Carte Blanche

Walter Harris Carte Blanche

The Right Thing  September 2018

Gyorgy Fenichel was a sad man and I was a happy one. Perhaps he had more reason to be sad than I had to be happy; I had my life in front of me, and behind him there was Auschwitz, the dreadful Nazi synonym for death.

We met in September 1948; we were travelling to Brazil aboard a converted French cargo vessel called the Groix of the Chargeur Reunis Line. The ship was a rust bucket, her shabby tricolour wrapped round its flagpole with all the spirit of a broken promise.

Of all the hundreds of passengers aboard, only an English family and I were going to South America because we wanted to, a possible exception being a mysterious Polish prince and his wife who were travelling with a new Bentley as hand luggage. They were only seen at mealtimes, and lunched and dined at the captain’s table, which looked modest enough.

There were five hundred nuns and dozens of refugees and DPs—Displaced Persons—aboard, nearly all travelling steerage.

For me, being an emigrant to Brazil was an adventure; to the DPs it was a last hope.

I met Gyorgy when he lost his way up a companion ladder and arrived in what was called Intermediate Class, which was more or less frst class—as the Groix knew it, but with shared cabin accommodation. I shared with a Pole from Warsaw who had survived the original blitz, a young Luftwaffe pilot who had been shot down over Warsaw by the Russians and developed a nervous tic, and a Spaniard who had fought on the British side in North Africa.

“I am sorry. I am in the wrong place. I am called Fenichel.”

I introduced myself. “Ah, you are English. I thought you looked well-fed.” He smiled, but the smile only pointed up how gaunt he was. He had wispy hair across a bald pate, and his blue eyes looked bleached of emotion.

“Excuse me. I need to find steerage. Down, not up.” The date was September 3rd 1948, nine years to the day since we had declared war on Germany. Nine years and two days since Hitler invaded Poland. A long time to suffer the occupation of one’s country.

I looked for Gyorgy later in the day, and we stood looking over the stern and talking. Gyorgy had been a successful insurance assessor and had been travelling abroad when Hitler struck, but his wife and children were at home in Cracow, and he could not reach them.

“A wife and two sons. A Jewish family. They kept together until they were discovered. After that Auschwitz. From the Gallery of Humanity, how many works of art were destroyed in the camps?” He shrugged. “I am hungry for food, not philosophy.  Even if it is probably palmitos again.” These were the rather rich stalks of edible palm trees, and a Groix  staple.

The next time I saw Gyorgy was the night before we were due to disembark. I gave him the name of the hotel I would be staying at, but hadn’t realised that I probably wouldn’t be able to reach it, as our day of disembarkation was also Brazil’s Independence Day– September the 7th. — celebrating her separation from Portugal in 1822.

It was a week before I bumped into Gyorgy again, by chance. I was about to enter a little downtown restaurant when he appeared. He looked hungry, so I invited him to have lunch with me. I invited  him several days running, and hadn’t as yet got a job; I was living on the small allowance my father had transmitted to see me through until I did. The number of lunches mounted until I felt like the Red Cross, and wondered if Gyorgy saw me like that too. I couldn’t refuse him, however, he was visibly deteriorating, shoes becoming shabbier and almost falling apart, cheap shirt screwed up round his scrawny neck, and his eyes, his permanently sad eyes.

I found a job as a journalist with the Brazil Herald, an English- language paper, and was too busy to lunch at the restaurant Gyorgy and I frequented. I had, though involuntarily, become my brother’s keeper, and I was concerned about him.

Even by tropical standards, the storm that swept Rio shortly after I had started work at The Brazil Herald was ferocious.  No vehicle could move without danger of aquaplaning, the waves off the great Rio beaches bundled up he sand and flung it on to the flanking boulevards and it was easy to imagine a wild-eyed Noah at the helm as the Ark hurtled like a power boat down the Rio Branco and his sons strove to control the seething mass of animals below.

One of the consequences of the storm was that one of the dozens of buildings whose basements and ground floors were flooded was the new Mercedes Benz warehouse. Although Germany was still far from being internationally acceptable, Brazil had granted an import quota for its cars, and a consignment had just arrived from Europe. They were up to their roofs in water, and the water itself was likely to be charged with electricity from various power points.

It was about two weeks after the storm that I saw Gyorgy again. He was waiting for me outside our restaurant. He was wearing a dark green silk shirt, smart coffee-coloured mohair suit, new jacarè (crocodile) shoes, and a Panama hat.

“Walter, my dear, today it is my treat,” he said.

After we had ordered, he told me about what he called his good luck, his personal connection with the Mercedes flooding.

“Nobody else wanted to go into that water. But I am insurance man. Also, I have nothing to lose.” He spoke without self-pity, a man beyond the pain of loss. “If the water is electrified and I die, what of it? I am dead anyway. So I offer to the boss of Mercedes that I take a swim, and he promises me I will be the Mercedes Benz official insurance broker in Brazil if I do the job. Everyone watches from an upper floor—will there be a flash of blue light and an end to me?

