From Freetown, farewell Chris Simpson (1963-2016)

Over the last few days a diverse range of Africanists discovered they all had one friend in common, and that he had just died in an apartment in Dakar. The reporting legend that was Chris Simpson has left us.

Others undoubtedly knew him better. But as the outpouring over the last few days has shown, Chris’ life was appreciated by many – myself included – who recognise that we have lost a unique individual. A man who in his annual missives and social media updates would regularly celebrate the passing of low-culture stars of 1970s British television, or obscure cricket legends, surely deserves a few pages of send-off. Here’s mine.

___

Chris’ writing voice was distinctive. The (more popular) posturing of the daring-and-dashing foreign correspondent in exotic danger wasn’t for him. His was a regular riff on the bumbling British reporter, full of very hapless calamity but who always survived the hard-drive meltdowns and drainage ditch stumbles to see another day. It was half innocent abroad, half schoolboy antics. The last time we chatted, in January, he had just received a “stiff summons from the chief”, and had offered an explanation that “didn’t really cut it”. In his own – typically self-aware – words he was: “disorganised, comic and naïve”. His knowledge was encyclopaedic, his intellect first rate. But those talents weren’t enough to keep him from transforming the most mundane material into a crisis.

Many thought immediately of journalism’s most famous fictional hack, William Boot. Chris was proud to have met Bill Deedes, often cited as the inspiration for Waugh’s lead character, in Luanda (as well as the less glamourous Cheltenham). Simmo would generally arrive for appointments after some public transport misadventure, rather flustered and – at least in tropical Africa – soaked in sweat. His passport – often necessary for police checkpoints – was at constant risk of being lost. Telephone numbers were reissued in quick succession. Lost keys sometimes meant a rough night in the garden. Friends’ washing machines came away irrevocably damaged. But if his copy rarely arrived on time, it was never poor.

At the heart of the story for many of us was Simmo in Africa. His character and budget constraints added a unique twist to the account. His perspective came above all from a basic belief that you could learn the most by speaking to ordinary people, often well away from the capital. It was reporting with humanity. Through his dispatches we heard from teachers and taxi drivers, market women and miners. It was the outlook of a radio-man needing to get his microphone in front of the real people at the heart of the story. This was how he got the nuance and depth when faced with challenges like understanding the ethnic complexities of Congo or the assorted acronyms of the opaque armed groups on Chad’s southern border. In later life, he could get lost for weeks writing a think piece on an obscure Malian rebel group (the deadline long since passed) or spend Christmas penning a report on the “structural problems in the Central African health system”.

This all gave a depth to his reporting that easily saw past the tired clichés. As Kate Adie said this weekend in a tribute, his was “knowledge lightly worn”. He was humble about what he knew, and particularly about who he knew. On meeting a Mali source at a Paris airport he wrote, “We swapped contacts: he gave me the movers and shakers; I gave him the man who does my laundry.” [Laundry – ignored as a topic by other writers – turned out to be rich seam for disaster stories.] Meeting a Cameroonian taxi driver in France, or a Senegalese waitress in New York was a safer source of information than a politician. Interactions weren’t always amicable. One too many times at airports he encountered the faux bonhomie of the “Welcome to Africa my brother!” touts. Frustration would occasionally boil over, like when he shot back at a bribe-seeking checkpoint officer in Ivory Coast “Is this the life you wanted?” While sometimes cynical, it was more that he had a deep respect for the complexity of each situation. Reporting from Angola, Rwanda, Mozambique, DR Congo, The Gambia, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Guinea and Senegal, among others, he’d seen one too many peace ceremonies and new heads of state wrongly heralded as a break with the past.

