A life less ordinary
The BBC’s John Simpson has reported on some of the most momentous events around the world over the last four decades. He spoke to SHEENA GRANT about his childhood in Suffolk, his career and why he’s helping to raise money for the East Anglian Air Ambulance
JOHN Simpson’s childhood was unlike that of his contemporaries. He lived a Bohemian lifestyle with his unconventional father – and he had no television: a fact that set him apart from his peers.
“My father thought it rotted your brain,” he says. “Other kids would make fun of me if I revealed we had no TV so I just lied and pretended I had seen the same programmes as they watched.”
It is something of an irony, then, that he has found fame around the world through that medium, as one of the BBC’s longest-serving and most respected journalists, who, over the years, has also become a “personality” in his own right.
So well known is the corporation’s world affairs editor, in fact, that he was recently detained for 24 hours when an official recognised him as he tried to enter Syria to report on the uprising there.
Perhaps he should reprise the burka disguise he used to such effect to get into Taliban-controlled Afghanistan just before the US-led attack of 2001, I suggest to him.
The burka incident took his fame to new heights – the garment even went on display at the Imperial War Museum North in Manchester earlier this year. But in some circles his reporting of the conflict that followed gave him a kind of notoriety. Comments he made about the BBC liberating Kabul when it arrived in the city ahead of the Northern Alliance after the Taliban fled were misinterpreted and lampooned by some media rivals.
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Having spent an hour or so in conversation with him, I can’t help feeling the BBC man was unfairly maligned. He is a generous interviewee: thoughtful in his answers, charming, gentlemanly and modest to a fault.
Despite the fact he has reported on some of the most momentous events of the modern age, he refuses to accept he has been anything other than lucky to see history being made and to spend time with those who have shaped it, for better and worse. He concedes, eventually, that he is perhaps willing to go the extra mile for a story and take chances others may be unwilling to take. But that is all.
Among his many scoops has been accompanying the exiled Ayatollah Khomeini on a flight back to Tehran from Paris that heralded the Iranian Revolution of 1979. He went against the wishes of his BBC bosses, who believed the trip was too hazardous.
Ten years later he was at the Beijing Tiananmen Square massacre. He also reported on the first Gulf War in 1991 and was one of just a handful of journalists to remain in Belgrade after the Serbian authorities expelled western reporters in the Kosovo war of 1999. And, of course, he was one of the first reporters to enter Afghanistan in 2001, disguised in that famous burka.
At 67 years old he has no intention of stopping, or even slowing down.
“There is always the possibility of some illness but I am in rude health. At the moment I am bursting with energy,” he says.
Despite a schedule that takes him to some of the most troubled spots on Earth he has not lost sight of the importance that more parochial issues can have in the everyday lives of people in the UK.
Just last week he was in Leiston to speak at a fundraiser for the East Anglian Air Ambulance – which made almost �3,000 – and he is set to return on December 1 to open the Middleton Christmas Street Fair, again in aid of the air ambulance. He may even do another talk before the end of the year, so successful – and over-subscribed – was last week’s.
Villagers Margaret Brett Boden, Molly Elmy and Doreen Rushbrooke – who go by the name of “3 Of a Kind” – got their own scoop when they secured his involvement in their efforts to support the air ambulance. It all came about by chance, after he visited the Bell pub in Middleton and offered to help when he got chatting with Doreen and her husband.
“I knew nothing about the East Anglian Air Ambulance before I spoke to them,” he says. “I was filming a documentary about old age for the BBC. They got a group of four people on the edge of old age – one of whom was me – to spend time with some elderly people. I had to spend several days in a home for people with Alzheimer’s and with an elderly lady in Middleton.
“I was in the pub there and got talking to this charming couple about the air ambulance. Because I was thinking a lot about elderly people, and having lived just a few miles away from Middleton a long time ago, I know how long it takes to get to a hospital and I just thought what a brilliant thing the air ambulance was for helping people and easing their fears about getting ill or injured. It saves lives.