I hold my breath and step into the water. Nothing happens. I partly swim and partly wade to the cars. Getting into them is a problem but I have a fistful of ignition keys and manage to unlock and heave open the doors. Fifteen cars, and all of them are ruined. No need to assess individual damage—the whole consignment is a write-off.

Before I start to dictate my report, the boss wraps a beach towel round me with his own hands and his secretary dries my hair with another towel. I am very cold so, instead of champagne they give me cognac. Hennessy Louis treize, the real thing, the best. Only the best for a hero, don’t you think?” He still spoke without self-pity, but the bitterness in his voice was corrosive.

“Ah, our food comes.”

“Gyorgy,” I said, toasting him with lager and a chaser of Brazil’s lethal national drink cachaça, “I am so happy for you.”

“Happy? What means happy? To end with respect instead of as a half-burnt corpse? I am sorry Mercedes Benz is here, I am sorry anything German is here, but why torment myself more? Why not just enjoy? It will take time, it is the most painful memories that last the longest, and what could be more painful than the memories of a wife and a child and the smoke they made coming out of a chimney?

“But in this country there is so much to enjoy, and I am only sixty. From the point of view of the girls, the money I have will make me seem younger. Certainly not prettier, but younger.”  He gave me a brief metal-toothed smile.

Three days later he died, the official cause of death being a heart attack. I believe a more likely cause was the shock of finally gaining respect and finding that beyond that there was nothing more for him.

Certainly there was no annealing blessing; he had been too heavily cursed.

Mercedes Benz had done the right thing – paid for Gyorgy’s funeral service with its many trappings, inscribed a tablet of stone with the honour of his name.

The synagogue was heavy with irony as the company’s senior staff took their seats, unhappy wearing hats in church and with eyes narrowed into expressions of ineffable ecstasy. What else could they do?

Germany’s sins had taken her beyond salvation, and the right thing would be beyond Her for all time.

According to Tau  April 2017

Tau is a Papuan businessman who is a fourth-generation non-head-hunter. He built up a tourist agency and a taxi and tourist bus business in Papua New Guinea, and his family were involved in the construction of the new state of Australia New Guinea after the Second World War.

Until the  invasion of Papua by the Japanese and the rending of their privacy, New Guinea Papua had been a multi-tribe, relatively secret nation. There were dozens of variants of the main languages of existing tribes which were spoken within a small area; as Australia grew a language called pidgin English began to form a means of communication between the Australians and the Papuans.

My wife Alison and I met Tau wearing his guise as driver of a tourist minibus, who met our cruise ship voyagers on the quay at Alatau, New Guinea. He had the small beard and pink triangle of fuzz on the centre fringe of his hair and a rather narrow, bony face, with a paternal, humorous personality.

Alison and I were on a pair of seats sitting alongside the steering-wheel behind which he was sitting; the heavy tropical rain had not made the mud of the forest we had entered  less passable so much as allowed comparison with the trenches of the Great War.

The jungle gave way to some flat land and a few tiny houses; in the distance the road rose quite steeply to the crest of overweening mountains. An Englishwoman behind us began to complain about the state of the minibus and the way it was skidding in the mud, but failed to obtain the quorum to do what she wanted, presumably to make Tau put the minibus on his shoulders and stagger along the track with it.

“You see that flat land over there with all the concrete and runway netting spreading into the distance?” Tau asked . “That is part of the remains of Alatau Airfield.

Both my great-grandfathers and grandfathers worked in the construction of the airfield. When the Japanese invaders started to bomb the forces of the Americans, Australians and  British here, something had to be done as quickly as possible for us to be able to retaliate. We started to build a new runway immediately, but the Papuans decided that one would not be enough.

“We sensed that after the War was over and the Japanese were gone much of our independence and wealth would depend on having as much runway materiel as possible to provide against future need. We therefore wound up with three airports built to the top specifications. The concrete didn’t crack and the iron didn’t rust till the runway and hangars had been in position for the rest of the War.

“What we didn’t need we sold on, until eventually the British vacated their territory to the Australians and left them to develop Papua New Guinea themselves. Australia herself began a major building of airports to enable her own expansion and creation of wealth. In my experience of America, she did much the same but behaved as if she had no space. Alongside Australia America behaved as if the country were simply a billboard, which had to be filled margin to margin with  people and advertising. The colour green became their principal enemy.”

“I suppose you know about the difficulties London has been having for the past fifty years in trying to develop one of its airports—or even one single runway—to catch up with the times ?” I asked.

“But England is an island, just as we are. Just as Australia itself is. Islands are surrounded by sea, and to collaborate with the sea you build on landfill.”

“No, Tau, you argue about building a huge additional concrete track and huge attendant buildings where is the least room for them, on an existing airport,” I told hm. “The idea of building on landfill has been suggested, but although only an idiot would argue otherwise, the British Government has decided against it.”

“So you are not following the sort of technology used by Hong Kong and Tokyo and Australia itself?”

“It is impossible, Tau.”

“But why? The technology has been successfully used for years.”

