Some people just aren't cut out for the suburbs. As one of the BBC's top foreign correspondents, John Simpson has been at the epicentre of many of the world's flashpoints for more than 30 years. Afghanistan, Belgrade, Hong Kong, Baghdad; you name it, he's been there. And what's more, he hasn't just met the great and the good, such as Clinton and Blair, he's met the top bogey men, too. He's had Osama Bin Laden pleading with some Afghani guerrillas to kill him and his crew, he's interviewed Emperor Bokassa, Colonel Gadhafi and Arkan and had close up dealings with Saddam Hussein. And it goes without saying he was one of the first people in the entire world to see in the new millennium on the specially named Millennium Island, which the Kiribati government claimed just squeezed inside the international date line.
Small wonder, then, that Simpson is a source of dozens of good stories. Many of these have been written up elsewhere in his autobiographical Strange Places, Questionable People, but there are plenty left over for this latest book in which Simpson eschews chronology and just sticks to some plain old-fashioned story telling, with sections on villains, spies, icons etc. Unsurprisingly, Simpson has a journalistic eye for detail and nuance and never holds back from telling you the things you want to know; so when he went to interview Bokassa, he managed to sneak a look inside his giant deep freeze to see if there were any human body parts. It sounds trivial but it isn't; in a strange sort of way the examination of the contents of a deep freeze can be every bit as revealing as an hour on a shrink's couch.
Simpson is a genial companion, not much given to introspection, and the book races seamlessly from anecdote to anecdote. And yet underpinning the narrative is Simpson's global malaise, a feeling that everywhere in the world is becoming more and more similar and that it's increasingly hard to find anywhere genuinely wild and remote. Simpson has been to many of those places, but the way he describes them makes them seem fairly similar in their own kind of way. McDonalds and the Gap may be thin on the ground, but there are bullets and danger aplenty. To have been to so many of these places is an achievement in itself; to have returned unscathed is a minor miracle; John Simpson has led a charmed life in more ways than one. --John Crace