“Life is sometimes not very easy for people in the countryside, with isolation, shop and pub closures and things like that, so anything that improves the lives of rural residents is worthwhile.”
The documentary he was filming, When I Grow Older, will be screened on Wednesday and Thursday, at 9pm on BBC1, as part of the When I’m 65 series.
In it, Simpson breaks down in tears when he confronts the idea that he may be too infirm to play rugby with his six-year-old son when he is a teenager. He also speaks openly about his plan to take his own life should old age leave him severely incapacitated, after living alongside residents suffering dementia.
Spending time with a pensioner in Middleton took Simpson back to an area he knows well, having lived in a rambling cliff-top house at Dunwich for several years during his childhood. But his family’s links with Suffolk go back further than that.
“The Simpsons come from the far west of the county,” he says, “Wickhambrook, Denston and Newmarket. You can still see a lot of their graves there. My father used to say the family climbed into the gutter in Bury St Edmunds. In the 1840s or ’50s, one of them, who was a builder in Bury, decided to go to London, which was undergoing an enormous explosion in population at the time, and his company built two or three of the new suburbs springing up in south east London. Up until the First World War the family was very wealthy, but they lost it all in the war.
“My father was always terribly aware of his Suffolk roots and one of his big things was to go back to buy a house in Suffolk. I lived there for 10 years when I was growing up. I still like to holiday in Suffolk and bring up my grandchildren and my youngest son, who is only six. I am very keen they should all experience the county as well.”
The loss of the family’s wealth and their descent into poverty loomed large in the young Simpson’s life and is perhaps one of the reasons why he understands the concerns of people so well. One of the other defining features of his childhood was his parents’ separation. He was an only child, living with his father, and felt a range of emotions around his mother’s absence from his day-to-day life.
It has been reported that his childhood was lonely, spent largely in the adult world of his unusual father and assorted friends.
“I’m not sure it was actually any more lonely than that of a lot of single children,” he says. “My mother wasn’t there and we headed off and lived in this amazing place in Dunwich and there was no-one around. There were not many kids to play with. My childhood was full of adults. It was very Bohemian: my father was a tremendous Bohemian – he used to do slightly barmy things. If he fancied it he would throw up everything and head off to the theatre in London with me in tow. He used to go to the film theatre in London every Friday night, regardless of what was on and whether it was really suitable for children. It was a slightly odd way to grow up, I suppose, but I look back on it fondly.”
The Simpsons’ Dunwich home was part of a building dating from the 1880s and had been subsequently divided into three separate houses. “Because my father had no money it soon started to decay,” he says. “The roof would leak and there were only some rooms we could live in.”
His unusual childhood may have fed into the sense he has always had of himself as an outsider, he says. “I think this is something a lot of journalists feel about themselves, too, peering through the windows of others’ lives. It made journalism quite a natural career choice for me.”
After Cambridge University he joined the BBC as a sub-editor in the Radio Newsroom, before becoming a political reporter and, later, finding his niche as a foreign affairs correspondent. He was never a “matey, plugged in” kind of journalist who could call on favours from anyone to further his career. “In some ways it is quite an advantage to be an outsider,” he says. It means you don’t owe anything to anyone.
It is an approach that has largely served him well, leading him to rely on his instincts and allowing him to report honestly, without feeling beholden to anyone. He hated the off-the-record briefing, or lobby system, when he was a political reporter and dislikes being “embedded” with troops.
“I don’t like the idea of being dependent for my safety, food and transport on people that I have got to be absolutely honest about,” he says. “It has never happened to me but imagine you were with some troops and they started doing things they shouldn’t. The temptation might be to find excuses for them and shut up about it. When you live with people you get to like them and then you have the whole question about ‘am I going to be honest, or nice?’ My job is to be honest about everything, and if you are on your own you don’t have to worry about these big questions.”