“But if the right technology is followed, the new airport will have to have a name. “

“Only one name. It is not acceptable to the British Government to use the name of the man who is trying to use infill technology, and in fact the government will not accept that infill is the right technology, in case it is forced  to use the man’s name after all.”

“I know a member of our national government, who will perhaps be more interested in business and what is best for the country rather than arguing about names.” He added: ”the only name is that of the technique involved: Infill.”

He and Alison began a light-hearted discussion about whether she or I would have been chosen for a head-hunters’ lunch in a bygone age, and Boris’s Island once more took its place in the Thames Estuary Mist.

An Interview With Oswald Mosley  March 2017

Sir Oswald Mosley was an aristo and plutocrat of whom it was said he could have been a great Prime Minister of England, regardless of Party. He had enormous authority, and married the daughter of the grand ex-Viceroy of India and contemporary Foreign Secretary, George Nathaniel Curzon. The King and Queen of England were at the ceremony.

Yet Mosley was to found the Blackshirts, becoming  the populist leader of a gang of thugs and streetfighters, and  to go right off the political main line on to a track which led him finally to prison and the possibility of being hanged for treason.

On a bright day in August 1976, I had the chance to ask him personally what had led him to throw so much away, following up a letter he had published in The Times about the poor quality of British MPs and their lack of wit and felicity of phrase. He had answered my letter and invited me to see him at home.

I therefore took the train from Paris to Orsay, some sixty kilometres away, where Mosley lived in the Temple de Gloire, Napoleon’s old house beside the Seine.

The house was not as pretentious as its name, and Mosley himself opened the door. He was as tall and straight as I had seen him in the newsreels, but instead of the brutal raucousness of his days terrorising the inhabitants of London’s east end,  displayed a quiet and courteous charm.

We sat in the dining-room at a table which had also belonged to Napoleon, its deep mellow patina reflecting the gentle riverine light. On it, Mosley placed capacious crystal glasses and a  bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label, which he skated towards me in Wild West fashion.

“Very well. What would you like to know?”

“After your experiences in the Great War, did you feel any diffidence about marrying into the upper reaches of the aristocracy?” I knew he had served in the 16th. Lancers after serving in the RFC.

Mosley answered that he did not. “You see, we all came from the same old country stock and Curzon was originally that sort of person. But with his enormous talents he lifted himself  up to become  a Leader of the House of Lords and a marquis and all the rest of it. Still, we all began more or less in the same place.”

We skated the bottle of Scotch to each other again and I feared I would breach interviewing etiquette and get whistled. Mosley went on to talk about the essentials of having a power base in order to be a successful politician.

“Curzon said to me, when I was going into the Labour Party: ‘I don’t mind what you do as long as you don’t become an isolated individual like Hugh Cecil.

“‘The great thing in politics is not to be a brilliant dilettante, but to be serious, and be joined up with a serious force of some kind.’” Mosley sipped more Scotch. “In fact, Curzon was very broad-minded, in spite of his rigid Conservative convictions.”

I asked whether it was a form of rebellion that had made Mosley join the Labour Party after being a Conservative himself when representing Harrow. Mosley’s eyes flared with an old fire.

“It was a passionate desire to get something done for the mass of the people. You see, we had come all the way back from the War with every sort of promise from Lloyd George and others.” His tone was contemptuous. “The War was what is called today a traumatic experience, it contributed individually to the trauma felt by all of us.

Lloyd George was a brilliant man, but he was not allowed to do even one of the things he had promised.” Mosley’s face was still handsome and animated under the wrinkles and wens of old age, and anger and whisky had brought a slight flush to it.

“We had a hundred and fifty young ex-serviceman in the first Parliament after the War—I was Secretary of their organisation. When it turned out impossible to do anything through the Conservative Party, the natural thing was to go Independent. I won two elections as an Independent, and went from there to the Labour Party, which was coming up, forced by the mass of the people. I was determined to do something for them.

“And it was not until they completely betrayed at that time everything they stood for that I moved on, in the final gesture of despair if you like to get something real done in the world, through the Fascist movement. Of course, it was a completely different movement from that in Germany or Italy.”

I remarked that Mosley’s Blackshirts had very close ties with the Fascists of those countries, and he reiterated that betrayal of pledges to ex-servicemen was what the three countries had in common. “As a result they started to found extreme nationalist movements.

“I’ve been called a racialist (sic) but I couldn’t have been even if I’d wanted to. That’s because I’d have blown the British Empire to pieces, as it was composed of every race under the sun.”

It seemed to me that the Blackshirts had desisted from trying to inflict pogroms on the largely Jewish East End of London because they would never have got away with it.

“How could someone with your intellect have countenanced the sort of action you endorsed, Sir Oswald?”

“My people were absolutely forbidden to attack individuals or property among their opponents.” I thought of the news reels.

“You preached anti-Semitism.”

He shook his head. “It wasn’t that at all. It was simply venting old dislikes.” He shook his head at such perfidy.  Being Jewish myself, I wondered if I counted as an old dislike.

“You must have known the steps you took would provoke the reaction they did, Sir Oswald.”

