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Interview: John Simpson, world-affairs editor, BBC

25 January 2019

‘I’ve tended to stay in places that most sensible people want to get out of’

chris williamson

What attracted me to journalism was the thought of travelling: to be my own master, and see the kind of people I’d always wanted to see. I wanted to do things that would be worth talking about afterwards.

I’ve always enjoyed being on the road — I don’t really like just sitting in the studio. It’s an instinct — nothing more than that, really.

My old colleague Charles Wheeler has been a big influence on me; and Martha Gellhorn’s been equally important.

I prefer to read a newspaper, but don’t do that so much now, sadly, like most of us. I get news off the internet, where I can read all the English-language newspapers from across the world, and German and French papers, and translations from Japanese or Chinese. You don’t get any news or information from the Chinese papers, but they give you an indication of what the authorities want people to read.

I don’t think that trying to change things for the better is the purpose of reporting: it’s to be honest and open about what is really happening. The result — how people’s attitudes change — is up to them. You have to zero-in on what is going on, what is the correct version of events, not concentrate on anything else particularly.

In some ways, what is surprising and rewarding is the way in which — even in the most dreadful circumstances — you can always be certain that some people will behave wonderfully well. I covered the Rwandan genocide in 1994, one of the worst things you can imagine, and yet there were loads of people there who protected their neighbours at the risk of their own lives. It’s hugely gratifying when you see behaviour like that, and that keeps you going.

I wrote a book, Not Quite World’s End, which dealt with some of these difficult issues. It explored the ways in which war and journalism and politics mix, and overall it was a positive book. I’m proud of it.

I’m an enthusiastic churchgoer. I get up at a ghastly hour on a Sunday morning — I like the peace and calm of sitting in church. I enjoy listening to the music, and, now I’m in Oxford, I go to a particular college chapel: they have a wonderful choir. I come away walking on air; so that does sustain me in difficult times. It’s been a fantastic help.

 I was brought up in a religious way. Funnily enough, I think what’s stayed with me most has been the hymns. When I’m in real dodgy circumstances, I’ve found myself singing hymns quite loudly, to everybody’s surprise and embarrassment. It gives you something to hang on to. Not just the obvious ones. I like quite odd hymns.

I have hours of hymns on my iPod. I do find them uplifting, and, yes, I remember Terry Waite saying that they had kept him going when he was in captivity. They keep me going a lot on a daily basis, and, though I’ve never endured that sort of experience, I find them very comforting, and it’s the music underlying my existence. Always there. Hundreds of them.

I have one of the older iPods, with a big memory; so I’m able to carry around everything I could ever want. I have all of the plays of Shakespeare. I wander around, up and down places like Oxford Street, listening to people challenging one another to duels, and so forth.

P. G. Wodehouse says something really dopey about people who collect things, and, of course, he’s right; but I’m a book collector. I like to hunt down 18th- and 19th-century books, and living in Oxford makes that quite easy. I like to hang around the books: I sit there and look at them before taking down something to read. My family think I’m bonkers, but it gives me a sense of peace.

Suzy Klein and I are discussing music on BBC4’s Our Classical Century, thinking about the place of British music in our recent history. I like British music in particular. There’s certainly a British voice, and it comes out quite strongly, reaching down from William Walton and Ralph Vaughan Williams. The Brits were terribly offended at the end of the 19th century by a German writer who said that England was a “land without music”. In the 20th century, that became even less true than before. It was lifted from the 1880s onwards.

I didn’t come from a musical background. My father listened to the dance bands of the ’30s and ’40s; so, growing up in the ’50s, I listened to that. Growing up in Suffolk, only ten miles from Aldeburgh, my father got involved in everything going on around there, and I started to hang out around Snape, hearing the music of Britten and Tippett. It was quite advanced for a ten-year-old kid, but it’s stayed with me. I have a particular affection for 20th-century music — Bartók and Shostakovich, particularly. I think my father liked going there, as he could meet other local people; but I was drawn there by the music.

My taste is very eclectic: I like the entire range, but I have a particular affinity for British 20th-century music, and perhaps the more difficult music. I find the difficulty quite attractive. I’m less good on contemporary music, but I have a very close friend who’s been instrumental in bringing forward a lot of people such as Harrison Birtwistle; so I’m kind of well up in his music and one or two others. My main interest is mid- to late-20th-century music — symphonic, big orchestra stuff. I’ve never managed to be fully connected to opera — obviously I like Britten’s operas — but it’s not one of my big things.

I sang at school, but didn’t play any instruments. I wish I had. I took up the flute when I was in my thirties, and I’ve kept it up in a desultory sort of way; but I lack the rigour that you need if you’re going to be a proper musician. I used to take it with me a lot, because it’s easily portable, and could twiddle it around when I was sitting in hotel rooms, but not to any great standard — out of sheer laziness.

Being with my family is the delight of my life. It’s all the sweeter as I spend a lot of time away, and often in dodgy places; so it feels absolutely lovely to be back. I’m very lucky with my son, who is a gentle and understanding kid.

I’ve tended to stay in places that most sensible people want to get out of, and there have been a few difficult moments. But I don’t want to present myself as a courageous character: I’m an old hack, and I’ll do what I have to do. Yes, I’ve lost five or six colleagues who were friends: cameramen, in particular, because it’s a more dangerous job. That’s quite a depressing thing. It wasn’t like that in the past. It started up in the ’90s, when, instead of just being in occasional danger, it started to become more ever-present.

But I’ve been doing this job for 52 years now, and it’s remarkable how much has changed during that time. There are more democracies in the world, fewer dictators, fewer wars, and less poverty than there has been in the past. The world’s dangers seem less to me than when I was first a journalist in the ’60s. The kinds of dangers posed by the internet didn’t exist, and they were more physical and more brutal.

People are always shocked if you say the world is a safer place, but we’re richer as a species, less subject to hunger and disease. I’m not saying that the world is a safe place, and God knows what will happen with climate change; but I have friends in Oxford working on this this who do think, if certain decisions are made, we can hope to do something about even that.

I pray most often for peace and quiet. I don’t believe in bothering the Almighty with things such as money or jobs, and I feel as though God has better things to do than worry about which school my kid will go to.

Well, I think it’s a boring answer, but if I was locked in a church and could have anyone to be my companion, I’d choose William Shakespeare. I think he must have been quite fun, and nice and friendly. (He could have been a swine, who knows?) I’d want to know if he wrote all of his plays, and what he thought of others around him — and then I’d write it all up for the papers, of course.

John Simpson was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

He co-presents, with Suzy Klein, Our Classical Century: 1936-53, on BBC4, starting next month.

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