working on the frontline, British “bolters” (women who have left their children), Peshmerga fighters in Iraq, surrogate mothers in Ukraine, communities living without toilets in Madagascar and, most recently, a former medical officer from Birmingham, who saved the city from a smallpox outbreak in 1978. “A real unsung hero,” she says, her face alight, framed by flames of red hair, “he was talking about track and trace before it was even heard of.” This is someone who confesses to craving adventure (then apologises for sounding glib) but, true to someone who professionally reflects on things, Sally has an idea of why.
Aged 25, while studying journalism at the London College of Printing (now the London College of Communication), she had an accident. She’d been to dinner with an interviewee when, walking home to Maze Hill, near Greenwich, she was run over on the pavement by a drunk driver. Sally includes little details to her story – that it was St Patrick’s Day; that she was listening to music on that very ’90s tech accessory, the Walkman; that the driver then crashed into a betting shop – the last things she clearly remembers before life changed irreversibly. Both her elbows, her collarbone, leg, cheekbone and nose were broken; her eye socket was damaged, and her olfactory nerve sheered off; she lost her taste and smell forever; and ended up in intensive care “After near-death, I decided that I really wanted life. I wanted fullness. To live life as fully as a woman can. For me, that meant travelling, making stories, having children.”