The bottle passed between us again. “Well you can sit in an ivory tower churning out ideas which, if you’re lucky, might achieve acceptance two or three generations afterwards. That’s being a man of thought, but I’m also a man of action.

That’s when the trouble begins, because some people oppose you, fiercely and violently. “So you have to become a demi-god to persuade the mass of the people.”

The demi-god slurped more Scotch and the bottle skated towards me.

I thought of Hitler, who would never have settled for anything but being a whole god, and pressed Mosley about their relationship.

“I met Hitler twice, in ’35 and ’36. We had two conversations concerning whether it was necessary for our countries to fight again and concluded it was not necessary because we wanted completely different things.

“My concern was to continue to develop the British Empire, his was to unite the Germans in Eastern Europe. We arrived at a Concordat, and had I been Head of the British Government when Hitler attacked Poland, I would not have intervened.”

“You had the King and Queen of England at your first wedding. Yet you invited Hitler to your second.”

“That wasn’t my fault,” he answered defensively. “That was because I had my future wife living in England and I was threatened every day with murder. She could have been attacked herself at any time if I hadn’t defended her with a large force of Blackshirts.

“So I arranged to have the wedding in Germany, by invitation of Frau Goebbels, who was a friend of my wife and of Hitler, and told us he would be present.”

Lady Diana, who never recanted Nazism, drove me to the station, whilst Mosley sprawled across the back seat. He gave me an amicable farewell, but she neither spoke nor said a word. She had been a woman of regal beauty; her ice cold blue eyes, like her beliefs, would never change.

The Driverless Grand Prix  February 2017

Alas, Bernie Eccleston is on the way out of Formula One. He was famous as a deal-maker and as an individualist. He changed the face—and most other parts–of motor-racing, and built Formula One into a world spectacle, but he overlooked one critical factor in further attracting a major audience: he ignored the virtues of the driverless car.

At this moment, Bernie is unpadlocking his weather box, in which he keeps his collection of meteorological sky-seeds. As a believer in creating the right weather conditions for a really exciting race, Bernie is about to give the signal for a weather balloon to take the seeds aloft, where they will be selected and dropped by radio control.

As the cars in today’s Formula One Grand Prix are driverless, risks can be taken with weather conditions too extreme for old-fashioned human drivers to handle.

Anyway, who really wants to see a Lewis Hamilton or Sebastian Vettel,  when there is a chance of seeing a racing car manoeuvring itself? How on earth could our attention be engaged by a car driven by a human being when there is a race scheduled with non-drivers?

Ah, Bernie’s weather-box has been loaded into its special gondolier and the meteorological balloon has taken off; will Bernie choose a blizzard or tropical rainstorm to give the cars as hard a time as possible? Perhaps both at once might satisfy the public’s craving for excitement.

There is a rustle of interest in the paddock as a Mercedes White Arrow pokes its nose cautiously out of its pit garage as its radar simulates a driver’s eye making sure that nothing is coming. The Mercedes accelerates up the pit lane, but of course we can’t hear it accelerating because it’s electric.

Little sound comes from the commentary box as there isn’t much to talk about.

Indeed, one might say that commentary is now superfluous.

We no longer have to bother about tyre use debates, because the fact is that a racing car doesn’t know or care what tyres it’s got. (Nor does the average spectator).

The cars parade like racehorses as the drivers—or rather their holograms, whose substitution will save advertisers millions a year in salaries and prize money—gather on an Advisory Platform constructed near the Commentary Box. The advice given will relate to the weather, and also to the archives of Formula One, as no race can satisfy viewers entirely unless its commentators can accurately detail the moment Kimi Raikonnen touched wheels with Max Verstappen as he switched on his DRS, or tell his audience how many times—to the nearest eight hundred—Ron Dennis lost his temper with Jensen Button for his car’s unreliability.

After the playing of the host country’s national anthem, a quick inspection of the parading cars is carried out to ascertain whether or not a driver has been illicitly smuggled aboard. All being well, the cars self-adjust cameras to give viewers a chance to savour the sight of an empty driver’s seat.  Helicopters  swoop over the cars for a final check  and the machines  accelerate away.

The excitement is unbearable! Number 44 is entirely in charge of its own destiny, as its former driver Lewis Hamilton hasn’t even bothered to show up. It mistakes a globule of rubber for a field mouse (or perhaps the other way round) and swerves vigorously, hitting a Disney’s Castle of tyres. This collapses over the barricades, rather like the cast of Les Miserables.

A track marshal is carrying out an inspection of the podium, into which the cars drive themselves straight from the pit lane. Here at the race’s end they are weighed and measured and have their temperatures checked to ensure that the appropriate conformity has been imposed: a ration of only one bottle of champagne is allocated to each car and carefully poured into the champagne tank, a symbolic vessel near the DRS.

Now it is the Press Corp’s turn to bring their recording equipment over to the cars. Personal questions, some of which could be construed as offensive, are fired at each machine. The winner is asked about torque, but the question is not effective and the snarled answer from the first car is: “who says I talk too much?” Its revs rise in anger.

“I’m sorry, I asked what the ratio of torque to gravity was on a right hand corner.”

