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John Simpson


Tales from a traveller's life

Book review by Anthony Campbell. Copyright © Anthony Campbell (2002).

John Simpson is well known to British television viewers as the BBC's World Affairs Editor. His work has taken him to some 120 countries and in this book he writes about his experiences in an impressive variety of settings, including some capital cities as well as a lot of deserts, jungles, mountains, and coral islands. In tone the stories he tells span a similarly wide range: comic, tragic, horrific, reflective, lyrical, and even spooky: there is a curious anecdote, admittedly second-hand, about a camera which was supposedly subjected to a voodoo spell in Haiti and subsequently caused injury or death to several people who used it until its owner destroyed it by throwing it under the track of a tank.

For me, one of the most interesting episodes in the book is Simpson's account of a visit to Alamut in Iran, the site of the Castle of the Assassins, a place to which I had gone myself some years previously (see my book The Assassins of Alamut). For most readers, however, I expect it will be the dangers of the correspondent's life that will impress them most. Wars figure prominently, of course. Simpson includes his diary for the time he spent in Belgrade in 1999, when it was being bombed by NATO. Not only was he liable to be killed by the bombs, but some (though not all) of the people of Belgrade were understandably hostile to the British; death threats were made. Things became even worse when he fell and sustained a knee injury requiring urgent operation; afterwards he had to lie in bed, unable to move, and listen to the bombs falling around him. On top of all this there was official criticism of him at home, with the implication that he was pro-Serb and should not be there at all; but the BBC stuck by him and later he received a qualified apology from Alastair Campbell, the Downing Street press spokesman. Simpson is unconvinced by the Allies' claims of the need for bombing and concludes that it was in any case largely ineffective. His book is, among other things, an endorsement of the old adage that the first casualty of war is truth.

Other alarming experiences in Simpson's life have included encounters with drug barons, murderous Israeli soldiers, and numerous other nasties. But there are also more relaxing and pleasant interludes, such as a description of falling under the spell of Princess Diana. There is also the comic side: Colonel Gadhafi turns up for an interview on crutches, wearing a Hawaiian shirt and a battered straw hat, and then farts audibly during a considerable part of the interview. All these things are described, as one would expect, with wit, charm, and urbanity. Simpson is a delightful travelling companion.

The underlying theme of the book is—inevitably, since Simpson was 56 when writing it—that the world is changing fast. Some of these changes are welcome to him, others not, and he grumbles a lot, justifiably, about the increasing sameness which is affecting all our lives. There is still sufficient variety, however, to make this a very enjoyable read.

%T A Mad Word, My Masters
%S Tales from a traveller's life
%A Simpson, John
%I Pan Books
%C London
%D 2001
%G ISBN 0-330-35567-8
%P xix + 436 pp
%K autobiography, travel
%O paperback—revised edition; illustrated
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