Veteran BBC foreign correspondent John Simpson says doctors feared he may have been poisoned with Polonium on the orders of the Russian President Vladimir Putin when he suffered a recent bout of serious illness.
The Corporation’s World Affairs Editor was rushed to hospital last month after falling unconscious in the bedroom of his home in Oxford, and his family feared he would die.
When the doctors failed to determine what had caused his rapid deterioration in health, they asked the 72-year-old’s wife Dee if he could have been poisoned by Russian agents on the orders of the president.
Simpson told The Cheltenham Literary Festival today: “The doctors rather despaired of me, not the first people to despair of me, and they asked my wife as I was lying there unconscious: ‘Had he upset somebody?’ There was a perception ‘could I have upset Putin?’ Could somebody have come with a radioactive pill and dropped it in my tea?
“And she said ‘I don’t think so’, and she didn’t remember the incident in question and fortunately it wasn’t that and they worked out what it was and I was OK.”
The culprit, it turned out, was a dodgy bowl of kedgeree he had eaten two days before.
The 72-year old also told the festival that he has been banned by the BBC from attending dangerous war zones.
He revealed that his paymasters have become alarmed after he was arrested in Syria two years ago trying to sneak into the country and was detained for 24 hours.
“I confess I have not been to Aleppo. The BBC won’t let me do that sort of thing nowadays. Or at least whenever I have suggested it. I think it was partly because I was arrested when I went into Damascus two years ago and I was kept in a jail for a bit, for twenty four hours and chucked out again.
“I was spotted trying to make my way in there, slightly pretending to be somebody else. I said I was an academic and a man came forward, a Syrian secret policeman and just as the man at the desk was about to stamp my passport, this bloke in a very smooth Assad type suit put his hand under the man’s arm and said in perfect English: ‘I don’t think so…you’re the broadcaster from the BBC’”.
Simpson also reflected on the difficulty of leaving his wife and ten-year-old son when he travels to war zones.
“He’s a bright little kid and he knows. I say ‘I am off to Iraq and its terribly safe and nothing happens’ but you know that line about you don’t bullshit a bulshitter? And he knows what the facts are and he doesn’t want to be patronised really. You see the tears stealing down his cheeks and you don’t feel very good.
“I am getting in the car and being driven off to the airport and going somewhere difficult. It’s the person you leave behind really. Suddenly the door slams and it’s silent in the house. It’s very hard for the people you leave behind. It’s much much easier being the person in the car.”
Simpson also told the audience that he has reported on 42 wars and that “all of them are disgusting, all of them are horrible and always the wrong people suffer”.