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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
Andrew Downie in São Paulo

Dom Phillips: selfless, stylish writer at home in rave culture and the Amazon

Dom Phillips found an impressive second act as a foreign correspondent after editing the electronic music magazine Mixmag in the 1990s.
Dom Phillips found an impressive second act as a foreign correspondent after editing the electronic music magazine Mixmag in the 1990s. Photograph: Paul Sherwood/Reuters

A week last Monday I was in a Farringdon pub for their weekly quiz. A friend brought along a mate of his, a Liverpudlian called Anthony Teasdale.

When Teasdale learned that I work in Brazil as a foreign correspondent, he asked, “Do you know a guy called Dom Phillips?”

Of course, I said, he’s a good pal of mine; we work together and often have dinner and drinks in São Paulo.

I took a picture and sent it to Dom and seconds later he wrote back, clearly tickled at the serendipity of a Scot and Scouser meeting in a London pub and realising they had a friend in common on the other side of the world.

The response was typical Dom: a smile followed by questions. I could almost see his furrowed brow and bright blue eyes, keen to know every detail: how on earth did we meet? How did we spot the connection? How was his old pal from London’s music scene?

“Send him a big warm hug from me,” he wrote.

Their connection was made at Mixmag, where Dom was editor for most of the 1990s. Rave culture was taking the world by storm and when it calmed down a decade later he wrote a glorious book that captured the madness of the electronic music boom. Dom was friends with Brazilian DJs and came to São Paulo in 2007 to finish writing Superstar DJs Here We Go!

He thought he’d find peace in South America but instead found an impressive second act, as a foreign correspondent. He spent much of the 2010s writing about Brazil’s preparations for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics and in the years after, he shifted his focus to the environment. Dom loves nature; he would get up before dawn to go stand-up paddling and was always bringing friends together for weekend hikes in the mountains around Rio de Janeiro, where he moved in 2012.

He was working on a book about the Amazon whose central question was, “what kind of development works and what doesn’t?”

As we continued our WhatsApp conversation later that night he brought me up to speed. He had been researching for more than a year and was about to head back to the jungle for one of his last reporting trips.

“Traveling again tonight on a horrendous 3am flight for 15 hours,” he wrote on WhatsApp. “Second trip in a month, still got some others to do, money pretty tight, making it work.”

He was by now setting out from Salvador, where he moved with his wife, Alessandra, in March 2020. He met Ale in Rio and it was love at first sight. A designer with an infectious smile, she loved to tell the story of how she couldn’t keep her hands off him the first night they met. They were perfectly matched.

Times were tough, though, and they moved to Salvador to be closer to Alessandra’s family, because of the outdoor life, the lower cost of living, and the prospect of adopting children. Everyone knew Dom as selfless – he gave English classes in a Rio favela and did volunteer work with youths at a public health programme in Salvador – and he was desperate to be a dad, to focus that love on a family he could call his own.

He loved his work too, and he was good at it. In a crammed field of correspondents in the booming Brazil of the 2010s, he was one of the most stylish writers. The book project was an extension of that and his elegant presentation impressed the judges at the Alicia Patterson Foundation, where he applied for a grant. Hundreds of applications arrived and all three judges put Dom’s idea top of their list. It was, he told me proudly, only the second time in 30 years that had happened.

The manuscript was due by the end of the year and he needed – he wrote with what I imagined was a wry grimace – “to write faster”.

“Book due end of the year … at least one more possibly two trips after this one, but they are all shorter.”

A few hours after the cursor stopped blinking on our chat he was in the air, skipping from the far east of Brazil to the far west, across dry scrub, verdant farmland and hours of endless jungle, heading off to do what he loved.

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