Not for him the upmarket Novotels and Radisson Blus (“the horror, the horror”). Instead it was an underwhelming search for a decent place to sleep that wouldn’t break his meagre budget. He preferred an honest one-star hotel to a fake three stars. The local Catholic mission was a frequent choice, though this often meant the extra expense of a small bribe to the night guard to let him back inside after post-curfew drinks. He wrote a memorable piece for From Our Own Correspondent full of anecdotes of African hotels. His fellow-travellers included backpackers and the overly religious. This latter group could be obnoxious zealots, although aged nine, Chris had himself declared his ambition to be a missionary. He told me in January that “Ladbrookes still have that at 33-1”, though he was a definite agnostic. Christmas regularly found him on the continent – generally in a drab hotel room, surfing TV channels in the hope of chancing on a half-remembered 1970s ITV sitcom.

Essential escape from the hotel was provided by those two essentials of the British male – beer and football. Haunts like the ‘Cave de Lyon’ (Bangui) and ‘Taxi Brousse’ (Ouagadougou) became home away from home. Electricity couldn’t always be guaranteed, and neither could the quality of the music. This aficionado of 1980s British rock was rarely at peace with West Africa’s regular diet of Michael Bolton, Akon, Celine Dion and Westlife. Music aside, the night spots were also frequently empty, though that didn’t mean one couldn’t stay till dawn. He had locals in a host of capitals, and would mourn their closure like the passing of an old friend. He was often around for several months, meaning close bonds with hotel and bar staff, or the chance to move out and rent somewhere on more agreeable terms. On a longer stay in Bangui he had a flat-share in a villa owned by a relative of the president. He wrote, “It is not as palatial as it sounds, with some very LV Price fixtures and fittings. This could be a useful ice-breaker with Mr Bozizé when I finally get to interview him: “just before we get started, Mr President could you have a word with your nephew about the shower…””

If many wondered how he kept the show on the road, his blunderings also shined a heart-warming light on the large network of people regularly lending a hand. He had contacts and friends across the UK and the African continent, and their spare rooms, sofa beds and laundry services were gratefully received. Many of his hosts on the continent were hacks and humanitarians who ended up staying far longer than planned. There were also plenty of kind strangers along the way; a jacket left behind in a restaurant with wallet and passport would be magically returned. Most capitals contain at least one computer technician who was at one time called upon to resuscitate one of Simmo’s laptops.

___

There was close to a decade in London, though he never fully warmed to the capital, saying he was “happier arriving at Manchester Piccadilly than London Euston.”  The City journalism course (“lots of good mates, but a pretty ropy course”) was followed by three years at the cult West Africa magazine (est. 1917). The magazine nurtured almost as many Africanist hacks as SOAS, but its financial situation was never rosy. Then came four years at the BBC (Bush House?). The struggling finances at WA magazine were a foreshadowing of what was to come. For those passionate about reporting the continent, it wasn’t easy to pay the bills. Perhaps a generation or two ago, he could have been the eccentric West Africa correspondent for a London broadsheet, living royally and filing very occasional copy accompanied by wild expense claims. But journalism had changed, and almost no-one could afford a staffer in West Africa.

Chris could be his own worst enemy as well: expense claims were an administrative step too far (as sometimes was invoicing for work done) and he was frequently conned out of what finances he had. In Abidjan his landlord duped him out of a hefty rental deposit with some trumped up costs. A nickname he frequently used for himself was ‘soft-touch Simpson’. His generosity was also famous – the large signing on fee obtained when starting with a UN radio project went on property for a friend in Rwanda. In his final month, precious finances were spent on a sheep for a friend’s family. It all meant he was often broke. His talents in reporting, writing and analysis in West Africa were immense, but undervalued by those with control of budgets. So, he mixed the reporting with short contracts encouraging UN-types to write reports in plain English, occasional consultancies, and above all media training (‘capacity building’ as the donors preferred it).

He loved teaching radio, whether in Ivory Coast, Liberia or Guinea, working with the likes of IRIN (then a UN outfit), Internews and West Africa Democracy Radio (WADR). The outpouring of comments in the last few days from community radio reporters he had supported showed his contribution had been important, and fatherly. These training organisations depended on the willingness of donors to fund, and projects were often on shaky ground. As the expat trainer, he would also be involved in the managerial work behind the scenes – not his strong point. When we first met in 2007 for a drink in Abidjan at the now defunct “Les Perles” on Boulevard Latrille he talked with frustration about the spreadsheet gremlins and deadlines missed for paperwork.

