Review of 'A Mad World, My Masters: Tales from a Traveller's Life'

A Mad World, My Masters: Tales from a Traveller's Life by John Simpson

a_mad_world.jpg I have always admired the work of John Simpson on the BBC as he delivers reports from all four corners of the world. Here he follows-up his first autobiography “Strange Places, Questionable People” with a collection of reminiscences of his life as a journalist including several sections of photos. Each chapter of “A Mad World, My Masters” has a theme and contains a series of short memories that are often dramatically different from one another. I found this book rather hard to get into for exactly this reason - There is no particular theme running through the book nor is there any real message to be gleaned from it - It is just a collection of memories. It is only when we reach the final chapter “Milestones” and his “Afterword” that Simpson offers up his thoughts on what this all means and what he thinks of the world ending with his final thought:

“The truth is, I suppose, that however much our world shrinks, it can still be as large as we wish it to be.”

And this does, in fact quite succinctly, summarise what I believe to be his philosophy: Whether it is interviewing flatulent dictators or terrifying war lords, visiting a drug market in Columbia or attending the hand over to Hong Kong to the Chinese, his interest in the people and their culture is very much in evidence. He seeks “the story behind the story”, often shunning the predictable questions in order to seek out the difficult answers that are much more important to not only himself but the world.

With his history in the business he is able to offer insight into significant events. I found particularly touching his thoughts on China when returning to Tiananmen Square in Beijing, having been there during the student demonstrations and the subsequent crack down by the Chinese government, finding that one of students he met running a local antiques shop. He is certainly not afraid to get into the thick of things to get to the heart of the matter though declines to be called a “war correspondent” as he denies he loves war in any way though in war he often craves the interesting human interest stories that it generates. Though often hurt and experiencing great hardships this downplayed by Simpson in a typical British manner with the facts of the matter simply stated along with him “making do” and going about his business.

Largely an interesting read I can't say this book really engaged me. I will say it does require that you have a fairly good understanding of the history of the last half of the 20th century as without it the impact of his stories will be far less. He is quite a good writer but I did find the general nature of the short stories leaving me somewhat disengaged with it. It is only when the stories get longer and more involved later in the book that the interest picks up but you have to get there first…I found myself looking too often at how many pages were remaining, always a bad sign. I must say I admire the man all the more for understanding how he thinks by reading this novel. Perhaps at some point he will put together a more in-depth and coherent accounting of his experiences so we can more fully engage with them.

Rating: “Really good but I have some issues”

Review Date: 2016-08-20

Genre: Autobiography

Publisher: Macmillan

Publication Date: 2000

ISBN: 0333724208