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War & Peace and what my new son taught me

By Jane Bell

Published 19/10/2007

News flash - John Simpson reporting from the front line
News flash - John Simpson reporting from the front line

In 41 years with the BBC, John Simpson has reported from 120 countries, covered 36 war zones and has interviewed more than 150 kings, presidents and prime ministers (only one of whom punched him). He visits Belfast on Monday to talk about his travels.

What are your memories of covering Belfast during the Troubles?

It was the first time I'd experienced any kind of crisis in somebody else's city. From 1970 through to 1975, Belfast was the place I spent most of my time. On my first day in Belfast I went to an IRA funeral and, for one reason or another, they thought I was a British Army spy. I didn't have any credentials or anything. They were talking about shooting me. My life was saved by another journalist, a lovely old boy, who spotted something was happening to me and came and got me out of it. That evening in the old Midland Hotel - now long gone - I sat on the bed and just thought this kind of stuff is not for me. There are tough, brave people in this job and I'm not one of them. I was on the point of ringing the office to say so when I had second thoughts. And I don't think I've ever been panicked in that way again. My attitude has always been just to be who I am, not pretend to be somebody else, not to try and keep undercover and people have treated me accordingly.

You'll be in Belfast again on Monday evening to give a talk about your travels and your latest book. What can the audience expect?

The book, Not Quite World's End, is a book of traveller's tales and the many strange people and peculiar places I have come across - from Robert Mugabe to the Bushmen of the Kalahari, from Saddam Hussein to Hollywood stars.

Every generation worries about the things it reads in newspapers but, though war, disease, terrorism, natural disasters and crime always seem about to overwhelm us, the reality is that the world hasn't stopped turning. The title's also a play on words, having come back from Dublin to live in London, just a few hundred yards away from an area in Chelsea called World's End. As for the talk, I'll probably speak for about 15 minutes and then take questions - that's always the most interesting bit.

So we're not all doomed ... yet. Are you an optimist at heart?

There are a lot of reasons to be optimistic. When I look at the span of my career you see the collapse of the Soviet Bloc, apartheid coming to a peaceful end in South Africa, so many fewer wars and dictators now than there were in the past.

And at a personal level there are so many good things happening in my life.

Such as your wife Dee (a South African, 20 years his junior) and baby son, Rafe, born after your 60th birthday and after Dee had suffered miscarriages. (John has adult daughters from a previous marriage and is a grandfather.) How are your enjoying being a dad all over again, later in life?

Well, it's wonderful. He's lovely, 21 months today! It has, of course, changed my views but it hasn't made me more optimistic. What it has done is make me much more angry about people who throw life away and are prepared to blow other people up for the sake of making some political point. I used to just report on that as fact. Now, privately, when I hear these things it makes my blood boil. I can't be doing with it. Life's too precious. Instead of thinking 'there are six billion people on this earth, we don't really need another kid' , the fact that this was so difficult and my wife had such an awful time brought it home to me how important life is. It was a big lesson. Ok, when you're getting to bed at 1am and are up looking after a kid at 6.30am, you do go around yawning a lot. But I feel really happy.

You named your son after your good friend the explorer, Sir Ranulph Fiennes. As a consummate traveller yourself, do you envy him his job?

There are not very many places left to explore. I suppose I've been a bit of a political explorer but to places where people, for very good reasons, don't want to go. I once worked it out that I must have got on a plane once every five days throughout my entire career. After about a week or 10 days in the one place I get restless. I'm going to have to find another way of getting about if the BBC kicks me out.

Talking of names, is it true your pet name for Dee is 'the memsahib'?

Yes, it is.

And what does she call you?

Oh, I couldn't tell you that.

Go on, you can tell me ...

(laughing) I'll regret this. She calls me '007' and she's Miss Moneypenny. When I'm heading off somewhere she'll say, 'Have a care, 007'.

But, of course, reality's not like the movies. In a war or conflict zone, do you feel fear?

I get very nervous but fear for somebody like me is what pain is to a cook. Burn yourself and you know you've gone too far. You ask yourself, 'Am I doing this right? Should I be here?' It's also about respect for others because I'm not working alone. What I've learned in 41 years doing this job is that you can never judge these things. When I first went to China, at a very exciting time with the country opening up, if somebody had said take a flak jacket, I'd have laughed - not that we had flak jackets in those days. Then the Tiananmen massacre happened and I found myself lying on the street sheltering behind a kerb stone, absolutely terrified, with bullets flying all over the place. Then I go to a place like Iran, thinking this will be a death mission, only to find I fell in love with the country ... even if it was a bit scary at times. You just never know. You learn not to be superstitious.

Your closest call came during the invasion of Iraq in 2003, when the convoy of US and Kurdish forces you were with was bombed by the Americans in the worst 'friendly fire' incident of the war. A total of 18 people were killed, including a member of your crew, and you were left deaf in one ear. Looking back, what are your feelings?

I don't feel any bitterness about it, even though it still affects me - the deafness. That's a bit of a nuisance. But, if you don't want to run that risk, then don't go. I don't feel bitter about the pilot who dropped the bomb, though I think he was a stupid idiot. Eighteen people died. Right in front of your eyes. When I think about them I just think how bloody lucky I was, how close I came. Our translator lost both legs and died from massive blood loss. Compared to that it would be almost bad manners to feel anger about my injuries.

You were once quoted as saying most journalists were 'damaged goods, usually with slightly rumpled lives and unconventional backgrounds ... outsiders looking in at others from outside'. What did you mean?

I was describing myself but it's my observation of a lot of others. I had a very weird upbringing - my mother left my father when I was really very young and my father brought me up at a time, in the Fifties, when that simply didn't happen. It wasn't how other families were. I think there's a tendency to stand back and watch other people rather than throw oneself into the life. But, perhaps that's not it at all. My little boy couldn't be more secure, really. But I've noticed he's a little bit of an onlooker. Perhaps it's not damage at all but just the nature and character some of us have. It's in the nature of journalists to want to know more or ask why, to want to know all about people's lives. Some people you meet don't mind it, others are appalled. It's the corniest line in the world but true, nonetheless - everybody's got a story.

All you've got to do is ask the question, the opener. Every single minicab driver comes from a place you can't spell. Ask them a simple question like, 'Where are you from?' and you're off.

Is it true that the then Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, once punched you in the stomach?

Absolutely. It was my first day out as a reporter. The beginning of April 1970, it must have been. They were starting to carry heavy hints about an election and I was given the job of doorstepping Harold Wilson. I didn't even get the question out - I got as far as, "Excuse me, Prime -" when he walloped me in the stomach and threatened me with a complaint. So, I was physically attacked by the Prime Minister and thought I was about to lose my job, and all before 11am.

John Simpson will talk at Elmwood Hall, Queen's University, Belfast, on Monday at 6.30pm. The event is part of the Belfast Festival at Queen's and is sponsored by the Belfast Telegraph. Tickets £8/£6

Belfast Telegraph

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