Ladies and gentleman, we are here today to mark the publication of Simpson & I by Oggy Boytchev, who in January 1986 made a dramatic escape from Bulgaria.
When I first read the manuscript it reminded me of Wilfred Burchett, a man I met in the Plaza Hotel in New York in the late 1970s. He was in America advising the Nixon administration in its conduct of clandestine talks with the Viet Cong with a view to ending the Vietnam conflict.
At that time the Americans were sustaining heavy losses and their toll of dead and injured was steadily rising to levels that were politically indefensible. Their problem was to find a way of extricating themselves from the conflict without loss of face.
Wilfred was a bete noir for the administrations in both America and his native Australia for having covered the Vietnam war from the ‘other side’, sending out his dispatches from behind the lines in the jungle. His knowledge of and contacts with the Viet Cong, however, took on a value that Nixon and his advisers were unable to ignore in the changing political climate of the United States and the rising radicalism of its peace movement.
Wilfred was now retired and living behind the Iron Curtain in Sofia with his Bulgarian wife. His proposal was that I should visit him with my wife and son, if he could manage to secure an invitation for us from the Bulgarian authorities. I was delighted to hear from him in the first place and in the second was overwhelmed by this unexpected gesture. My response was immediate and positive: we would love to come and we did.
Wilfred was a giant among the journalists of his generation, and a warm-hearted, larger-than-life character. He may have held many controversial political views, but at heart he was a courageous humanitarian, a champion of the poor and the oppressed, and had my unconditional admiration.
This short digression from our main subject is because I saw a small parallel between Oggy’s life and that of Burchett’s, for both took on a profession fraught with danger in order to acquaint the world with murderous political regimes and brutal conflicts that seem to flare up from time to time in different parts of the globe.
But above all Oggy’s book gives us a close insight into his working relationship with one of the biggest names in broadcasting. John Simpson has often referred to their work as a ‘partnership’ – and, like all partnerships, theirs had its tensions and darker moments. Painting a warts and all portrait of both the man and their friendship, Oggy provides a unique panoramic view of the competitive and cut-throat world of international news-gathering and the BBC.
Considering that the author came to this country without any proper means of support and technically into an alien land, his rise from virtual obscurity to where he is today is more than remarkable. A man of iron will who fought against the odds and the vicissitudes of time deserves not only our attention but our admiration for what he has so far achieved.
Simpson & I is a book hard to put down. Whether writing about the ravages of war, family, friends, and colleagues, there is a restless curiosity and uncompromising perception through the author’s unique background of being, in his own words, ‘between two worlds’.
In a way, the book is a monument to his adventurous life, where survival is a daily chore, raising the level of one’s adrenalin to breaking point.
Buy a copy of this book and perhaps two copies if you can afford it to give to friends who will no doubt be grateful for a compulsive read.
Last but not least, a first-time author needs all the encouragement you can give him. Your generosity of spirit will I am sure prevail on this momentous occasion.
Ernest Hemingway once said, ‘No friend is as loyal as a book.’ And since loyal friends are hard to come by these days, we should perhaps fill the gap by turning our attention to this book.