Life and times
The BBC’S world affairs editor on life-or-death fashion in China, sea shanties and Flossing
Journalist and author John Simpson
‘A LITTLE TOWARDS ME – left-hand down – perfect – stay exactly like that.’ We’re on a fashion shoot in China, on a usually forbidden stretch of the Great Wall. The patter comes from British photographer Natalie Lennard, who’s taking the pictures, while her partner Matt does the producing. A Ukrainian model wilts in the midday heat, trying to follow her instructions.
I am here with my team – including Joe Phua, the cameraman who marched with me into Kabul back in 2001, who is one of the finest and bravest in the industry. We are here to make a report for the BBC’S News at Ten, and later we’ll interview the fashion designer Guo Pei in Beijing, whose dress the model is wearing. Guo Pei came to prominence in the West after she designed an unforgettable dress in yellow silk for Rihanna for the Met Gala in 2015. When Guo was growing up in the 1960s, men and women could only wear one type of clothing, the Mao suit, in either dark blue or black. A billion people seemed identical. But Guo’s grandmother had visited the court of the last Empress as a child, and secretly told her stories of robes in the kind of colours you could be killed for wearing in Mao’s China: golds, scarlets and silvers. And now Guo is famous for designing clothes just like the ones her grandmother described to her. I watch as a dozen or more Chinese assistants gather round the model, pulling and tweaking the material of the dress, which even I realise is magnificent.
BACK HOME IN OXFORD, all that seems like a brilliant dream. I take my 12-year-old son to school, then head on to breakfast at Brasenose College, whose senior common room has very generously taken me on board. One of the dons, Chris Mckenna, shows me a mysterious Georgian implement, a bit like those copper bed-warmers you see in antique shops. But this one has a shorter handle, is made of silver, and has 12 small compartments, each with its own silver lid. As an enthusiast of Patrick O’brian’s novels of the sea, I recognise it instantly: it’s the thing Jack Aubrey’s waspish servant Killick uses for serving toasted cheese, the snack of choice when the captain and his secretservice ship’s doctor play their violin and cello duets on board. Chris wants a college evening of sea shanties and O’brian readings, accompanied by Welsh – or Brasenose – rarebit served in the silver implement. We start planning the programme.
AS THE FATHER of a pre-teen boy, my life isn’t all lived on this high intellectual plane. My son Rafe, you see, has taught me to play a computer game, called Fortnite, set in a fantasy world. I can appreciate the addiction, as our avatars rampage over the landscape shooting everyone in sight, but he beats me every time. I prefer Call of Duty but my wife Dee – who, in the days when she was my producer, saw plenty of violence herself – thinks it’s too bloodthirsty. While we argue, Rafe does the Floss, a jolly little dance which requires great dexterity and grace. Don’t try it.
I WORK IN LONDON several days a week, and usually gravitate to Covent Garden. A gin-and-something at the Garrick Club, a quick call into the Cecil Court bookshops, and a plate of oysters with Dee at Sheekey’s: life doesn’t get much better, especially at the weekends, when Rafe joins us. He shows a flattering interest in all my stories and still thinks I’m God. I give that another six months.
John Simpson’s novel, Moscow, Midnight, is out now (John Murray, £20)
In Fortnite, my son Rafe and I rampage over the landscape, shooting everyone is sight