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26 April 2017

The 9 - 5 of journalist Hazel Southam

The 9 - 5 of journalist Hazel Southam

Portrait by Jessica Harris @hessjarris

We spent the day with award-winning freelance journalist Hazel, who reports on religious affairs, international development and travel. She's written for most national newspapers and reports for Radio 4's Sunday programme. She's now released a book, My Year With A Horse, which tracks the adventure of overcoming her fear of horses and how that helped heal her broken heart. Because no two days are the same for a journalist, we asked Hazel about two 'average' days, one working in the UK, and another on a foreign assignment.

A few days a week I drive to Swindon and work for the Bible Society. On those days the alarm clock goes off at six – I'm getting better at six in the morning, but I'm slow at getting up. Prerequisites to be able to function are a whole pot of tea, a bit of time and Radio Four. I feed my chickens and the cat, and have a boiled egg for breakfast. Then I hop in the car and drive an hour and a quarter to the office.

I'm a terrible chatterer – so I will chat to my colleagues and find out how everybody is. On a Monday we have a meeting and sort the week out, and then I address myself to my inbox and find out the state of play for all the stories I'm working on. I'm in a constant state of trying to organise stories. At the moment I'm trying to organise stories at a detention centre near Heathrow, Lebanon and Jordan.

I spend a lot of time ringing people to see what we can do and when – and that takes an inordinate amount of time, especially when you're trying to organise a story with a person on the other side of the world whose language you don't speak.

There are Bible Societies all over the world in more than 200 countries and regions. Each one is rooted in its country and does what it feels is appropriate and needed in that country at that time. The Bible Society where I work is one of the ones that is able to give funds to others, so part of my job is to go and find out how that money given generously by our supporters changes lives. And that looks different everywhere that you go. 

The interesting thing about being a journalist always is the people you meet and their stories. I've talked to people who have become refugees from Syria and Iraq. I've met native people in the Arctic who are reindeer herders and have had the Bible translated into their language. They go about on 4x4s with one in their pocket. In China, I've seen literacy projects where anybody over 40 wouldn't have learnt to read or write, so they've got a Bible-based literacy scheme going. That's great because it gives people access to the Bible, but it's also great because for the first time somebody might be able to sign their name. If they can sign their name, then they might be able to have a bank account, or sign for a parcel, or help their children with their homework. The variety of stories is huge.

Stopping for lunch is really hard. There used to be a culture of stopping for lunch, but we've lost that. I think we should all be Italian and have a proper sit down lunch, a laugh and then carry on.

The afternoon is often more of the same. If we're just back from a trip and I've got a lot to write then I'll be writing all day. I have to tell the stories in many ways for many different audiences. There are days when I just have my head down and am hammering away.

I get home about seven. I water my plants, and feed the hens and the cat. I'm just their staff, really. Then I have some food myself. I love watching sport, if there's good sport on terrestrial TV I watch it, but sometimes it's nice to get away from the screens. On days when I'm not writing for Bible Society, I'm often reporting for Radio 4's Sunday programme. It's fascinating. The stories are so varied: chaplains on Britain's waterways, church closures and recently the 30th anniversary of the sinking of the Herald of Free Enterprise. The Radio 4 crew are lovely and inspiring to work for.

I do a lot of travel and food reporting too. Soon I'll be doing a travel piece from Petra for The Observer Magazine and I'm writing a piece this week for EasyJet Traveller about how the Chilterns are a food destination now. I'd like to do more radio and TV too. 

Writing a book is a discipline. 70,000 words! That's a lot. You have to just say to yourself: Right, every night I will write 1,000 words, no matter what. On the one hand, it was like writing a feature, in that you take the reader from the beginning to the end and tell that in the best way you can. The distance was just a lot longer.

Most of my stories are chip paper the next day, but this book is going to be there forever. I'm not quite sure that I'm reconciled to that idea yet. I was glad to write it and say what a great chap Duke was. He died before it was published, but in my heart, I'd thanked him.

My bedtime is as early as possible. One of the greatest joys for me is going to bed early, maybe half nine, and reading. I've always got a big pile of books next to the bed. At the moment I'm reading To The Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey.

I go to bed with a list in my head for the next day, and try to remember it when I wake up the next morning. 

My Year with a Horse is out now, published by Lion Hudson.

When I'm on assignment I'm always up at 6am. A cup of tea is mandatory. I can't start the day without it. Fortunately, you get tea the world around – it might be rubbish, but you do get it.

Then we're up and out. Always by eight, but maybe earlier – it depends how far we're travelling. I have to make sure we've got everything sorted: are we confident about the route, have we got a back up for the vehicle, have we got water in case we break down? I also have a grab bag for emergencies. 

Last year, we went to Madaba in Jordan. It was surreal because I'd been there as a tourist previously. We met the local cleric who was our local intermediary. He had set up a church for refugees [from Syria]. His wife was Syrian and so he had a real heart for it. There were 200 people going to this church and 80 per cent were of Muslim extraction. What's happening there is profound.

When I'm on these trips we spend the day going into people's houses. I love nothing more than sitting with people and finding out about their lives. 

In Jordan we could really only do about three big interviews a day because it was so moving. After I'd interviewed three people, nothing else would go into my brain. Everybody's story was different, but all were of terrible loss. They were people just like us, living ordinary lives, with friends, families and neighbours and then kaboom – war. Everything changes.

There's only so much of that you can do in a day.

The days on an assignment are long. When you get back, you'll be discussing the plans for the next day and going over the material that you collected that day. I was also doing radio from there, so I was uploading my audio from the hotel and every night I would go through my shorthand notepad to make sure I could read it back to write it up when I was back in the office.

It isn't until 11pm that you are able to stop. It's so important to go back to somewhere safe and comfortable. Every trip has some emotion that comes with it and you won't know what that emotion is until you're there. There have been trips in the past where I get back and haven't been able to go into a supermarket because there's so much choice as where I've been there's goats head stew and nothing else. Or I haven't been able to walk on the grass because the grass where I've been has been full of landmines. But by reporting these things, you serve a function. That makes it easier.

You can read more about Hazel's trip to Jordan in last year's July/August 2016 edition of idea magazine eauk.org/idea 

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