Nov 25 2016

The one and only Chris Simpson

Posted by: Nicholas Shaxson in: Thoughts

This is generally supposed to be a blog about tax havens, and this post isn’t anything to do with tax havens. But this is my blog and I can post what I want: if you read it you’ll see why. Chris died of a heart attack in Dakar just over a month ago.

Who was Chris Simpson?

For an all too brief period between 1993 and 1995 Chris was my best friend and inseparable companion in Angola.  We lived in next-door rooms in the Hotel Avenida next to the press office near the waterfront in central Luanda, and we were the two permanent foreign representatives of the western press reporting on its oil-fired civil war: Chris worked for the BBC, and I for Reuters.

You’d never have called Chris a ‘legend’ to his face. He’d have skewered that ridiculous idea with an acerbic, self-effacing and perfectly-aimed putdown. Yet for me the word fits. When I visited Angola years after he left, people who’d long forgotten my name would greet me with the closest thing they knew: “Senhor Chris.” How is he, they always wanted to know. Has he sorted his life out? They always cared, and they always chuckled at the thought of him.

He was the kind of weird, troubled genius who made people think ‘if only you would get your shit together, Chris, you could become a famous author, or wit, or script writer or broadcaster, or something.’  But he never did. And to be honest, he never would have. It wasn’t just the pulling himself together that was the issue, insurmountable though that obstacle was. Nor was it that his was the sort of shambolic, big-hearted brilliance that you could never have bottled up and put on the telly.  And even if you could have somehow done that, he’d have been allergic to anything as pretentious or pointless as fame, or to the general idea of putting himself at the centre of something. Other people, for him, were always so much more important. And for me this perhaps gets near to the core of who Chris was and why he was so loved: he was profoundly connected to people and to their basic humanity. He always barged impatiently past the airs and graces and high theories about people and their places in the world, and tuned directly in to the essence of who they were. He just loved people – and we all loved him back. And of course his family lay close to the heart of it.

But this doesn’t really nail down Chris either.  Most people who’ve tried to do this do it by telling “Chris stories.”  These tumbled out of him day after day as he shambled, sweated, shuffled, muttered and tutted his way from personal calamity to computer malfunction to wardrobe mishap.   It wasn’t easy for him, life, a lot of the time.

He once told me he was anxious about lighting matches: “Fizzz!,” he said, making the hand gestures with a worried, quizzical smirk on his face.  I never saw him light one, and maybe he never got the hang. Cats were suspect: cuddling or even just holding one was an engineering challenge too far for his unconfident arms, and cats don’t easily connect with gawky people like Chris. I’d guess that babies posed similar fears and challenges, though I never saw him try.  When I gave him a lift on my motorbike in Luanda, for the first and last time, we pretty much fell over at the first traffic light: he wasn’t confident enough to be sure that he ought to put his feet down to help steady it when we stopped – nor did he know or dare ask whether it was acceptable to hold on, or what to hold on to. He just clutched his bag.

In Luanda his ‘complexes’, as he fondly called them, visited him daily. Running commentary helped him keep a lid on things: it was always entertaining but it could become too much. Perhaps unkindly, I resorted to rationing him to two minutes a day. That was usually enough to let him unload the perma-horror of double physics lessons at school, an insecurity he never defined clearly but which he never seemed to get over either. He had a thing about a previous editor while briefly working for Reuters, which needed lots of examination (“you’re rather passive-aggressive, Chris,” she once said to him.) She vied with missed deadlines for the Economist Intelligence Unit, and a certain young United Nations Official we often met, who Chris liked but was intimidated by (‘talking with him is like a game of verbal tennis in which every shot is a slam’).

A few of Chris’ complexes gave him at least some pleasure: those were the ones that brought out imitations of people in the “A Team”, as he’d put it: people who were better than him at this or that, or were more important, or were just good at the self-important swagger.

