Rory Stewart spent 40 days walking across Afghanistan in 2002, just after the first Taliban government fell. The 48-year-old writer and politician would spend the night in remote villages whose people were confident their nation “was the greatest country in the world”, he told Kirsty Young on Desert Island Discs in 2008. It was part of a larger 6,000-mile walk across central Asia, which transformed him from a “pretty obnoxious person” into one with a sense of perspective.
His “spirit of adventure” comes from his father, a soldier and spy who gave Stewart fencing lessons in Hyde Park. Stewart had an “idyllic” childhood in Malaysia and, after Eton, tutored Princes William and Harry during his gap year. He became a diplomat and in 2003, when he was 29, he was made a deputy provincial governor in post-war Iraq. When his compound was shelled, he handed out oatcakes and put on classical music. By 2008 he was back in Kabul, helping to restore the city’s historic centre. He was “relatively relaxed” that the Afghans’ entrepreneurial spirit would see their country through.