Whisky in the war zone

Rob Allanson talks to veteran BBC journalist John Simpson about whisky, wars and passing the passion for the spirit on to a younger generation
By Rob Allanson
Most peoples' greatest malt moments are usually something of a joy, a dram shared with a friend or a remarkable sample at the distillery. However for the BBC's World Affairs Editor John Simpson, one of the whisky moments that sticks in his mind is laced with terror.

The waste of a great whisky is a dreadful enough experience for most drinkers, but for John his most memorable whisky moment was "one of the worst experiences of my life".

The seasoned journalist, has packed a bottle of malt in his luggage since 1990 more often than not Laphroaig, had been sent out on assignment to Afghanistan before the 2001 US led invasion. The Taliban were in control and had started to crack down on foreigners with alcohol.

He explains ebulliently during our interview: “I could hear them coming down the corridor searching the rooms on the floor of the hotel, searching for alcohol and behaving monstrously.

“My room was right at the end and I thought I would hold off disposing of the whisky until quite late in case they get bored and went away, but they were coming closer and closer. In the end I poured it, a bottle of Laphroaig, down the toilet and of course, Sod’s Law, they stopped a couple of rooms away!

“I did think, such is my devotion to good whisky, that I could scoop it out, but then thought better of it. It was like pouring my own blood away – a very, very nasty experience.”

Though his reporting career stretches back to the days of UK Prime Minister Harold Wilson in the 1970s, John’s love affair with single malts only really started at the end of 1990 when he was heading out to Baghdad during the build up to the war in 1991.

He picks up the story: “It wasn’t my first trip there, so I wasn’t really worried.

“I noticed a colleague at the airport, whom I’d not really met before, also heading there was looking quite apprehensive.

“He’s a Scotsman and was loading up with whisky at the Duty Free. I said hello and I had an ordinary blended whisky with me but he said I ought to try some of the single malts.

“He had a couple of bottles and they looked rather intriguing. One was Laphroaig and it took my interest. I could not pronounce it at the time but he, as an ardent nationalist, explained how to. I bought a couple of bottles and they stood me in great stead for what turned out to be a difficult, nasty trip.” John was expelled by the authorities from Baghdad in 1991 after the first Gulf war.

Like any excellent journalist John’s best reporting comes from an inquiring mind and a power of expression that can put the listener or viewer in the situation next to him. It also helps that the Suffolk-bred reporter understands the liquid’s power to be a leveller in certain social situations.

On a recent trip to China, John and his crew found themselves in hot water with the authorities.

He explains: “We were at a place called Kashgar and were immediately arrested, taken off the plane and told we were going to be treated badly if we tried to argue.

“But over a period of hours with our captors, who turned out to be pretty reasonable people for secret policemen, we had a very nice time. Then we decided to bring out the whisky and cigars because it was a way of celebrating a good outcome.

“Yes whisky is one of the best ways of bonding with people. It is amazing how many people in, for instance, Islamic countries are prepared to take a little sip and not feel that they have been defiled by it.

“I am always very careful. I don’t want to offend people or make their lives unpleasant in any way, I just think it’s there for them if they want it.”

It is very rare to see journalists out of their natural environment, or have the chance to get behind the on screen persona. But during one of his latest adventures viewers really got to see the man behind the flak jacket.

In late 2008/early 2009 John took part in a BBC programme called Top Dogs: Adventures in War, Sea and Ice.

It saw him unite with fellow Britons Sir Ranulph Fiennes, the adventurer, and Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, the round-the-world yachtsman (featured in WM80).

The trio, all in their 60s, went on three trips, each experiencing each others’ professional field.

The first episode, aired in March 2009, saw them go on a news-gathering trip to Afghanistan.

The team reported from the legendary Khyber Pass and infamous Tora Bora mountain complex where Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden is supposed to be holed up. A place John had repeatedly tried to get to and failed.

The three also undertook a voyage around Cape Horn and an expedition hauling sledges across the deep-frozen Frobisher Bay in the far north of Canada.

True to form, during the expeditions, whisky appeared. The first time was as the team sat looking down through the haze on the Tora Bora range toasting their accomplishment, with John in celebratory mood having finally reached this previously unobtainable spot. Similarly after rounding Cape Horn they are pictured sipping from the bottle at the top of a lighthouse.

John says he appreciates his whisky most when it is poured in celebration.

He adds: “My malt moments happen quite a bit and in different places. I always try to make room for a whisky and a cigar where I can, because I cannot think of any better way to celebrate something of achievement. In some countries it is getting more difficult to whip out a cigar and smoke it, and in many of the kind of countries I go to you have to be careful about drinking as well. However, where ever and whenever I feel I have deserved it, I will have a drop as a present to myself.”

Despite having worked for the BBC, a symbol to some of the establishment, there is a little rebelliousness that comes through during the our interview as we talk about smoking in London.

We talk about favourite places to drink and smoke: “There is a new smoking place at a hotel at Hyde Park Corner where they have opened up the roof and you can smoke there. I am definitely going to try that. I like Boisdale and its terrace as well.

“I think these places should be supported. I don’t like the idea of someone telling me what I can and cannot do – it’s like being in some of the places I report from.”

One thing is clear, for John whisky plays an integral part of his life.

“It means a variety of things to me. First, good flavour, a kind of roundness of flavour which I cannot really put into words but which gives a degree of pleasure which no other drink manages to do. Second, I associate it with success and happiness. I would never dream of drinking to cheer myself up or to go to sleep or that sort of thing. For me it’s always to do with achievement and enjoyment. Finally, it is a symbol of pleasant affluence. I grew up in a family where we were always worried about money. Ultimately I think a good single malt is the finest thing on earth to drink.”

Like any good journalist being interviewed, eventually John turns the questions on to the questioner and we talk about family life and whisky.

We both have young children and discuss the fact that the joy of sharing our passion for the spirit with them is paramount.

He agrees: “I want my little boy to grow up to know good single malts and cigars. Not to over-do it, but to know about them. It is something to pass on.”

It is pleasing to know that despite his years as a journalist and the horrors he has inevitably seen in various war zones, John is still passionate about the role of reporting.

He is currently working on a book about how the British media has reported the events of the 20th century.

He explains: “What I have found is how little journalism has changed, the ordinary activity of the work and the people involved in it. The people are essentially the same as you and I would recognise from our work today, just the method of transmitting their copy has changed.

“The older I get the more I realise it’s the enjoyment that counts.”

Notable moments

  • He travelled back from Paris to Tehran with the exiled Ayatollah Khomeini on 1February1979, a return that heralded the Iranian Revolution.

  • In 1989 in Beijing he avoided bullets at the Tiananmen Square massacre.

  • He reported the fall of Ceausescu regime in Bucharest in 1989.

  • He spent the early part of the 1991 Gulf War in Baghdad, before being expelled by the authorities.

  • He reported from Belgrade during the Kosovo War of 1999, where he was one of a handful of journalists to remain in the Serbian capital after the authorities, at the start of the conflict, expelled those from NATO countries.

  • Two years later, he was the first reporter to enter Kabul in the 2001 US-led invasion of Afghanistan .

  • He was hunted by Robert Mugabe’s military in Zimbabwe.

  • He was the first BBC journalist to answer questions in a war zone from internet users via BBC News Online.

  • While reporting on a non-embedded basis from Northern Iraq in the 2003 Iraq war,Simpson was injured in a friendly fire incident when a U.S. warplane bombed the convoy of American and Kurdish forces he was with. The attack was caught on film:a member of Simpson’s crew was killed and he himself was left deaf in one ear.