John Simpson is a television journalist. Indeed he is far more than that, being the BBC’s World Affairs editor, an amazing title that makes me think of Emperor Ming the Merciless, enthroned above the galaxies. Apart from the fact that Mr Simpson does not provoke calamity, their job descriptions are not dissimilar: the bombers go in, and there he is, in safari suit or burkha, white-haired, his face sleek with concern, presiding over the ruins of cities.
The only thing is, what does he do with the rest of his time, when there are no bombers and the cities are merely falling apart? The answer seems to be that he writes autobiographies. Days from a Different World is the fourth of them, and takes him up to the age of seven. It is the strangest autobiography I have ever read.
To start with, there is a great deal of dialogue. Now a child remembers very little, if anything, of what adults say. The most you can hope for is a memory of some bizarre behaviour. For example, I am writing the biography of the poet R. S. Thomas, and in the course of my research met his wife’s niece, the one house guest on any regular basis. I thought there might be extracts from the poet’s table talk, but all she could remember was that Thomas regularly finished off all the custard and licked out the cake mix. This had fascinated her as a child.
Presumably John Simpson would have had moments like ‘Listen, what do you think of this? “Iago Prytherch his name, though, be it allowed,/ Just a smelly old man from the bald Welsh hills.” No, better not. “Just an ordinary man of the bald Welsh hills.” By Jove, I think I’ve got it.’ Much clattering of spoons.
For in his autobiography he reports at length the conversations between his mother and his father just back from the war. ‘Can’t go to the bloody flicks with him, I suppose; pity. But anyway I’d rather be at home, tucked up in bed with you.’ The ‘him’ is John Simpson, the only living witness to this. He was then one year old.
But even that is nothing compared with an earlier chapter. Mr Simpson has reported from some exotic places, but none more exotic than this, his parents’ bedroom, or to be precise, their bed. ‘She turns on her side, and he moulds himself to her shape and lays a proprietorial hand over her swelling breast.’ John Simpson, history’s witness, was then unborn.
He must have foreseen objections to this sort of thing, for in his foreword he writes, ‘I have had to borrow some of the techniques of the Japanese shishosetsu, the I-novel, which is basically autobiographical yet contains episodes which are imagined rather than necessarily experienced.’ Which may be so. I have not heard of the Japanese whatever it is, all I know is that something is either an autobiography or it isn’t. Anything else, any mixture of the two, anything other than what the writer saw or was told, just makes the reader uncomfortable. He stops believing.
And it is no use Simpson saying that everything is based on what his parents told him ‘at great length’ when he was a child. All it requires is one proprietorial hand on one swelling breast to blow that guarantee away.
Almost as unsettling is his habit of stopping the narrative from time to time to report on world political and social history, and not just the odd reference to these but whole intelligent chapters. Were you to read this book late at night, or after a few drinks, you might be left with the bemused impression that the Simpson family had Martin Bormann and Mahatma Gandhi for neighbours, with HMS Amethyst moored just down the road. All this is a great pity.
For John Simpson has an interesting and very sad story to tell. It concerns the break-up of his family, when his mother left his father, the two making him choose which of them he would stay with. He was seven years old, had in that time moved house seven times, and he had to decide then and there on a choice that would affect the rest of his life. He chose his father, much to the latter’s alarm, he writes. But there is so much going on, so much reporting and dialogue, that even this moment dwindles. It becomes a brief event in the foreground of the narrative of a small boy already intent on reporting the world.
There is so much more you want to know. Apparently he saw very little of his mother after that. Why? Also, she had been married before, and already had two children. They hardly figure in the book. Why? Did he ever see them, who was looking after them? The answers may be in the book somewhere, but such things get overshadowed by Korea and Sir Stafford Cripps.
Again, on page 64 he says that his father was bisexual, but never mentions this again. On the same page he says that, aged 19, he was in Casablanca with his father, then a rich man, when Simpson senior embarked on a brief affair with Zsa Zsa Gabor. Just that, no more. But then these could be trailers for volumes five and six.
He has a tale to tell, and in places tells it well, as when he describes the strange months before he started school, when, both his parents out at work, he was left alone, aged four, in their flat, with instructions not to make any noise which would alert the neighbours. The trouble is that there is not enough of this, and the structure of the book makes you care even less about the little boy it should have been about. Cut by a third, it would have made a good autobiography.