I know I’ve fan-girled over John Simpson’s travel columns in previous posts but I feel like juuust one more shouldn’t hurt.
I first came across Simpson, a 70 year old foreign correspondent and World Affairs Editor for the BBC, while paging through the South African version of British Airways High Life. It was a “Letter from Baghdad” column and when I came across it my first instinct was “merp” as I am not really one for war type articles. By some chance I ended up reading it and I’ve been hooked on his “Letter from..” columns ever since.
In the past, it was my opinion that working as a foreign correspondent meant journalists could run the risk of becoming boring in their reporting and simply relay the events that they witness in a hard news type way (sort of what viewers witness on Sky News and the like). In hindsight, I know that that way of thinking was naive because there is an array foreign correspondence articles written in a way that brings foreign countries alive for the reader through narrative. Simpson is my best example of this. Now this is purely my experience of his writing but let me explain why I feel this way. He writes in a way that communicates important info about the places he is in but manages to thread this through in a narrative which combines his personal experience with written illustrations that bring the places he is writing about to life for his reader in a truly special way. He adds a human element that brings that ‘extra something’ to his columns.
In August 2014, the online version of High Life curated a list of what they considered to be Simpsons 10 best columns published by the magazine. Out of the ten, two stand out for me. The first is“Letter from Ypres” which Simpson wrote in June 2014, while in the Belgian on the centenary anniversary of World War One. It includes a haunting description of the ‘silent city’ wartime grave sites and a moving narrative about his experience of his relatives who fought in the war. The second is “Meeting Mandela” which Simpson wrote in 2010 after meeting the former South African President. It contains a paragraph which is my favourite piece of Simpsons writing; a goosebump giving description of Mandela:
“Right from that moment I understood what it was about Nelson Mandela that made people worship him. It wasn’t just the humility, it wasn’t even that extraordinary forgiveness and lack of bitterness. It was the way he looked you straight in the eyes and spoke just to you – to the person you wanted to be, perhaps, rather than the one you actually were.”
I never met Mandela but from the stories, pictures and relaying tales of the great man, I know this statement holds immense truth. Simpson’s words pay beautiful homage to a man that inspired a nation and then the world.