Life and times

The BBC’S world af­fairs ed­i­tor on life-or-death fash­ion in China, sea shanties and Floss­ing

The Daily Telegraph - Telegraph Magazine - - Contents - John Simp­son

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

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