___

I don’t recall every hearing about Chris driving a car. Maybe he never got his licence. As one of his blog profiles said: “Only person I know to cancel his own driving test halfway through.” Whatever the truth, he was a man for public transport, whether a crowded and bumpy road trip in West Africa, or the UK’s National Express. And there was plenty of travel – back and forth to the continent on the most inexpensive airline available (a short stop in Tripoli anyone?), catching up with friends, or discovering a new country on assignment. Some of his very best anecdotes came from travel with “Simpson Tours”:

“With less than a month to play with in between London landing and Liberian ‘holiday’, Simpson Tours was under pressure and came close to collapse after a series of increasingly pathetic own goals. Great to beat the summer rush with an early, online bargain booking for Berwick-on-Tweed. Not so smart when you lose the ticket code, tearfully run through the Yahoo inbox for details, convince yourself it was all a dream and book afresh. Arriving late at Kings’ Cross, a nonplussed ticket officer handed me the original, now useless reservation along with my new, much more expensive ticket. I lurched dispiritedly towards my over-packed train. No seat until Newcastle. Oh well. “I must put the return ticket somewhere safe”, thought the man and promptly lost it ((to be found behind a bookcase in 2014….).”

And this time in Bangui…

It took me a while to work out the taxi system and the difference between course and relais. In the first weeks, I looked on shamefully as packed yellow vehicles disgorged their passengers and monsieur le blanc was ushered into the front seat. “Ah…..you were taking your mother to the hospital. Sorry, I am off to get some croissants. Not the same direction”.’

___

As many have noted, technology was also something of a bête noire for Chris. One update from Bangui could have been repeated with little variation from many other places: “a catastrophic week. Cash and computer disappeared in a taxi, another example of ‘Simpson syndrome’, which has blighted my life.” He couldn’t be held entirely responsible – he was filing reports from places with unreliable power and internet, while the cybercafés he loved to hate were easy places to pick up a virus. Network Africa producers at Bush House would spend their nights making anxious calls to Luanda and other such places: “Chris…where’s the piece you promised six hours ago?” Each generation of journalists has their tales of late nights at the telex machine, or dictating over the phone at the national exchange, or mini-disc malfunctions (‘TOC error’?). Chris struggled to file on anything of greater complexity than a cleft stick. In London in 2010 he even reported failing to get a usable image from a passport photo booth.

The ‘Christmas letters’ were no exception to his struggles. Each year he would ask friends to send him their email addresses, as the previous year’s list had been lost. Many of the letters had been re-written several times after files had somehow got deleted or corrupted (perhaps the modern equivalent of Byron’s memoirs being destroyed or Hemingway’s World War One novel vanishing in a suitcase). Despite their name, these legendary missives could arrive at almost any time of the year. The shortest in my collection is 12 pages long, the longest 34. It was a mark of their obvious craftsmanship that many of us kept these for posterity – how many Christmas mailings could you say that for? It often took the cajoling of friends across the world for the mailings to see the light of day. He would act surprised that anyone requested another one. “Did anyone make it to the end last time?” he wondered out loud. We all made it the end of course. And then re-read from the beginning. These were his masterpieces.

The content was a mix of many things, especially Africa, friends, alcohol, Crystal Palace and Simmo mishaps. Sometimes the themes all came together in one paragraph, as here at a bar in Ouagadougou: ‘The beers certainly flowed freely after John Terry headed into his own net for Chelsea at Selhurst, the only time I have kissed a TV screen. An Irish Liverpool fan was less happy with Chelsea’s strutting win at Anfield and even more downcast after an afternoon with the Nigerian barber (my idea). I was accused of contributory negligence, by the bar staff if not the victim. “How could you let this happen? Your hair is nothing to write home about, but he had such lovely, flowing locks, all gone…”’

A regular section in the letters would look back on those who had passed away over the previous 12 months. With the deaths so far this year, 2016’s letter was already looking sadder than most. As any reporter knows, notable deaths frequently occur at just the wrong time. He reflected on his own skills in obituary writing after describing the death of an ex-president in CAR, hours after he’d flown out. He commented: “I do not have the finely-honed obituary-writing skills or gravitas of Kaye Whiteman, but can, if pushed, deliver some diligently-researched (not Wikipedia, PLEASE…) words of tribute on presidents I never met. I still wince at the memory of a dismally thin send-off for Léopold Senghor when last in Dakar (which did not go unnoticed).”

