Laura Parker catches up with our bookish broadcasters.

If your day job meant plunging headlong into the world’s messiest conflicts, wouldn’t you want a little break from it all in your spare time?

Not if you are John Simpson or Frank Gardner. For them, a life spent covering wars and dicing with death has only spurred their imagination. Somehow, they have each found a moment to produce cracking thrillers that fizz with real-life detail.

John Simpson has been a journalist for 50 years and the BBC’s world affairs editor for 30 of them. His spy thriller, Moscow, Midnight, was published last year shortly after the Skripal poisoning in Salisbury, when concern was rising about the threats from Russian security. This is the world that John’s protagonist, grumpy cynical journalist Jon Swift, is compelled to enter as he investigates the unexpected death of his good friend and MP Patrick Macready. If it feels uncannily realistic, it is because almost everything in this novel is based on actual events and real people, according to John.

He is also frank about why he wrote the book. It was partly in revenge for almost being pushed out of his BBC job by a new boss in 2013. John survived, as indeed he did many other close shaves in his career such as being wounded by friendly fire and left deaf in one ear during the 2003 Iraq war. But then this is a man whose first assignment in 1970 ended with being punched in the stomach by a prime minister, who has hauled a sledge across the frozen north of Canada and who has taken hallucinogenic drugs in various jungles of the world…

Another true survivor is Frank Gardner, the BBC’s security correspondent. Ambushed, shot many times and left for dead while reporting in Riyadh in June 2004, in an attack which killed his cameraman, Frank not only lived but has kept working, reporting, and writing. His first novel, Crisis, was a number one bestseller. Its hero, MI6 agent Luke Carlton, is also the protagonist of Ultimatum, his latest thriller set in the Middle East.

Few other novelists can have Frank’s understanding of the workings of intelligence agencies, undercover work, and the politics of the world’s most volatile region. His skill in weaving these elements into a fast-paced race against time involving secret Iranian military complexes, renegade cells and the kidnapping of a British government minister makes for a gripping and unnerving read.

Come and meet two writers whose careers are even more colourful than their fiction.

JOHN SIMPSON will be at the Theatre on Friday 26 April 18:00-19:00, and FRANK GARDNER is joining us on Sunday 28 April 13:00-14:00, also at the Theatre. Tickets on sale from 25 Feb 2019 for Festival Friends and on general sale from 4 March 2019.

For a cold-sweat encounter with the end of the world, described in all its frightening possibility by someone who really knows how it might happen, come and hear Professor JIM AL_KHALILI, presenter of the BBC’s The Life Scientific, talking about his apocalyptic thriller Sunfall and all things quantum physics at the Theatre on Tuesday 16 April in a special pre-Festival event. Hurry, tickets are already on sale and selling fast.


Authors who started out as journalists:

Charles Dickens

Mark Twain

Ernest Hemingway

George Orwell

Robert Harris

Stieg Larsson

Tom Wolfe

Ruth Rendell

Val McDermid

Novels about journalists:

Scoop, Evelyn Waugh

The Quiet American, Graham Greene

Psmith, Journalist, PG Wodehouse

Complicity, Iain Banks

New Grub Street, George Gissing

The Shipping News, E Annie Proulx

The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum, Heinrich Böll