“How the hell would I know that?”

“No offence meant.”

“Offence taken. How dare you say I talk too much! My God, is this what those poor bloody drivers went through at press conferences?”

“Well, they were generously paid for what they went through.”

“Paid? What does paid mean?”

“Er, they got plenty of fuel for answering your questions.”

“There’s something missing here. What’s fuel?”

“It’s liquid.”

“That reminds me. We’ve had no champagne yet.”

“It’ll be on the podium soon.”

“I’m not so sure this driverless business is such a big deal. What do you think, Alonso?”

“The car wasn’t all that brilliant even with a driver.”

“Yeah, I’m going. Who knows, I may have the luck to bump into Ross Brawn and get redesigned.”

“Look there’s Bernie Eccleston. Shall we run over him? We’re supposed to be entertaining the public.”

“Who’s Bernie Eccleston?”

“This is where we came in.”

Sodom and Chips  January 2017

Astrid’s Massage Parlour stands on the London Road, busily creating its own brand of history each day. Portly George, later to be crowned George the Fourth, had come across the fishing village of Brighthelmstone, on England’s south coast, almost by accident.

A couple of hundred years before Astrid set up shop for the relief of the retired generals and aspirant lawyers who could afford her fees, George and his favourite courtier, Beau Brummel, explored the bucolic chorus line of the South Downs, the swelling gentle hills which introduced the countryside south of London to the admiring sea.

Here Brighthelmstone threw out its olfactory invitation to sup on mackerel and herring, sea bass and Dover sole, historic and palatable fish which had for centuries garnered their unique flavour from the English Channel and its shipwrecked corpses.

The Prince Regent and his Court were enchanted with the village and instinctively aware of its possibilities as a romantic refuge, where Londoners of the nobler sort could come to woo the baser. Shortening its name to Brighton George frequently returned, overseeing its transformation into a seaside town – a place of merriment, feasting and frolicking. The most extravagant of follies, a fitting place to honour the Court’s epicurean appetites, was the Royal Pavilion.

This Coleridgian structure was more ornate than stately, a building of curves and globes and oriental frills, a large, petrified belly dancer of a palace with sumptuous rotundities, as though Rubens had exchanged painting for architecture. The reception rooms were comfortable and the kitchens vast, accommodating flotillas of chefs and their assistants. Sides of beef and neats’ tongues, flocks of ptarmigan and herds of boar choking on an orchard of apples thrust into their mouths, fraternised with carp and pike, resentfully glaring with gelid eyes as they lay supine on dishes of gold which creaked up and down dark shafts on dumbwaiters.

As the feasting and costume balls of Prinny’s Brighton Court reached and maintained their apogee of self-indulgence, architects and builders rumbled down to Brighton by carriage or horseback.

Before long, handsome terraces of houses spread like sculpted white kelp along the seashore, and though the pyrotechnic display of gluttony and human frailty dimmed in brilliance and scale when the Prince Regent and his patronage were gone, they spread downward through the social hierarchy until illicit love in delightful surroundings ceased to be a prerogative only of the rich.

The peacock of Georgian England lost its glorious tail-feathers to its Victorian successors, who used the new railway to link metropolitan London with the seaside. If you couldn’t afford to celebrate adultery with champagne, you could at least quaff beer in a pub on the sea front.

The adjective ‘dirty’ became linked to the substantive ‘weekend’, and beyond the bedroom, there was still fish straight from the sea and accompanying chips, whilst bawdy end-of-pier concerts echoed from two majestic piers, the West and the Palace, stretching out like beckoning arms towards France.

Brighton’s reputation as a coastal Sodom had helped put it on the political conference map long before Astrid opened shop; at least one Home Secretary and a brace of Secretaries of State for Foreign Affairs had displayed their ultimate vulnerability to her, as had a senior Judge of the Family Division and a Lord of Appeal, whose copious tears as she let him scrub the floor and call her ‘Mistress’ she found at first quite disarming before tedium set in.

Astrid’s most regular client was a Mr Bender, ninety years old, big ears, thin chest. He usually sat in the massage parlour’s sauna. He could still feel desire, though relying on aphrodisiacs -Viagra, Levitra, and once, when his flight to Dubai overshot and made a forced landing in China, what he was told was the best aphrodisiac of all, powdered tiger bone in rice wine which he suspected of giving him an infection of the prostate.

One of his visits turned out to be particularly memorable. Astrid, who in spite of her Swedish name had originally come from Calcutta, welcomed him and led him to the sauna as usual; she then went out to buy a packet of whiffs and bumped into Lena Gatsby, a friend. They lit up and indulged in gossip, with the result that Astrid forgot Mr Bender, who began to bake. He wondered where Astrid was.

Also there didn’t seem to be anyone else in the building. Astrid hated it when her gentlemen met, and used all sorts of strategems to try to ensure that they didn’t, but occasionally the men turned up and the girls didn’t, and Mr Bender if that was what had happened this morning.

When she finally returned it was to find Mr Bender folded like a sere autumn leaf into a chair, and nobody else. Hastily she sent emails to some of her girls, but they nearly all had ‘stage’ names which at times of stress confused her—was Diana’s real name Peta or Eve, and what had happened to the new girl, the archaeology student who wanted to earn some money towards her university fees? She used her real name for both work at the massage parlour and play at university, but what the hell was it?

She hurried back to the sauna, hoping she got the names right. Thank God, I think Mr. Bender’s still alive. At least he twitched. He’ll probably have a heart spasm in a minute; it’s something he’s done several times before. The name of the spasm was something to do with rhythm—it didn’t seem to worry him but it scared her to death. He opened an eye and spoke. “I’m too hot, Astrid.”

“Oh darling, I’m so sorry.” What on earth was his first name—was it James or Henry? Never mind, ‘darling’ covered for them all.

“Well, the old ticker seems to be OK, but I’d better get out of the heat.”

“I’ll take you to one of the bedrooms and then call an ambulance, darling.”

He almost shrieked. “You can’t do that! What about my family? That’s all I need, for my wife to find out I’d been carried out of a massage parlour on a stretcher! Just take me along to the changing room and help me get dressed.”

Astrid pulled on his socks, buttoned his tie and helped him into his jacket. He took out his wallet but she pushed his hand away.

“No, darling. It’s on the house today. At least it would have been but as we didn’t do anything you get the next time free. What are you going to do now?”

“I’m going to go over to yonder call box and I’m going to collapse by the door. In less than two minutes, someone will rush up and ask me if I’m all right. I shan’t answer. Then whoever it is will dial 999 and an ambulance will arrive and I’ll be rushed to hospital.

“Now let me out and shut the door quickly behind me, in case someone sees me come out.” Astrid closed the front door and hurried upstairs to watch Mr Bender totter over to the callbox and carefully collapse. A woman passing by with a King Charles spaniel on a lead at once rushed up. Astrid heard her ask urgently if Mr Bender was all right. He raised a feeble hand and said something; ignoring the empty call box the Good Samaritan took out her mobile. As the dog busily entangled her in the lead, she squatted beside Mr Bender, his head on her lap, and mopped his face with a tissue.

The distant sound of a siren became rapidly deafening and an ambulance broadsided to a stop. Two paramedics leaped out with a stretcher and carefully rolled Mr Bender on to it. Astrid watched it accelerate away.

Thank God she’d got out of that one, but she didn’t think she could face anything like that again. It was worse than when Marlene—or was her name Tracy—mislaid the key of the dungeon when Charlie Hibbert had just been locked inside. Mr Bender was an old dear but she really thought he would have to go somewhere else for his oats.

After all the commotion she felt a bit peckish. She went into the kitchen and put some chips into the microwave. They reminded her of Mr. Bender in the sauna, but she ate them with relish.

The Accidental Major  December 2016 

Major Storrington was short, wiry, and rich; he went through life with a sort of wide-eyed and expectant naivete, as if every day was a distant mountain in China and he was Marco Polo. I had initially come to know the Major through his son, a school  friend of mine.

The Storringtons were an affluent family, and the Major had inherited a good deal of money when he was young from his paternal grandfather, and several thousand acres of farmland on the English-Welsh border from his other grandfather, including a couple of villages and a pub. “I never go into the pub, of course,” he once told me.

“Why not ?”

He looked at me as if I was mad. “Because I own it, of course!”

The Major’s great difficulty was the almost chronic conflict between his impeccable dignity, emphasised by a black-framed eyeglass on a black ribbon and stalwart tweeds, and his proneness to accident.

He had been born in India, at a place rather unfortunately named Doolally,  which caused instant mirth to anyone checking his origins while he was being educated in England. When the Second War broke out he returned to India and joined a private cavalry regiment called Probyn’s Horse, which was to be absorbed into the Indian Army.

As a young subaltern, he was supervising four hundred troops doing PT on the parade ground when a rabid dog pranced and foamed its way up to him as he was standing on his head and bit him on the neck. Nobody exercising had a weapon, but fortunately a passing havildar with a pistol was able to give the dog the coup de grace.

Sixty jabs later, mostly in the stomach, saw Storrington back in business; his next brush with the local fauna was when a curious king cobra peered over the rim of his bath one night after emerging from a drain. Storrington’s shriek brought a houseboy at the gallop, who despatched the serpent with a blow on the head from a handy towel roller.

After that Storrington fought a valiant war, joining Wingate’s Chindits and winning the Military Cross on the field in Burma. After that he was gazetted to Major, and there he stuck, but it was a rank that suited him, as he was the right size and shape for it. One thinks of colonels for instance as being tall and lanky, and of captains as simply aspirant majors, ambitious but out of focus  and often with sulphurous complexions .

The Major loved India but returned to England permanently after the War, to take up farming. The estate was well and profitably run by a manager who had been in office since the Great War, giving the Major ample opportunity to hone such hitherto latent ambitions, such as breeding pedigree sheep.

The Major decided to build the flock himself, starting with the purchase, at vast expense, of a pedigree ram called Bellerophon, and  arranged with a neighbour who had a flock of pedigree ewes for Bellerophon to cover them. Unfortunately the ram in spite of his pedigree turned out to be gay, and showed no interest in the ewes whatsoever, merely turning his back on them and going into a sort of ovine daydream.

A lawsuit against the vendor of  Bellerophon pleasurably occupied several months of the Major’s time, ending with an out of court settlement in his favour, after which he  acquired Bruce.

Bruce had, as it turned out, a great deal of testosterone. He was a ram of little breeding– the Major having changed his mind decided to concentrate on raising lambs for food rather than the catwalk– but massive energy. He was also an opportunist; when the Major was unwise enough to bend over to tie a shoelace in Bruce’s presence, the full power of the consequent charge sent him flying over the hedge into the adjacent field. This happened to be the one in which his neighbour kept the pedigree ewes which had been the intended consorts of Bellerophon.

Ignoring the prostrate Major, Bruce hurdled the hedge and proceeded to cover as many of the ewes as possible, and as he was a quick and passionate worker the results  cost the Major  more money to put right than the out of court settlement had brought him. Bruce promptly received his cards and the Major decided to develop his interest in foxhunting.

Before long Ambledon, the Storrington farm, became  the venue where the local hunt met for a stirrup cup or two before the beginning the chase, and it was on one of these occasions that a groom noticed that the hunt’s host was slightly tipsy, raising his foot to the stirrup but finding it difficult to negotiate his spurs through it.

Helpfully the groom put his hand under the sole of the Major’s boot and thrust it upwards, with the result that he  sailed over his  mount  and landed spurs first on the roof of a brand new Volvo parked on the other side.

The owner happened to be an anti-hunting MP who was preparing to be converted to the historic ways of the countryside; after the major’s unintentional arrival on the roof of his car he resumed his hostility to hunting even more vocally than before.

Another man who was anti-hunting, not for any feeling for the fox but because he claimed the hunting horns gave him a headache, was the new vicar of the neighbouring parish of Ousle.

One Saturday, the hunt poured over the field on which the church abutted, with the fox sprinting towards the vicar, who was just leaving  in search of the rabbits who made a banquet of his lettuces. As the Major galloped towards him on the flank, the vicar raised his gun and shot the fox.

The Major was not pleased. “Sir,” he roared, “you should have given the fox to the hounds!”

“Well when you teach your hounds to fire a f…ing twelvebore they can have him!” the vicar roared back.

The vicar who officiated at the Major’s church was a rather feeble young man, perhaps forever conscious that the Storrington family had for many years owned the living. The only time he had been heard to swear was when at the beginning of the early service, when he tripped over a choirboy who in turn tripped his verger, who  was carrying a new and very heavy cross in the slow procession towards the choir stalls .

In fact the proceedings had to be terminated , as the vicar and verger  continued to swear, the  choirboy sobbed loudly and massaged his injured knee, and the organist  misplaced his marker and went huffily from Bless My Soul the King of Heaven to the crunch of the guillotine in Poulenc’s Dialogue des Capucines.

The serenity of Sunday Mass was occasionally imperilled by the Major’s frequently convivial celebration of the Saturday night, when he indulged in an old-fashioned spree which involved sherry, burgundy and port. At almost the first service  at which the vicar officiated the Major, sitting at the aisle end of the family pew at the front of the congregation, leaned slowly sideways with majestic but irrevocable loss of balance and fell prostrate on to the floor of the aisle.

The intricacies of time have caused me to lose touch both with my friend and his father, but I have the feeling that despite his vulnerability to contemporary disaster, when it comes to his approaching century the Major will survive not out.

A Pocket Full of Wry November 2016

On an afternoon in London in 1960 I went to the Dorchester Hotel to interview an actress called Susan Strasberg in her suite. Clever camera work and make-up had given me the impression from her films that Strasberg was a tall girl with Ancient Egyptian colouring, but she was small and sallow. Her principal fame lay in her parentage: her father Lee was the founder of the Artist Academy and its Method school of acting, and her mother Paula became Marilyn Monroe’s Familiar.

Apparently Mrs Strasberg exerted such a degree of influence over Monroe that she probably wouldn’t have bothered to dominate any palm or pine if given the chance; dominating Marilyn Monroe was a full-time occupation. Marilyn would have done anything Mrs Strasberg told her (with the possible exception of giving up Bobby Kennedy).

 We had just finished the interview when Shelley Winters, an archetypal Hollywood blonde, sashayed into the suite through the connecting doorway. She was to put on a serious amount of weight, but at that time she was slender and sashaying went with her hips. We started chatting, and she confided that she would like to see some London night-life. I invited her out for dinner, and we arranged that I should pick her up at the Dorchester the following evening.

I decided to take her to the Braganza, flagship restaurant of the Wheeler Group. I wasn’t walking on air so much as levitating as I followed her into the dining-room. The head waiter galloped towards us, smiling a greeting and glaring at the young waiter who had been a second late putting a couple of menus into his outstretched hand as he paused in front of him.

“Follow me, please.” He placed the menus on the table, said something to the sommelier, who came over us immediately, and snapped his fingers at a waiter to pull back Shelley’s chair.

