57. John Simpson; Over 50 Years as a Foreign Correspondent, Revolution in Iran, Bombed in Iraq, Jacuzzis in Belgrade and Hallucinating in the Amazon - The Big Travel Podcast

Episode 57
February 27 , 2019

57. John Simpson; Over 50 Years as a Foreign Correspondent, Revolution in Iran, Bombed in Iraq, Jacuzzis in Belgrade and Hallucinating in the Amazon

Foreign correspondent and world affairs editor John Simpson has risked life and limb reporting for the BBC for over 50 years. The Tiananmen Square massacre, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Zimbabwe, Bosnia – you name it he was there. He’s been punched by a UK Prime Minister, bombed by US ‘friendly fire’, met Gaddafi in Bedouin tents across Libya, watched Saddam Hussein’s execution in court and whilst experimenting with some hallucinogenic offerings in the deepest Amazon was once hugged by a six foot goldfish wearing shades. 


On this episode we cover: 

How to narrow down his travels

How in 50 years some places stand out more than others

He can still count how many countries he’s been to

Being part of history

Wikipedia being true, of course

Being punched in the stomach by then Prime Minister Harold Wilson

How being punched by the PM in 1970 didn’t even make the news

How just the suggestion of an election in Britain used to be world news

Lisa getting punched by Theresa May (this hasn’t yet happened)

1962’s terrible winter in a huge house in Dunwich. Suffolk

Casablanca being different and exciting and scary

Morocco igniting his love for travel

Reporting from 48 wars

Being sad enough to count the countries we’ve being to!

Travelling to over 150 countries

His recent first trip to Greenland (doesn’t recommend it)

Greenland being ‘not very nice empty’

Eating whale meat and seeing Polar bear skins

Lisa being a huge fan of John Simpson’s British Airways Highlife Magazine column

Travelling from Paris to Tehran with ayatollah Khomeini in 1979

Still having a shoulder injury from queuing for tickets to the Ayatollah flight in Paris

Telling his BBC Boss to f**k off when he tried to stop him going

Being told the Shah’s air force had orders to shoot down the plane

Being in the biggest crowd in human history

The most exciting, frightening and disturbing moment’s of his life

What it was like to be in Beijing Tiananmen Square massacre

Watching the man standing in front of the tank

Watching the Korean cameraman next to him shot to death

The estimated 10,000 people killed in Tiananmen square

How your own safety becomes less important than what’s happening around you

How being in a crowd that’s attacking you is worse than being faced with guns and bullets

Being attacked by a crowd in Iran

Finding his colleagues in a crowd of a million or more

Being surrounded by an angry group ripping their clothes and scratching them

Standing out as a 6ft 2 Westerner

Being whacked in the face by a broomstick wielding 5ft man

The times he’s regretted being there

Not really being very brave

What is driving him

The curiosity of seeing round the next corner

Wanting to see history for himself not read it in the papers the next morning

The philosophy of travel, the urge to explore

How ‘travel’ drives him

Getting a kick out of being in places that other people aren’t

Visiting Beirut with his wife and 13 year old son

The stunning town of Byblos in Lebanon

The instinct of wanting to footprint a patch of snow

Fatherhood the second time round and how this has affected him

How it’s good for kids to travel

Being one of a handful of journalists to remain in Belgrade

His wife Dee joining him in Belgrade

How a Jacuzzi injury almost scuppered his work during the NATO bombing

The hospital being bombed by US forces

The angry hospital professor arguing over him on the operating table

Filming in Belgrade in with one whole leg encased in plaster

Enjoying the comfort of five stars hotel

Disguising himself in a burqa to enter Afghanistan

Taliban throwing out all foreigners

Being irritated by the Taliban’s threat to kill all journalists

Sneaking in through the Khyber Pass dressed as a woman

The Afghanistan equivalent of being in drag

How wearing a burqa was like a cloak of invisibility

The smuggler’s gang ignoring him as soon as he had the burqa on

Lisa’s plans to one day visit Afghanistan

Dervla Murphy’s cycle from Dublin to Delhi

Riding across the mountains and plains on horseback

Rory Stewart the Tory MP who walked across Afghanistan with his dog

Levison Wood’s journeys through Afghanistan

Being injured by friendly fire in Iraq on the day the invasion started in 2003

Following a group of Kurdish special services fighting on the allied side

Being shot at by Saddam’s tanks

The American special forces calling an airstrike on the tanks

How the Americans got the map coordinates confused and attacked the place the instruction had called on

The bomb landed 11 yards from where he was standing

The translator losing his legs and dying of blood loss

People being burnt to death all around him

Shrapnel embedded in his leg

His producer being on the phone to his mum throughout the whole thing

Getting close to Saddam Hussein

Being pissed off about the BBC not getting the interview

Watching Saddam’s trial every day in the courtroom

The awful moment he watched Saddam Hussein executed by Iraqi Shiites

Yelling out when Saddam’s body fell through the trap door

The conflicting emotions of watching someone, albeit one who’s done terrible things, be killed

How black and white and right and wrong is always more complicated than it seems

Meeting Gaddafi – always in a Bedouin tent

How Gaddafi was ‘completely barking’

How Gaddafi was much nastier than he previously imagined

Mass rapes and murders

How it can feels to be known by people like Saddam and Gaddafi

Saddam’s Information Minister spoke about John to Saddam

Saddam saying John Simpson’s BBC Panorama programme made him his ‘personal enemy’

Crazy hallucinogenic drugs in the farthest reaches of the Amazon close to the Peruvian border

The Asháninka or Asháninca tribe in the rainforests of Peru

How the 50s weren’t a great drug taking era

A six-foot goldfish with a straw hat putting a friendly flipper around his shoulders

How the world is a better place now than ever

The growth in world democracies

One billion people lifted out of poverty

How travel has changed him

Not feeling positive about Donald Trump and America at the moment

Making an effort to be less uptight

Becoming BBC correspondent in South Africa

Loving Rhodesia/Zimbabwe

How a little bit of kindness and emotion goes a long way

How he tries to keep out of Brexit

But feels it’s a major screw up and that no one was warned

Our entire political live being paralysed
How we are living in a divided nation

The current lack of political leadership

How it’s more painful than anything he’s been through in Britain over the decades

The English Civil War being fought along lines that sometimes seem very familiar

His prominent Brexiteer friend who would change his mind

The music question – it involves being in a 1000 year old Souk in Baghdad and Duke Ellington and it’s the best answer ever so you’ll just have to listen to it.