We all know Chris’ generosity: this was a big reason, perhaps the main reason, why he spent so much of his adult life living off ‘advances’ from his bank manager.  He seemed almost helpless in the face of the bottomless needs of other people. The cheeky band of five or six street kids who ruled Rua Sequeira Lukoki in front of the Hotel Avenida in Luanda quickly grasped this.  Kwanza and his cheerful band of followers had developed a special expertise wheedling regular sums out of the pockets of soft-touch Chris. They’d lie in wait near the hotel door at likely times of day and pounce when he emerged into the sunlight, gently cooing “Chris, Chris, O Chris, amigo, amigo” and patting him with the backs of their hands. He’d look to the sky in resigned desperation as he unrolled the dollar bills, muttering darkly.  But his rapport with them went way beyond money: they’d have defended him to the death too. Another time (if I remember this story corectly after all these years) a teenager persuaded Chris to fork out several hundred dollars to pay for his dad’s funeral in the musseques, the Luanda slums somewhere.  Not so long afterwards, Chris went to dinner at their place – and was cheerfully introduced to the boy’s father, alive and well.  Chris soured on the kid but only for a while, and was eventually persuaded to part with more money and join the merry-go-round again. He couldn’t control his giving: a result of his loving other people, as a rule, more than he loved himself.

This went off in extreme, and sometimes unfortunate directions. One episode, which infuriated me, happened while he was covering the Abidjan peace talks between UNITA and the MPLA government, shortly before I arrived.  Chris’ Reuters editor had urged him to move from whatever cheerful low-grade Abidjan hovel he was doubtless staying in, and into the swankiest hotel in town where the peace negotiators and diplomats were.  For him it was a ghastly tinkly-piano hell but he did as he was told. “Put the bill on your credit card, Chris, and we’ll pay you back,” the Reuters editor had told him – in full sincerity.  Chris never did claim those thousands of dollars. He just couldn’t summon up the effrontery to ask Reuters to pay him such an outrageous sum.  So he just soaked it up: even when I offered to write the letter for him.  It probably didn’t matter to his finances anyway: he’d have given it all away in the end.

This urge to prioritise others morphed into a profound neglect of himself: not just with his eating habits and general health, which was to lead to his fatal heart attack in Dakar a month ago, but also his general appearance. I remember hurrying with Chris to the airport to interview the Zambian president and a police checkpoint wouldn’t let us through (we were late, thanks to guess-who).  But I was relieved to be stopped, to be honest, because my sweaty and unshaven BBC companion was wearing trainers with a shoelace missing, a stained and holey white t-shirt, and an ill-fitting and even more deepy stained pair of tracksuit bottoms whose elastic waistband had broken, which I knew was going to present him with awful difficulties when the time came to untangle all those microphone cables and ask penetrating questions. He’d have made a comical hash of the visual scene – but the Zambian president would probably never have forgotten Chris either. And the end result, on radio, may well have been brilliant.

One of his misadventures was more serious: it even made the news.

One Sunday evening I got back to the hotel to find Fernando, the hapless hotel receptionist, in a flap.  He had a garbled message for me which I couldn’t quite understand, but the words “Mister Chris” and “prison” were alarming enough. Chris had been incarcerated at the fearsome DNIC police criminal investigation headquarters in Luanda. They brought este elemento (Luanda police jargon for petty criminal) up to see me quite quickly.  They’d taken the shoelaces out of his trainers, in case he made a run for it. Though Chris often took some enjoyment from his misadventures, this one was different.  “Not great,” he muttered, and did this thing he sometimes did when flustered, slapping himself on the wrist and saying “Come on, Simpson!”   He asked me to get someone from the British embassy along: “anyone except [an underwhelming British embassy staffer whose blushes I’ll save]. Naturally, this was the person the embassy allocated: I wasn’t sure how to protest without adding pointless offence. I still feel bad about that.