Radio lovers the world over know the frustration of their medium’s ephemeral nature (almost impossible to share…reports generally unavailable online). And so, these written missives were often our one connection to his talent and adventures. Blogging could have been another. One blog project after another spluttered into life…and died almost as quickly. One of at least six attempts got underway in April last year called ‘BordersBoy63’. It’s still online (https://bordersboy63.wordpress.com/) and promised “MID-LIFE MEANDERINGS ON AFRICA, POLITICS, CINEMA, CRICKET, FOOTBALL AND SHOPPING”. We got nothing of the sort. In fact, it lasted no more than two posts – the first one being having no main text but just a long title written at “a cyber café on Old Kent Road.” Three weeks later we got the second and final post – a lengthy discussion of Duran Duran’s career inspired by a cheap memoir, predictably picked up at a charity shop.

An earlier and longer lasting blog project, ‘Simmo’s Magic Garden’ (http://simmosmagicgarden.blogspot.com/), lasted a respectable 26 posts in 2011, only one of them having anything to do with Africa. His interests were wide, and, critics might add, a little undiscerning. That would be unfair, because I think in his heart was a valuing of the under-valued and a deep dislike of snobbery. Chris would rather have the honesty and candour of a 99p memoir and cheap charity shop T-shirt (friends tried and failed to help him dress smarter), than a puffed up literary festival and a gastro pub. The Frontline Club was judged “rather pretentious”.

I inherited a good deal of the charity shop detritus from his Abidjan days via mutual friends. Without him, I would probably have never read John Motson’s autobiography. When I left, I gave the books to the local university English department. A generation of students in Cocody are appreciating the joys of Alan Bennett’s diaries, or the hubris of reading Lance Armstrong’s prelapsarian memoir. As for the inherited CDs, the pleasures of New Order and Joy Division were lost on me, and even my dad (who loved Zappa and Moondog) found the collection obscure. Music though was among his greatest passions:

“Last time I had been in the US, I needed to brandish ID to buy a beer.  Now I lived in fear of being barred from Bleeker Street bars (largely frequented by NYU student hearties) for being middle-aged and sad, “Is Happy Hour still on?”, or being turfed out at dawn having slept through my jukebox selections, and spilled my drink.  In fairness, I don’t think this ever happened. There was even the odd free pint. “You realize you’re the only person here that is really excited about this?” a drinking companion asked as I punched the air on hearing the opening bars of “How Soon is Now?” by The Smiths.”

What tied it all together? He clearly had a loyalty to the unappreciated and unfashionable, whether West African politics, post-punk New Romantics, or Crystal Palace FC. On these topics he developed an expertise that few could surpass.

The lifestyle described above had rather inevitable health consequences, despite regular attempts at a “booze ban”. Sport was as passionately watched as it was avoided. A game of tennis with the BBC’s James Copnall at the fabled Rue Lepic residence in Abidjan was a rare exception. A Portuguese doctor in the city got special praise in 2007 for an acute diagnosis when he “realized quite early on that I had the eating habits of a 12-year-old, and that ten years plus in Africa had taught me next to nothing about basic health care.” In one Dakar patisserie he was nicknamed ‘Monsieur Mille Feuilles’. Things were hardly better back home, where the only hint of exercise was a running joke about his weakness for the budget high-street bakery Greggs. His Skype motto still reads: “Bring me a pastry and some piece of mind.” Poetry was written on the subject, as were a couple of lengthy odes to Greggs in the style of Jackie Collins.

