much like the man of 29 who jumped on a plane to what was then Zaire to follow a bunch of mercenaries, who were really very hostile to me following them.
Landing at the airport, I thought how easy it would be to tell people back home that I’d been turned away at arrivals for not having the right visa. But then I saw a palm tree outside and I could feel the heat and I realised how much I’d always longed to come to Africa. So I fished out a five-dollar bill and stuck it in my passport, handed it over and got the visa stamp. That was me then, and it’s still me now. The difference is that now if something dreadful happened to me nobody’s going to say, “What a tragedy. Who knows what he could have achieved if he’d lived a bit longer.” In that sense, my life is complete.
I would have been a much more content young man if I’d foreseen all the incredible stories I would end up covering. All those wonderful and dreadful revolutions of 1989; Tiananmen Square, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the peaceful revolution in Czechoslovakia and the really quite scary one in Romania. And then, the release of Nelson Mandela.
I still have so many places I want to go, but there aren’t many 100-year-old foreign correspondents roaming war zones around the world.
I was brought up around active older people. My grandfather was a spy behind German lines in the First World War. My grandmother was involved in women’s suffrage. There was a sense that you didn’t just sit by the fire and moan about your aches and pains.
I wrote a couple of novels in the late Seventies and then so much happened to me in real life that I concentrated on factual books. But for the past five years, while I’ve been clinging on at the BBC by my fingernails, fiction is a wonderful way to be the God of your own creation.
I survived a very determined drive on the part of the former head of BBC News to get rid of me. He went and I stayed, thank goodness. It was solely on the grounds of my age, I think.
My 25-year-old self would get a kick out of the fact that I’ve survived all these things. I haven’t changed in my approach to life – I just feel like a young man who’s climbed a steep mountain the day before last. But the desire to keep on climbing is still there.
Interview by Boudicca Fox-Leonard
Moscow, Midnight by John Simpson (£20, Hodder & Stoughton) is now available at books.telegraph.co.uk
JUMP INTO THE FRAY John Simpson says he was a lonely and polite child who had no idea of the excitement ahead; with wife, Dee Kruger below, mother of son Rafe