In A Mad World, My Masters John Simpson presents a set of observations and anecdotes drawn from a near lifetime of reporting for television news. Over a career spanning decades, John Simpson has worked on many of the major stories of recent history. He has covered conflicts, such as the Gulf War and the Balkans, general interest stories, such as Hong Kong’s transfer and the new millennium, and more general issues such as such as the drugs and arms trades. But it is John Simpson’s contact with political leaders and heads of state that adds real spice to these memoirs, some of his contacts proving decidedly surreal, all of them offering unusual insight.
The book is organised around themes, such as journeys, villains, spies, bombing and absurdities. This allows the presentation of similar kinds of experience derived from different trips. It does also facilitate the reading of the book via casual dips. A consequence is that the whole experience becomes rather episodic. Apart from the sometimes tenuous theme, there is little attempt to create a consistent, general narrative. Again this facilitates the casual read, but it might antagonise a reader who wants a tad more reflection from the author.
The thematic arrangement also means that on several occasions the reader re-visits a trip, leading to some inevitable repetition of material. This, however, is kept to a minimum and does not detract from the overall experience if an occasional feeling of impatience is ignored.
Thus far this review has sounded like a lukewarm reception, but this would be far from the truth of the experience. The book’s subject matter alone is thought-provoking, stimulating and enlightening. In addition, John Simpson’s own observations are quite wonderful. And this mix is persuasive. The reader feels that the book “takes you there” rather than “tells us what it’s like”. It is the vividness of John Simpson’s recollections and related experience that brings so much of the subject matter completely to life that we feel we might have smelled Gaddafi’s flatulence, sensed a Peruvian mayor’s danger or felt an Iraqi Kurd’s bitterness.
Anyone familiar with John Simpson’s exemplary reporting for the BBC will expect these anecdotes to contain more than trivia or merely personal experience, and, thus, will not be disappointed. But it is when the author deals with the mechanics and technicalities of news gathering that some of the more vivid experiences appear. We often forget that the process is dangerous, tiring and relentless if the product is to contain even a grain of interest. Throughout, John Simpson acknowledges the difficulties, but he also always recognises the contributions of others to the teamwork that is clearly essential to the process.
This book has much to offer to anyone interested in recent history or current affairs. Even those who are unfamiliar with the author’s broadcasting work will discover engaging and arresting perspectives on many issues and, in some cases, there will be analyses that will question some generally accepted positions. The book may be a little too long, but its consistent high quality ensures that this is barely an issue.