___

If the overall image I’ve painted above seems a rather improbable figure, those of us who met him never doubted the sincerity of his character. Some writers deliberately put themselves in sticky situations just for comic effect (touring Ireland with a fridge?). But the fact that he told it all so well, didn’t mean it wasn’t true. To echo Mrs Clinton, they represented exactly who he was. He knew his faults better than anyone, but that didn’t mean it was an act.

Most of us have a travel anecdote or two from our younger days that we can dust off in the pub. Yes, we too had slept in some bad places, found ourselves on a tight budget and done a few months in a remote country our friends couldn’t place on the map. That meant we felt a bond with Chris, and it added to our pleasure in reading his accounts. But while most of us gradually abandoned public transport, grew more comfortable, and settled into boring lives, Chris was still having those (mis)adventures. The continued shortness of his contracts, budgets and postings was in a way our gain. I never felt the courage of the man more than when in his mid-40s and after a six year break from reporting, he moved to the Central African Republic to string. He kept at it, perhaps because he could do no other. He was a writer and a reporter to the marrow, and so year after year he could stay in those places, get lost a hundred times, and then always get back to London and through the hallowed archway of Bush House to tell an improbable round of new anecdotes.

One of course hopes that such lives end with a golden retirement reminiscing and reflecting with those who spent a few hours alongside you on the road. When it came to it, it ended in full flow within days of us hearing him back on From Our Own Correspondent, a programme that was perhaps made to measure. For all the mishaps, he’d never lost his way.

___

It seems proper to give Chris the last word, with a passage from the 2010 letter about a city where he would spend his final days. On the surface the tone is typically mocking. But underneath it shows a romantic attachment to places many of us have fallen in love with, and to which he repeatedly returned.

There are those who like Dakar a lot and those who don’t.  I am, on balance, still a fan and will always be thankful to the BBC colleague who steered me here close to 10 years ago. After five years out, there was a definite surge of nostalgia as the shared taxi spluttered into Colobane’s Gare Routière on the last day of October, having worked its way north from the Gambian border up through Kaolack and then on through Dakar’s unprepossessing hinterland.

From the point of view of an old dog seeking out favourite haunts, much has changed, but enough is mercifully the same. At “Le Ngonal” off Bourguiba, French owner and Bob Dylan fan François still holds court. The cheerfully down-market ‘Palace’ on Rue A offers the same menu as before. Hang around too long and there will be familiar, slightly dangerous invitations to pop round the hotel across the road for tea and scones. 

A friend and colleague has the old house in Amitié 1. Without getting too dewy-eyed, it is strangely touching to be greeted by people you have not seen in seven years:  the woman who sells bissap by the French Cultural Centre; ‘Mr Magazines’, with back copies of ‘Newsweek’ and ‘Time’; CD vendors on Félix Fauré; Latyr the famous driver.

It is easy to get over-lyrical about Senegal and start spouting guidebook clichés: oh……don’t we love the sharp, staccato bursts of Wolof in the bustling markets of Sandaga and Kermel; drinking minty, blood-coloured Bissap to cope with the afternoon heat; the chocolaty greeting of a Biskrem biscuit; brightly-coloured pirogues nestling on the beach at N’Gor;  haggling with a gowned driver in the back of a clapped-out yellow-and-black taxi; fleeing the dusty highway as an over-packed, uncaring Car Rapide thunders out of nowhere; late nights in the bars off Avenue Ponty and taxi rides home through the Medina as the M’Balax rhythms pound in your head and you hear the first call to prayer…. Shall I go on? The lemony tang of a good Poulet Yassa, or a rich, nutty Mafé washed down with a river of Flag beer. The scrawny, doe-eyed Talibés with their tomato tins, hustling at the traffic-lights. The splendid panorama from the Pitman balcony, “man, the view from here…..” The chaloupe pulling into the Ile de Gorée harbour. The endless glories of the Meridian Hotel. The smell of the old canal…

This entry was posted in Journalism and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to From Freetown, farewell Chris Simpson (1963-2016)

  1. Nick Kotch says:

    This is a brilliant tribute and thoroughly a la hauteur du defunt. Well done! I knew Chris for years but never well enough. Reading so much about it him over the past 10 days has made me understand how much I missed out.
    His close mates must do a book about him in due course because his story will travel, as he did.