He admits, however, that doing things his way can bring added danger, like in 2003 when he was injured by American warplanes in a so-called friendly fire incident in northern Iraq. He lost the hearing in one ear and his translator was killed, along with 17 others in the convoy with which he was travelling.
“Strangely enough we had just hooked up five minutes earlier with some American and Kurdish special forces. I remember saying, rather stupidly, to my colleagues, ‘if we are with the Americans we can’t go far wrong’.”
He still feels angry about the incident.
“Not for myself but for my translator and the others who were killed. Something ought to be done by the Americans about these crazy ‘blue-on-blue’ mistakes, which happen every time the Americans get into planes. It is because they don’t punish anyone for it; they just see it as something that happens in war. Well, it shouldn’t.”
Incredibly, almost a decade later, doctors have just restored the hearing in his damaged ear. “Someone who tested my restored hearing told me it’s now as good as it was in my 20s,” he says. “To get to the part of my hearing they needed to reach, they had to cut off the ear and sew it back on. Even five or six years ago the operation wouldn’t have been possible. It’s worth all the pain to have it repaired.”
Despite the horror of the incident in Iraq he never thought about giving up war reporting.
“It goes with the territory. If you don’t want to get involved in this kind of danger there are plenty of other jobs you can do. If something unpleasant happens, you have to say ‘that is the price I have paid for a lifetime of interesting work.’ I wouldn’t feel very comfortable doing any other kind of work, so I just carried on. It is not the only time I have been injured but it is by far the worst.”
As well as a young son from his second marriage, he has two grown-up daughters from his first. “The fact I have such a young son means I have got to carry on working for longer – I’m going to need money to keep him in electronic gadgets and all the other things he is going to want. Already, one or two kids in his class are getting at him a bit for having such an elderly father. These kids know his father is on TV and I am hoping that has some sort of cach� to it that will make up for the fact I am so ancient. I am on TV quite regularly, so surely that has to give a kid something! So I’ve got to carry on.” He speaks about all his children and grandchildren with affection but admits there is something about fatherhood later in life that is hugely satisfying. “I am very fond of this little boy,” he says. “He is lovely, charming, intelligent company, so I don’t want to have another missile dropping on my head. It is a balance: I am going to carry on doing what I do but I shall, of course, be careful. I was in my 20s when my daughters were born, which is a bit young, but it was the kind of age when most of my friends were having children. It did not seem anything unusual. Being 61 and having a child becomes a sort of treasure chest. You see your own childhood in this kid. I understand my own father so much more. It has been wonderful. It is not that I love him more than the others. It is just different.”
Despite his desire to carry on working for as long as possible, he has no illusions about his own importance. “Directly I cease to do this job I will be forgotten about. I don’t do it because I think I have any amazing status. I have been lucky to see the things I have seen and I have been prepared to take chances that not everyone was prepared to take.”
Having spent his entire career with the BBC, he has strong opinions about its role in British life. Its much-lambasted coverage of the Diamond Jubilee river pageant was, he believes, a result of its fear of upsetting anyone. “It is so nervous because it is taking public money and it knows it has got to be answerable to the public. The coverage did not come from the BBC being arrogant but from it being nervous about leaving anyone out – but now they realise that actually they left out some of the people they should have had on such an occasion.”
In 2010 he spoke against Rupert Murdoch and the “coarsening effect” of his influence on British life. Given recent events concerning News International, does he feel vindicated? “Yes, I was proud of that. Not many people were saying things like that at the time.” He believes the Leveson Inquiry will refocus attention on what is right and wrong but says there are shades of grey in news-gathering. He once got someone to go through the rubbish of a man he believed to be a war criminal given political asylum in Britain. “I was looking for something to identify him. We unmasked him and he is serving 25 years in jail. It was in the public interest.”
While recovering from his ear operation he won’t be travelling too far afield but, after that, who knows? “It is difficult to get into Syria but I will do it at some stage. I don’t think we will see any resolution there for some time. It is an incredibly dangerous place at the moment but it is the kind of place I have always gone to. It is my natural habitat.”