My memory of what happened has faded and perhaps become a bit garbled – this was more than 20 years ago – but this is basically how I think he got into jail.

Chris had gone on his own to a local football match, with his microphone and recorder. He got chatting to a bloke who said he was an ex-policeman and urged Chris to come to DNIC with him, to take a look around, and maybe do some research and interviews for the BBC.  Chris didn’t really feel like it but this stranger insisted, and it turned out he did have friends among the cops at the gate, and they were let in.  They wandered through corridors and ended up at (or even, if my memory is right, somehow inside) the cell of three South African women.  They began screaming when they saw Chris.  The cops who came running wanted to know who the hell Chris was, and what the hell he was up to. Which were very good questions, tough to answer: Chris and his accomplice were summarily arrested and sent downstairs.  Making matters worse, though, Chris was carrying a British student card which had expired – and Chris had used a pen to update the year, without any subtlety. This transparently bad forgery wasn’t even his style, but on finding this the cops really thought they’d caught a wrong ‘un.  It transpired that the three women in the cell were drugs smugglers and they had screamed because when they saw a white man coming to their cell they thought he was a hit man come to silence them. (Chris, a hit man? He’d have compared himself unfavourably to the Steve Buscemi character in Fargo.)

By the time I got to see Chris a second time with the embassy staffer, he knew he was properly in the shit.  I panicked a bit and I went off to get a pizza, and tried to send it down to his dungeon.  The policeman at reception smirked as he took it, and it seems that although the pizza did make it down to Chris’ overcrowded cell, it was snaffled by a Mr. Big and his henchmen down there. Even more idiotically, I subsequently sent him down a copy of the Nick Hornby football book Fever Pitch (what the hell was I thinking?) Chris’ fellow jailbirds were briefly grateful for the additional supply of toilet paper.

Mr. Big, it seems, had sized Chris up and not only decided he was harmless, but also took a shine to him. So he was treated fairly well inside, all things considered — though he said he didn’t much enjoy having to sleep next to the guy who’d jerk himself off at night after lights out, elbows jabbing into Chris’ side as he did so.

For a week, Chris’ many friends and fans from the press office (all of whom loved him dearly, of course, and none of whom were particularly surprised at this latest eruption) tried to make representations in all the necessary places, arguing that Chris was kind of special and different and easily misunderstood.  But the wheels turned slowly.  In the end there was a short trial and whispers came down that President dos Santos had decided there was no benefit to be had from holding a BBC journalist in jail.  He’d presumably done some solid investigation, finding out pretty quickly what sort of person Chris was. He was released with no blemish on his record, but a couple of thousand dollars’ worth of legal bills, which I believe his bank manager helped him with.

Chris bounced back pretty fast after that. I always marveled at his ability to connect the complex reality of the Angolan political scene with some western cultural artefact or schoolboy humour or painfully ironic, pomposity-skewering cliché: “Savimbi isn’t a monster: he just projects himself badly,” he used to say, or, when in his cups, “I’m off to Rwanda to get a bit of genocide under my belt” or, if I’d failed to deliver an article on time “you’ve let Reuters down, you’ve let your school down, but most importantly you’ve let yourself down.”  It went on like that: ineffective Angolan bureaucrats were assessed according to their batting averages (don’t get me started on his knowledge of cricket trivia, or any trivia, for that matter.) There was our mutual dickhead friend ‘Rick with the silent ‘P’ ” plus endless stories about Tony Blackburn, Slade, Agnetha versus Frida, Bjorn versus Benny, hugely enjoyable “stinker” films, and the inevitable Crystal Palace and their endless disappointments. Antony can tell you more about when Chris co-wrote an article about Equatorial Guinea for Wallpaper magazine, with Chris operating under the nom de plume Edward Peacock. It contained this:

“Macias closed the schools, held foreigners to ransom, added journalism to a long register of capital crimes and let Fangs loose on Bubis. In the midst of all this, he found time to invite Malcolm Allison, manager of Crystal Palace, on a holiday to Malabo after his favourite team reached the semi-final of the FA Cup in 1976. The economy collapsed . . . “

That middle bit was completely made up, and Chris had never in a million years expected an editor to let it through.

