Above: Simon Tisdall speaks to politics students at Dame Allan's Schools
Guardian and Observer foreign correspondent and political columnist Simon Tisdall returned to Dame Allan’s Schools last week, to meet with the school’s Archivist Club, inspire future journalists, and chat with politics students.
"I used to get two buses to get to school from Kenton,” recalls Simon, who attended Dame Allan’s for two years from 1964, after his 11+ exams. “It was either that or ride my bike over the Town Moor, but there was a chance of being chased by rival boys from another local school if I chose that mode of transport!”
When asked about his time at the Schools, certain memories stand out: being required to attend gruelling Saturday morning rugby training, a highlight of singing in the choir during the Schools’ Christmas service at Newcastle’s St Nicholas Cathedral, plus one particularly memorable incident of copying on a maths test…
Simon explained: “I was never one for maths, so I copied from a friend. Unfortunately he also got the wrong answers!”
After leaving Dame Allan’s, Simon enrolled in a Derbyshire Grammar School and then Holland Park School in London, one of the first UK comprehensives. After Sixth Form, Simon attended Downing College, Cambridge, where he read history.
Simon’s career has seen him travel the world, with his first journalist position - on an international trade magazine - seeing him swiftly leave London for Germany. Future commissions in Buenos Aires, Iran, the Far East, Africa and America were to follow.
"I always wanted to see the world,” explained Simon, “one of the perks of choosing my line of work was that newspapers and magazines would actually pay me to do so.”
When asked what tips he would give to any pupils who wished to follow in his footsteps, Simon advised: “Modern languages are a huge asset, something like Mandarin, Arabic or a European language. You also need a keen interest in current affairs, plus the ability to have some professional distance. You must be able to report accurately and informatively, and you can’t insert your views into a story. That is a rare skill to have.”
Simon joined the Guardian's Foreign News Desk in 1978. He was delighted to have achieved a position on a national newspaper and worked his way up, including positions as a foreign leader writer, foreign editor of the Guardian and Observer, and US editor and White House correspondent.
"It is important to remember,” he continued, “that when I was abroad it was often because something awful had occurred - a war, a conflict or a natural disaster - it really wasn’t a holiday.”
When asked about the impact such a career has had on his mental health, Simon was admirably candid:
"There wasn’t as much of an emphasis on the mental health impact of visiting war zones on journalists when I was working back in the 70s and 80s. There was no survival or hostage training, and in fact, one of my team was held hostage in Iraq. I am exceptionally grateful not to have lost anyone.
"It definitely has an emotional impact, you have to be professional when you’re out there working, but when you come back it certainly impacts the person that you are.”
Simon continued, “I’ve had the opportunity to see this from both sides, both having worked within conflict zones and been in charge of correspondents at the Guardian. You have a duty of care to these people.”
Now self-employed, Simon continues to work as a foreign affairs commentator and leader writer for the Observer and Guardian