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I've had to dodge bullets and face the Taliban but nothing is as scary as Bake Off.. I was shaking; WORLDS APART FOR BEEB NEWS MAN SIMPSON; EXCLUSIVE.


He has interviewed Saddam Hussein, dodged bullets in the Tiananmen Square massacre and reported from the world's fiercest frontlines in the last 45 years.

But BBC World Affairs editor John Simpson has never felt more fearful than when he baked cakes for Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood, during the Great Sport Relief Bake Off.

He says: "I was terrified. I promise you, this is not just showing off, but if I had to interview the head of the Taliban or go and cover a gunfight - I'm not saying I'll run into it with joy - but it doesn't scare me. My knees wouldn't be knocking.

"But my God, during Bake Off my knees went, my mouth was dry and my hands were shaking so much I worried the cameraman might think I'd drunk too much vodka. It was nerves. Real nerves. I was justified in being scared."

John, 71, is well used to dealing with life or death situations as the most experienced foreign correspondent working today. He strode ahead of the Northern Alliance to become one of the first reporters to enter Afghanistan in 2001, dressed in a burka. But donning an apron exposed his worst weakness.

"I can't think of anything that I've done, certainly in recent years, that was nearly so nerve-racking or anxietyproducing," he says.

"You've got to remember that I was brought up in the late Jurassic era when blokes did not cook.

"My 10-year-old son [Rafe] does a cookery course and is getting moderately good. If I, at the age of 10, had said I wanted to go to cookery classes I would probably have been sectioned.

"The headmaster would have given me a talking to and my father would have been quite appalled." Never one to refuse a challenge, John planned a culinary crash course before cooking in front of the nation. But an urgent assignment got in the way.

"I thought I'd take a week beforehand to practise then I'd be really smooth and cool.

"My wife agreed to show me how to turn flour, water and eggs into wonderful things because I'd no idea.

"As it turned out I had to go to Afghanistan where cooking standards are even lower than mine. I got back the night before, pretty whacked, and my wife and her sister forced me into the kitchen to show me what to do.

"So my preparation was about two hours of trying to make pastry and fiddling with the oven. The following day, I'd forgotten it all. So I wasn't exactly front runner in our group."

John's rivals included former Spice Girl Geri Horner, singer Louise Redknapp and footballer Jermaine Jenas.

And it was Geri who leapt to John's rescue when he suffered a series of baking blunders.

"Geri was the star and was so nice to me. At a key moment I got really low and all the stuff I'd been doing seemed to go wrong, and she rallied Hollywood and sorted it out quickly. Typical of her, she said, 'cover it with Union Jacks' and it certainly made what I did look nice and jolly and that was Geri's doing."

He has eaten weird and wonderful dishes on his global travels - so how did his own baking compare? "It was weird and certainly not wonderful," he admits.

Even if the result is inedible, John's boy Rafe - from his second marriage to TV producer Dee Kruger, 52 - will brim with pride to see his dad baking on screen.

John says: "He's at the age where everything I do seems to him to be supercool. Within 10 months everything I do will be really stupid and boring and he'll be ashamed.

"I walk him to school and the other mummies and au pairs there are all incredibly glamorous and then there's this poor, broken down old white-haired character dragging his son along.

"We still hold hands and it's only as we reach the last stretch that he makes it clear, without hurting my feelings, that its time to stop holding hands.

"So he'll be telling everybody and boasting about me baking on television. Soon he'll be just grunting and looking at his iPhone or whatever it is. But at the moment it's still wonderful."

John officially earned cool status when he made GQ magazine's list of Britain's best dressed men last year.

"That was last year and I was only number 34," he says. "When it came out this year I thought, 'Oh God, I don't care'. Then I realised I did. So I sneaked a look at the newsagent.

"But I'd gone. Vanished. I'm no longer one of the best dressed men in Britain and deservedly. They thought my shirts looked nicely ironed on camera when I was in some ghastly place, that's all."

He may be modest about his accoround lades, but sometimes the public adoration John receives is definitely misplaced, he feels. "When people grip my hand, look deeply into my eyes and say, 'thank you for everything you've done' I know they think I'm David Attenborough.

"David will be 89 - and you might think there's not much difference between 89 and 71. But when you're 71 that might make you feel a bit depressed.

"David's a wonderful old boy and I love him dearly. One day I hope to still be broadcasting and healthy at 89." Entering his eighth decade has made John, brought up by his father after his parents split, consider the end of his life.

Just like Simon Binner in last week's moving BBC Two euthanasia documentary Simon's Choice, John has vowed to be master of his own passing if he ever becomes a burden on his family.

"It's still my position. Absolutely," he says. "The key person in this was the woman who was a surrogate mother to me and died in that way. Martha Gellhorn was a famous writer and war correspondent, incredibly beautiful, once married to Ernest Hemingway.

She had cancer and told only one person. She organised a little dinner party and invited me and my wife. Four days later she took a couple of pills and that was that. That's the way to do it, before you lose control.

"I'd want to end it with a big party. And when people say 'this is great - why did you decide to throw a party now?' I'll say, 'ah, you wait and see'. I want everybody to have nice memories of my death."

John's own memories map many of the world's most important moments.

"I've been lucky to see some of the great things. The fall of the Berlin Wall.

"The overthrow of those horrible old dictatorships in Eastern Europe. The fall of communism in Russia. And, best of all, the end of apartheid in South Africa. To go back there in the 1990s and see Nelson Mandela released, and to meet him, was incredible. And I loved him.

"To see him inaugurated as the President of South Africa in 1994, that was the most wonderful day.

"Just before he took his vows he gave me a little wink. It just was the most marvellous moment - tears came to my eyes when he did it. It was just the most uplifting moment of my entire life."

Uplifting isn't a word used to describe the world today as terrorism takes a grip. But John, known for breaking the biggest stories first, has reassuring thoughts.

"We are going through a difficult time.

But I don't think ISIS will last and I don't think in five or 10 years it's going to be a problem. Russia is similarly a nuisance and that makes everybody anxious.

"The world is changing. The position of women is so much better. Racism is regarded as an evil, rightly, in a way that it wasn't 20 or 30 years ago.

"At least we understand that we've got to do something about climate change. So I think things are a lot better than they were and it's not all a disaster... unlike my baking."

The Great Sport Relief Bake Off, BBC One tomorrow, 8pm. Sport Relief: Friday March 18-20.



BOLD In a burka in 2001

Covering retreat of the Taliban in Kabul victorious

Geri saves John from kitchen nightmare feeling heat

Bake Off's Mary Berry & Paul Hollywood terrifying

John with wife Dee and their son Rafe cool dad
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Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Feb 16, 2016
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