  2. Gill Simpson says:

    A truly wonderful tribute that really captures my lovely and exasperating brother -to the point where I heard his voice again as I read it. Thank you so much.

    • Ellen Boyle says:

      Dear Gill,

      So sorry for your loss. Is there a memorial slated in the future? What is the best address to send my sympathies via Post?

      Regards,

      Ellen Boyle

  3. Gehan says:

    Excellent tribute, had me chuckling in remembrance, thank you. I too was gobsmacked when he suggested he was off to CAR, as I figured he’d want to start thinking about taking life slightly easier, but that would not have been the Simpsonian way.

  4. Christine Otieno says:

    What a wonderful tribute to a truly wonderful, gem of a man.

  5. Anny Osabutey says:

    Chris had a unique voice!!

  6. Jannie says:

    Truly a great piece- I had forgotten the Jackie Collins’ homages, which were, we were promised at the time, the beginnings of a massive world-building writing project which would run and run. Or indeed not.

  7. Ellen Boyle says:

    Any interest in starting a journo scholarship in Chris’ name for African students? It could be Senegal focused, or Pan-African or …

    I would happily set it up and make the first donation. Or interested parties could join in. A thought and a way to keep him close to us and others. It could also change someone’s career aspirations etc.

  8. John Stewart says:

    Lovely piece, fills out my knowledge of Chris. I spent four days wandering around with Chris in Luanda, in early 1993, walking and walking, waiting for meetings or interviews that were always ‘o Chefe nao esta. Espera segunda-feira.’ The failure of the 1992 elections and peace to hold, and the uncertainty and paralysis that gripped nearly every institution or leader , made it a nightmare for any one uptight or organized. Chris and I had great fun, discovering the Ilha, the Marginal, The ways up to theKinaxixe market, the offices at which we both wanted to meet people (I was working for a Quaker organisation, on peace issues). And we met and talked to people wherever we walked and sat, and that was the real story.

  9. Lara says:

    Great piece, indeed. Really really really good. Thank you.

  10. Anna Borzello says:

    That is a lovely tribute. Thank you.

  11. martin Davies says:

    John what a fabulous tribute to that wonderful “one-off” Chris Simpson. Brilliantly written and captures the man I used to love bumping into when he arrived back at Bush House. Thank you.

  12. Penny Boreham says:

    This piece has really stayed with me since I read it and re-read it – so discerning, spot on and affectionate. Thank you

  13. Tim E says:

    How well this captures Chris. The music was a constant theme as you have elegantly described. And his affection for things African was by no means his only joy. In my case he would often defer to my supposed ‘expertise’ on ABBA as I had once travelled to Sweden to interview Bjorn Ulvaeus and contributed to a couple of BBC programmes about the band. But he would equally happily engage in a debate about the minor characters in British 1940s war films – we had infeasibly long online conversations about the cast of ‘This Happy Breed’ and he took immesurable delight in my revelation that ‘Queenie’ the errant daughter was played by Kay Walsh (one of David Lean’s numerous wives). His knowledge of the obscure and the trivial, combined with a mordant wit were a source of much pleasure to so many people from so many different backgrounds. There are far far too few journalists like him.

  14. Craig Chapman says:

    I read this piece having never met the man and was totally entranced. Well done, he would have been embarressed and secretly quite chuffed, the signature of an accurate obituary.

  15. Peter Burdin says:

    What a fantastic tribute – you’ve really captured the essence of Chris.
    I remember bumping into him in Angola more than twenty years ago – and he was exactly as you described: friendly, helpful, warm but I couldn’t help noticing that he’d managed to lose all the buttons on his shirt bar two which were buttoned into the wrong holes.

    He was such an endearing man – and an inspiration to us all.

  16. Max Jarrett says:

    This is spot on! Thank you.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *