Though not Catholic, he was educated first at a boarding convent in Bridport, Dorset and later at Hardye’s School, Dorchester, Dorset – where he achieved the dubious dual distinction of being appointed Head of House and of soon thereafter being expelled for conducting a spectacularly destructive chemical experiment in the newly-opened science laboratories. After taking time off to hitch-hike around Canada and the United States for almost a year between leaving school and entering university, he went up to Oxford in 1963, to read geology at St. Catherine’s College. There he became involved in the University Exploration Club, and was the member of a six-man sledding expedition onto an uncharted section of the East Greenland ice-cap in 1965.
After graduation in 1966 he joined a Canadian mining company, Falconbridge of Africa, and worked as field geologist in Uganda, looking for copper deposits in the foothills of the Ruwenzori Mountains, close to the border with Congo.
He then made a sudden and unexpected switch to journalism in 1967, a short while after reading, while in a jungle camp in Uganda, a copy of Coronation Everest by James (now Jan) Morris. This account by the then correspondent of the London Times – which published the first exclusive report of the success of the Everest expedition, on 2nd June 1953, by happy coincidence the day of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II – triggered in Winchester what he later described as a ‘Pauline conversion’ – and though he was to refer to geology in many of his subsequent writings, he turned some days after reading the book to a new career in newspaper reporting, and was to remain a full-time writer for the rest of his working life.
After being employed on an offshore oil rig in the North Sea for some months, all the while applying for work on a variety of newspapers which, not unreasonably, displayed little interest in hiring so inexperienced a candidate, Winchester was eventually offered the chance to work as a junior reporter on The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne. After a year as a general assignment reporter there he opted to concentrate on science reporting, and soon achieved some success in carving a niche for himself on both the news and feature pages of this well-regarded morning newspaper.
In 1969 he joined The Guardian, first as the Newcastle upon Tyne-based regional correspondent and later as Northern Ireland Correspondent, based in Belfast. He remained in Ireland for the next three years – during which time he was named Britain’s Journalist of the Year, in 1971 – and covered all of the major developments in the territory, from the British government’s introduction of internment without trial of IRA suspects, through the events of Bloody Sunday in Londonderry in January 1972, to the British army crackdown during Operation Motorman. During this period he became a frequent commentator on and contributor to BBC radio.
He was also briefly detached from Ireland to Calcutta, to undertake his first foreign assignment for the newspaper, covering the war that led to the independence from Pakistan of the new Bengali homeland of Bangladesh.
In 1972 he was posted to Washington, DC, as America correspondent, and spent much of the following four years covering the Watergate affair, the resignation of President Nixon and the election to the White House of Jimmy Carter. It was also during this period that, on the urging of the noted Faber editor Charles Monteith (who edited the poet Philip Larkin and discovered William Golding’s Lord of the Flies) Winchester wrote his first book, In Holy Terror, an account of his reporting years in Ireland.
Following Washington he was posted in 1977 to New Delhi as India Correspondent,– driving the family Volvo to India from Oxford, in the days when it was entirely possible and congenial to drive through Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan – and there covered events across the region that included the period of Emergency Rule of Indira Gandhi, the Soviet-backed coup d’etat in Afghanistan, and the various assassinations and small wars that characterized the subcontinent for the next three years.
In 1980 Winchester was very briefly appointed American Bureau Chief for the Daily Mail, a London tabloid newspaper that at the time was still smarting with embarrassment for having employed in its New York office a reporter named James Gibbins who, undetected for several months, had simply made everything up. His inventiveness was ultimately discovered by a rival journalist and he was sacked - with Winchester, most unsuitably, being offered and accepting a considerable sum to replace him and to provide, it was hoped, some new image of gravitas to the paper. It turned out to be an unhappy choice for all concerned, and by 1981 Winchester had left the paper, and was back in London, working as Chief Foreign Feature Writer for the Sunday Times.
He achieved some early and unintended notoriety in this post during the spring of 1982 when he managed both to be on the Falkland Islands when they were invaded by Argentine forces, and shortly afterwards to be captured in southern Patagonia, along with two other journalist working for the rival newspaper, the Observer, and held in prison in Tierra del Fuego, Argentina, for the following three months.
After his return to freedom in England in July 1982 Winchester continued to travel and write for the newspaper, but when a new editor was appointed in 1985 he changed his arrangements to that of freelance correspondent, and travelled – by train, from London by way of Moscow, Irkutsk and Ulan Bator – to take up a new assignment in Hong Kong.
He was to remain based in southern China, responsible for covering a vast territory stretching from Siberia to Tasmania, from Burma to Hawaii – for the next twelve years, during which time he rejoined the Guardian and also accepted a freelance assignment as Asia Editor of the newly-established Conde Nast Traveler magazine, based in New York. His term with the Guardian then came to an abrupt end when his supervising editor was found to have been taking gifts from the KGB, and was fired. Winchester remained in Hong Kong making as good a living as possible as a freelance writer, and then after the handover of the British colony to China in June 1997, went to live in New York.
It was here that his recent good fortune as an author began, with the publication in 1998 of The Professor and the Madman, a book about a forgotten American player in the extraordinary story of the making of the Oxford English Dictionary. Although his publishers had little initial hope for the book – ordering an initial very modest print run of some 10,000 copies – it happened that thanks to a convergence of happy circumstances the book went on to sell millions of copies, and remains in print today in both hardback and paperback twelve years after publication.
The entirely unexpected success of The Professor and the similarly unanticipated stellar performance of many of the non-fiction titles that Winchester wrote during the following decade finally allowed him to withdraw from regular journalism and concentrate on working more or less entirely as an author.
His most recent book is The Man Who Loved China, about the life of the remarkable Cambridge scholar-eccentric Joseph Needham. Next October will see the publication of Atlantic: A Biography of the Ocean, Winchester’s 21st book.
He was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) ‘for services to journalism and literature’ in the New Year Honours list for 2006. He was elected an Honorary Fellow of St. Catherine’s College, Oxford, in October 2009.
Simon Winchester, who is married to the former NPR producer Setsuko Sato, lives in New York and on a small farm in the Berkshires. His interests include letterpress printing, bee-keeping, astronomy, stamp-collecting, model railways and cider-making.