Who among us hasn’t watched in awe as broadcaster John Simpson stood at the foreground of some scene of devastation, giving his report as bombs exploded and gunshot strafed the sky? Or looked on in admiration as he asked the tough questions of presidents and dictators that no one else dared?
John, who started with the BBC in 1966, has reported from 140 countries and interviewed around 190 presidents, emperors, kings and prime ministers including Gorbachev, Thatcher, Putin, Gaddafi and Mugabe.
John has reported from 140 countries and interviewed around 190 presidents, emperors, kings and prime ministers including Gorbachev, Thatcher, Putin, Gaddafi and Mugabe
During the Iranian revolution John flew to Tehran with Ayatollah Khomeini. He danced on the Berlin Wall after it came down in 1989 and covered the end of South African apartheid in 1994. He watched missiles fall on Baghdad in the first Gulf War, and was in Northern Iraq during the 2003 invasion. He reported on the fall of Kabul in 2001 and the contested election in Iran in 2009. In 1991 he was made a CBE.
John’s written several non-fiction books about his career and now he’s made his first foray into fiction with Moscow, Midnight, a thriller set in the Russian underworld. But his talk at Perth Theatre as part of the annual Perth Festival of the Arts didn’t feel like just a plug for his latest work. He only mentioned it towards the end, smilingly confiding in us that he had great fun writing it but “the problem is, I now have to write another one”. Instead he treated the audience to stories of his life and career as the best-loved BBC foreign correspondent.
Take, for example, his broadcasts from Beijing in 1989, when government tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square and hundreds of young students were shot, despite taking part in non-violent protest. He admits that he was “emotionally drawn into that situation”. Later, at their hotel facing onto the square, John chatted across balconies with a South Korean journalist. A short time later, when the troops turned their guns on the buildings surrounding the square, the journalist was shot in the chest. John never found out if he survived.
He danced on the Berlin Wall after it came down in 1989 and covered the end of South African apartheid in 1994.
What kind of person can do such a job? To be emotionally involved enough to report with empathy, but to be committed enough to the story to stay and witness atrocities when others are fleeing. “In my profession,” he said, “you almost get resigned to the fact you may not make it through the night.” It was an insight into his character and the reality of his work.
During the questions, he answered with charm, wit and more great stories. What was his childhood like? For a time he lived with his dad, happily, in a house in East Anglia that “resembled the Psycho house”. What does he think of Trump? Not much, as it turns out – not surprisingly. Who are the most memorable people he’s interviewed? Among them is Nelson Mandela, whom he found to be a “kind, lovely man” and King Hussein of Jordan, the present king’s father, who was always “full of good jokes”.
Eventually John has to take his leave and we see him again out front, signing books. He is the consummate gentleman, talking to everyone in the long queue as though they were the first and only people there. I’m sure everyone wished the same as we did: that John will hurry back to Perth when his next book is published.
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