When I was impressionable and even more naive than now I was warned not to trust anyone who started a story with “When I was in …”. This was tremendously good advice. For some reason the society I swim in rates travel above all else and fails to see it as just another form of consumption – like fast cars, designer clothes and unnecessary kitchens. It is relatively easy to travel half way round the world, look poverty and injustice in the eye, then rail about it at comfortable middle class dinner parties. It is far harder to admit to it in your own back yard.
Not Quite World’s End by John Simpson didn’t therefore look promising as the only book I got under the Christmas tree this year. It consists almost entirely of “When I was in…” stories. Fortunately Simpson has been in a few interesting places in the last forty years such as Saddam Hussein’s trial or parts of the Congo and so many of the stories are genuinely fascinating and I have had an entertaining few days working through the four hundred plus pages. There is no doubt that Simpson is a highly professional reporter. The back stories to some of the major conflicts of the world are fascinating.
Unfortunately Simpson can’t help giving us more than a glimpse of his personal life. He could have covered the birth of his son (a third child by a second marriage late in Simpson’s life) in a page or two and it would have had the same effect as the entire chapter he devotes to it. Has he not noticed that although conception and birth stories are of immense personal importance their interest to others is minimal. Parts of the book read like a rather embarrassing chain letter. On the one hand he says he has to keep working to pay for the upbringing of his new son but goes on to describe his house in London and his flat in Paris (two of the most expensive places on the planet) and is clearly shuttling backwards and forwards to South Africa to holiday and visiting relatives. Whatever Simpson’s reason for continuing to work into his 60’s it isn’t putting bread on the table. It would be helpful if he were honest with himself and his readers – many of whom really will have to work to seventy to pay for even one home in a modest location.
The whole thing can be summed up for me with a single quote:
Directly Rafe [Simpson’s son] is old enough to remember the experience, I will take him to see tigers, jaguars, gorillas and polar bears in the wild, so that he can at least take the memory of them into the future.
There isn’t even a hint that it is supporting this kind of life style for the very rich, or even the existence of the very rich, that is causing these creatures to become extinct and many of the conflicts in the world. Simpson seems totally unable to examine the fact that he may actually be part of the problem rather than a neutral voice.
The book would have been improved enormously with the help of a non sycophantic editor who could have said “John nobody is really interested in this” instead I suspect, like Saddam, Simpson is surrounded by celeb buffers. He would get on well with Prince Charles.