John Simpson interview

The British journalist talks about his life ans an author

The Knowledge

‘The 12 months I set myself to write my latest book, a history of British reporting in the 20th century, coincided with my busiest year reporting for BBC News since 1989. And I had to do both at the same time. So I started writing at 5.30am each morning, regardless of how late I’d got to sleep, or where I was: Baghdad, Kabul, the Tora Bora caves, or on the run in Zimbabwe. The disturbing thing was that, whether I felt like death and could scarcely make out the words in my pile of photostats from ancient newspapers, or felt fine after a decent night’s sleep, the writing seemed no different afterwards. Equally bad, I suppose.

‘My efforts were fuelled with a flow of black, sugarless tea, served up selflessly by my producer, Oggy, or my cameraman, Nick, as they waited for 10am and the chance to go out filming. As I wrote I blocked out the world with a large pair of headphones, and listened exclusively to instrumental music: jazz and classical. The voices of singers, even in a language I couldn’t understand, disturbed the alpha waves too much. Eventually an album called Jazz for a Rainy Afternoon and a haunting work by the Czech composer Janacek called On an Overgrown Path became my favourites: the counter on my iPod shows I played the jazz album 73 times, and the Janacek 91 times. And I don’t suppose I listened properly to either of them once.

‘In the Arctic I wore three fleeces, a fur hat and gloves with the fingers cut off when I wrote; in Basra in July, with the temperature at 119 degrees, I sat in my metal-roofed army hut in my underwear, with great splashes of sweat landing on the laptop keys: not a picture to dwell on. On holiday in Sicily I wrote with a superb vista of Mount Etna rising in front of me: I scarcely noticed it. The hardest times were when my four-year-old son would come and ask me to watch a DVD with him. I infinitely preferred that to writing. Still, when his preferences switched from Harold Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin to Spongebob Squarepants, even reading old Daily Mail articles about the evils of immigration seemed marginally more attractive.’
Unreliable Sources: How the 20th Century Was Reported is published by Macmillan.

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