John Simpson at the Corn Exchange, Friday 31st May
One would expect a reporter of John Simpson’s standing and experience to be very careful and specific with his choice of words.
Simpson has been with the BBC for 52 years and has reported on 47 wars. He is a man whose words are to be listened to, and on Friday night a packed house at the Corn Exchange were curious and enthusiastic to hear what he had to say and ask him questions about his long career and the state of the world as we know it today.
The man is all bon homie and old school decency, and one suspects that his affability and fair manner have got him out of many a sticky situation. He starts off light, laughing about being punched on his first day on the job and being mistaken for David Attenborough, and chatting about family. He has a book to promote but avoids saying much about that at all.
He talks about the BBC, saying that these days there is opposition from all sides towards the organisation and that he’s never been told to tone it down in all the years he has worked for them. He talks about Trump, his ‘habit of tweeting insanities’ and strategy of giving away positions and key elements before presenting final agreements as amazing victories. He’s disappointed that the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests will be overshadowed by Trump’s visit to the UK. He says that Gaddafi was off his head, that Saddam Hussein scared him, and that al-Bashir was weak and wanted to be liked. He liked Thatcher, although ‘When she was good she was very very good and when she was bad she was something else’. He says that Mandela treated people as the best version of themselves and waxes lyrical about his admiration for Václav Havel. He acknowledges that China is to be taken very seriously indeed and thinks that the best strategy is to keep it in play. China is, says Simpson, surprisingly open and anxious to be part of the international community.
He saves his most emotive words for how he feels about Britain today. ‘The line of confrontation’ he says, ‘is very disturbing indeed’. He compares the UK to France in the 50s, which was, he says ‘extraordinarily violent’. He says that there is a ‘vicious divide which stirs up the weakest intellects’. He talks about the ‘disgraceful’ messages that his colleague Laura Kuenssberg gets on social media and says that he holds social media responsible for the current ‘nastiness and violence’, for which he gets a round of applause. He refers to ‘disturbing threats to freedom’ and says that he feels more able to talk freely about other countries than our own these days. He’s dismayed to see our reputation plummet in the eyes of the world. ‘It’s painful to find that Britain has become an international joke’ and ‘It’s important to realise the way we’ve damaged our country’.
He wonders if Brexit was ‘the tinder that started the whole performance’ but stops short of apportioning blame to any particular entity. ‘This Brexit business is going to change things’ he says sadly, wishing that we could be ‘back the way we were before all this started’.
There are points where Simpson catches himself just before he falls into an abyss of pessimism and says something about hope. He does, after all, have a young son to be optimistic for. Terrorism is 7 or 8% of what it was in the seventies, he says, and a billion have been lifted out of poverty in the past 13 years. But when it comes to Britain he struggles to find any positives at all, and this from a man like Simpson is disturbing. ‘We need to try and be less divisive ourselves and more accepting of other points of view’, he says, wishing for the best but sounding as if he is whistling in the wind.
He sticks rigidly to his three-quarter hour talk and fifteen-minute Q&A plan, but then he didn’t get where he is today by faffing about. Those who wanted endless war stories are disappointed, but those who wanted his views on current situations are not. He signs books afterwards and is very approachable.
I ask people what they thought of the great man. ‘His description of Mandela – it revealed that what we all hoped to be true of him actually was’ says one audience member. ‘Honest’, ‘Genuine’, ‘Empowering’, and ‘Awe-inspiring’, say others. ‘I was sitting there thinking what have I done with my life’ says my friend. The general feeling is that it has been a privilege to hear John Simpson speak, and that people have been delighted by his wit.
And then off he goes, with shrapnel in his side and a shard of hope in his heart, to his next adventure.
In the Market Place I take a picture of him smiling.
© Gail Foster 3rd June 2019