Broadcast journalist John Simpson has been a face and measured voice of the BBC for more than half a century. For most of his career he has been world affairs editor, reporting from Tiananmen Square in 1989, both Gulf wars and the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 among many other places. Some of his expertise and experiences also now find their way into his fiction: his latest novel is Our Friends in Beijing. Simpson, 77, lives in Oxford with his wife and teenage son.
In Our Friends in Beijing, a journalist called Jon is tortured, which you only recently revealed owes much to your own experiences in Beirut covering the Israeli invasion of 1982. Why did you keep this secret for so long?
Well, that torture thing, it wasn’t quite as bad in reality as it is in the book. But I didn’t behave as I would have liked to: I would have told them anything. So I didn’t feel very proud of that and kept quiet about it.
One of your captors held a gun to your head and performed a mock execution – and you scandalised viewers of Good Morning Britain not long ago by disclosing that you called him a “wanker”. Did it take a long time to get over the episode?
Well, like most men, I’m amazingly good at forgiving myself for things. So I forgave myself, but it did take some time. I behaved in the most grovelling manner you could imagine, and it was only telling the guy he was a wanker that made me feel I’d kind of come out on top. But that was only because he didn’t understand the word. If he’d understood he’d have shot me on the spot.
As a result of injuries sustained while reporting, you’re deaf in one ear and walk with a permanent limp. Has it been worth it?
These are fairly minor problems along the way. I am just hugely grateful to be alive and to still be, at my age, having a really, really useful, worthwhile and exciting job to do. So I’m bloody lucky and if I started whining about it, I’d deserve a kicking. That’s not to say I don’t whine about it. Of course I do. Because everybody does.
In November, you gave an emotional report from Afghanistan on Radio 4, where you broke down talking about Fatima, a widow with seven children who was facing starvation. What was behind your response?
I was very, very affected by having seen this family, with a kid just like my own kid, with two daughters just like my daughters used to be when they were teenagers. And the thought that one of those daughters was going to have to be sold off to some old bloke in marriage, just to keep the family alive. And that the boy would face the strong possibility of dying of hunger. Amol Rajan was asking me about this and suddenly my kids came up in front of my eyes, and, you know, I lost it.
Is it true that you helped Fatima and her family financially?
Well, I don’t really want to talk about that too much. But I defy anybody to see a family that is facing death from starvation and not put your hand in your pocket. You’d have to be quite an unfeeling monster to walk out without having helped them. So they’ll be OK, but there are millions and millions of other families in Afghanistan that won’t be.
I said to my teenage son: ‘God, this is fantastic. I feel like Lazarus.’ And my son said: ‘Who does he play for?’
You’ll be back on our screens next month presenting a new, weekly current affairs show on BBC Two called Unspun World. What can you say about it?
My plan is to have a no-nonsense, no-frills programme where we work out four or five topics a week and we’ll go to the BBC expert and get the absolutely unvarnished facts about it. What’s really, really happening, not that endless business of getting one person on one side, one person on the other, and they talk it out. I got the idea really from the Economist, those five articles at the start of the magazine: Is China going to invade Taiwan? Are we really going to have Donald Trump back as US president? Those big questions. And the great thing is that when you’re dealing with BBC people, you can get real answers out of them.
Were you surprised to get another big presenting opportunity on the BBC?
It’s really something for an organisation to take a bloke of 77 and say: “Look, here’s a train set.” I’ve got a 15-year-old son and I said to him: “God, this is fantastic. I feel like Lazarus.” And my son said: “Who does he play for?” I feel I’ve had a rebirth, certainly a resurrection.
Covid must have kept you grounded for much longer than usual. Did you drive your family nuts?
Oh listen, I’ve only got to come through the front door to drive my family nuts! We just had as good a time as we could possibly have. It was really nice to be a househusband again and I watched an awful lot of television.
I’ve got to confess my standards have dropped. I used to be a rather intellectual type and now I just watch what the latest series is. So The Tourist, the superb BBC thing set in Australia. And there are moments where my wife manages to rope me in to watch an episode of Emily in Paris but it’s not quite my taste.
Do you ever plan to retire?
My dear father always used to say that he had one foot in the grave and the other on a banana skin. And that’s true after a certain age of all of us. But I’ll take it for as long as it’ll take me and then we’ll see. Then I can just sit down and read my books.
Or binge the rest of Emily in Paris?
You know, I still don’t think I’m going to watch all of Emily in Paris.
• Our Friends in Beijing by John Simpson is published in paperback on 3 February (John Murray, £8.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply