The first rule of schooling - break it
Did you like it?
I can’t say I was terribly struck with school. I didn’t enjoy the business of being a pupil very much but made lots of friends. The Crispin School was in every way a completely useless place and was notable for having a headmistress who liked purple. We had bright purple uniforms, hats and ties. My way home led through a very tough area of south-east London and I could be spotted from miles away. So a lot of my early schooldays were spent dodging kids tougher than I was, which was quite good for me.
Did you get into trouble?
I was mildly rebellious and the most caned boy in school for a while. At St Paul’s, we had this superb Victorian building with a marvellous attic of store rooms. The roofs were the building equivalent of the Alps with extraordinary spires and steeples. Climbing them was my absolute delight and joy and I was constantly punished for it. Even when friends joined me and then fell away, I still continued and got whacked. It was painful and humiliating but not the end of the world.
Like a lot of kids, I wanted to please but felt that rules were there to be broken until I got to the stage when I started enforcing them and suddenly saw the need to have them. Even then I wasn’t very inclined to punish people. It didn’t seem right for somebody who’d been so punished himself.
What subjects were you good at?
English, history, French and Latin, things of the imagination and spirit. I was useless in mathematics or anything scientific. I suspect it was only lack of good teaching that prevented me from seeing mathematics as an art instead of a science; to me it was an ineffably dull series of boring old numbers.
Did you have a favourite teacher?
There were lots of very sharp ones and then the usual dull ones. My history master was a magnificent old boy who was always, somehow or other, in trouble with the school authorities for breaking rules, taking kids where they weren’t supposed to be, letting them wear clothes they shouldn’t. He was a great scholar called Philip Whitting, an expert on Byzantine coins. Mike Weaver was a young man who played quite a big part in my intellectual training, and showed me how you create literature. He was a poet who taught English extraordinarily well, opening up doors I didn’t know existed.
What did you want to do?
I was the editor of Folio, the school newspaper and head of the debating society. I had an interest in writing and ideas - the process of transferring a thought into print was fascinating to me. I thought about politics until I realised what a naff business it is. There was also the slight problem that I didn’t know what party I would belong to, a real disadvantage that has stayed with me to this day.
College or university?
Magdalene College Cambridge, to read English. It was absolutely lovely and filled me with a love of all sorts of writers whom I read enthusiastically to this day. I had a very nice time and got married in my third year. I am very proud of the fact that they have made me an Honorary Fellow. I had a superb director of studies called Arthur Sale, a complete outsider who didn’t take any part in the Oxbridge don thing and stayed a friend of mine. He was said to have read every novel in English and had the most extraordinary memory for the most obscure things. A marvellous brain.
What do you wish you had learned at school but were not taught?
I wish I’d been taught Greek at Dulwich. I was judged to be not clever enough and felt that was a slur. My daughter is a classics teacher and Greek is her big thing. I envy her very much.
What is the single most important lesson you have learned outside of formal education?
I learned as a kid to just go for it, not to look around and consider pros and cons but leap before you look. I’ve been involved in circumstances that made me feel I couldn’t stick around any more. Hang in there, don’t give up early and leave. The longer you survive, the more likely you are to get somewhere in the end. In the last 20 to 30 years, I’ve realised the importance of staying, carrying on and bashing away. An old Cockney cameraman friend once said to the latest editor we had: "We’re the permanent staff round here. You’re just passing through." I’ve worked with bad editors and difficult people. You’re tempted to leave. You should put up with it until the buggers go away. Which they always do.
John Simpson CBE joined the BBC in 1966. He has worked as political editor, foreign correspondent and is now the BBC World Affairs editor and a published author. He has won three BAFTAs and the Royal Television Society’s Journalist of the Year Award on two occasions during his career.