Some evenings, when there wasn’t too much work on, there’d come a time when I’d notice Chris’ eyes starting to wander towards the ceiling and one hand would start flapping against the other.  He’d start quietly singing ‘pom pom pom’ to himself as I talked.  Then I knew I’d lost him: it was time for Chris to hit the nightlife, and he was looking for some polite way of extricating himself from the tame and domestic situation he was in and head for somewhere wilder.  “Go on Chris,” I’d say, and he’d soon have Vladimir, the Tass correspondent, and perhaps also the Ukrainian Gregory, on the phone, and they’d be off to a place like Bar Adão, a spectacularly low-grade Luanda dive that I only rarely ventured into.  In these places, or merely at aid-worker dinner parties, he’d sit digging into his bottomless pit of flawlessly memorised cricket or music trivia, regaling all comers. In the early hours he’d often nod off to sleep for half an hour, mouth open, then wake up again, pour himself another glass, and launch himself back into the occasion.

I could go on, and on. I haven’t even mentioned the frighteningly well-endowed hotel manager slapping his thighs and saying “shit, look at that, man!” as he treated Chris (and, later, Antony and me) to an evening showing of his home made hard core porn.  Nor have I wheeled out the Norwegian doctor story. “Tell us the Norwegian Doctor story, Chris!” I’d say, after the third pint, and if we were lucky he’d oblige. Maybe I’ll tell you that one day.

Chris was endlessly more complex and fascinating than these stories suggest.  I haven’t done justice to his sense of piercing observation and truly awesome acid humour, because quite frankly I don’t feel up to the task. Those who knew him will know what I’m talking about.

Before I go, a few characteristic cut and pastes from my emails from Chris.

  • (more than once) “PS address book is usual shambles – please send current phone no. etc.”
  • “Dear Mr Shaxson,  It gives me no great pleasure to inform you that you were the only contributor to the Liberian Reporter’s Guide to use a swear word. Your definition of a good boss as “someone who understands the s*** you are going through” has been kept in the text, although the use of such language reflects somewhat poorly on yourself, Bryanston and Cambridge University.”
  • “Xmas presents? Ouch. I am in Cotonou, Day Nine of our five-country HIV project reconaissance. No hope of getting anything to Blighty; I am weak on presents. I have a Godson, now about six who will already have me marked down as really poor. Niece screamed abuse when I gave her Pocohontas.”
  • “Bus ride to Abidjan tomorrow morning (4am in principle). Brits have yet to get me a new passport. UN yet to provide Laisser-Passer. Ouch.”
  • “I am being much more hawkish about expenses but realised I had not a cat in hell’s chance of getting back $1,000 paid out on a valedictory course dinner in Lubango.”

The memorial service for Chris in Kelso on the weekend was intensely moving. Thanks to all for organising. This section, spoken by his sister Gillian, brought tears to many eyes.

“When he was only seventeen, he wrote a long and witty journal, giving a blow-by-blow account of a trip to Crete, only to abandon it on a train. Two months later, a package arrived at our parents’ house in Cheltenham and there was the journal, intact, addressed to ‘Chris, the friend we never met.’ Two strangers had stumbled on it in a railway carriage, read it from cover to cover and used some tiny clues in its lengthy content to track him down. In later years, lost wallets, passports and even mobile phones, and there were many of them, would magically make their way back to him but most importantly of all, wherever he went, whatever the circumstances, Chris would always find people who would often go to extraordinary lengths to look after him. Something about him attracted peoples’ benevolence.”

A loss to me, to his family, to his friends, and to the world.

Goodbye, Chris

PS here’s Chris, shortly before he died, interviewed on the Daybreak challenge.

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