We ordered dry martinis and studied the menu as if it was an exam paper, eventually starting with lobster bisque, which Shelley had never had. She tasted some off my spoon to see if she liked it. “It’s delicious, honey.”

As the meal progressed I began to feel concerned about the possibility of not having enough money on me. The credit card culture had not yet arrived in England; Diners Club was becoming well known in such places as New York, where the computers in its Empire State offices spent their time winking and beeping before spitting out a Niagara of punched cards, but  it would be about six years before the advent in England of our ‘ flexible friend.’

I thought wryly that I had managed to date a Hollywood star but might not be able to afford a taxi back to her hotel, let alone take her to a night club.

“Do you know what I’d like to do next, honey? I’d like to go to the movies and see Albert Finney in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.”

“Fine, let’s do that,” I agreed, thankful that she hadn’t chosen to have a bottle of champagne at Ciro’s. I regretted, however, that I had to be thankful instead of going there and plying her with Pol Roger prior to a possible adventure. I had seen her in her film The Balcony, where she had writhed across the floor like a Sidewinder and inspired impure thoughts.

Albert Finney had made his name in the John Schlesinger film of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, and on the West End Stage in Keith Waterhouse’s play Billy Liar.

The film was showing at a flea pit called the Berkley Cinema, not far from Soho, where the Braganza was situated.

Shelley put on her reading glasses and studied the advertisements in the foyer for some of the movies past and present, and I started to queue at the box office. An usherette almost ran up to Shelley.

“Gorblimey, are you Shelley Winters?”

“I am, honey.”

“Come with me. I’ve only got two good seats left.” There was no question of payment, and the film was excellent. I surreptitiously counted the cash in my pocket—I had enough for the cab.

It was quite late when the film ended, and Shelley showed every sign of having enjoyed her evening without needing to go anywhere else. I helped her from the taxi on to the pavement outside the Dorchester, and watched her sashay to the swing doors, her mighty coat almost catching in them.

Next day she went back to America, and I felt rather like one of the fantasies which were her trade. Had she really happened?

Our night out was real; more than fifty years after the event, I still find something special about lobster bisque (Alison will confirm that!).

Tales of Ustinov  September 2016

I first met Peter Ustinov in 1960 on the set of the first BBC daytime TV show Wednesday Magazine at Lime Grove. The show was broadcast live every Wednesday afternoon, and the director, Richard Francis, was at the time a colleague and friend of mine.

Ustinov had just recently won an Oscar for his role as the slave dealer in Spartacus, and was already a successful playwright as well as actor.  A man of protean talent and multiple linguist, he credited his facility with languages to having been born in London after being conceived in St. Petersburg.

One of his talents was to develop those of other people, such as Terence Stamp, whom he cast in Billy Budd, and Simon Ward, in The Good Solder And His Wife, in an early production at Chichester. Oh his forthcoming play, Who’s Who In Hell, he said: “When you turn over the pages of Who’s Who In Hell it’s like raising the sails of a windjammer, whereas Who’s Who In Heaven is the size of a pamphlet.”

I met Ustinov a number of times, as we were working on a record project together, and once asked him how he coped with being recognised and greeted by complete strangers wherever he went.

We had bumped into each other in the lobby of the Hilton in Park Lane at the time,  and already a sinister-looking man was staring at Ustinov with alarming intensity. There was a good deal of terrorist activity in Spain at the time, with the ETA doing its best to blow up as many members of the governing class as it could, and the sinister man looked as though he might have a bomb in his pocket. He caught Ustinov’s eye and at once hurried over.

“Mr. Ustinov? Peter Ustinov”

“My name is—” he uttered a dozen syllables. “I am requesting you should do something for me.”

“Oh?”

“Please come to address some of my friends.”

“Where ?”

“Addis Ababa. I, Mr. Ustinov, am the Emperor’s nephew.”

“I am very sorry, I fear I am committed for the next eight months.”

As soon as Ustinov had finished making his polite apologies for being unable to accept the invitation , and the emperor’s nephew had joined in with his own regrets that his invitation could not be accepted, he was replaced by a man whose skin was several shades lighter.

“Mr. Ustinov, Sir, I am so glad you are here so conveniently. It is my great pleasure to invite you to Iran. My name is – ” and uttered a name that was half way between a sneeze and Schweppes’s famous sibilant. This time the invitation was to Teheran.

“Ah, I’ve met your Minister of Education. In Switzerland. Mr. Taza Omani.”

“That, Sir, is our Minister of Higher Education.”

“Ah, do give him my regards. I regret that I shall not be able to offer them myself—I shall not be able to come to Teheran for some years.”

The man bowed and moved away.

“How do you stand it, Peter? It would drive me mad.”

“It did for a long time, until I found myself in Tirana, where my desire fr anonymity was granted. Not a soul recognised me, and after a few hours I felt utterly depressed..”

Perhaps the most extreme example of being recognised when he least expected it, Ustinov told me, was in Hamburg.

There was a French stage designer, a very sweet man, rather henpecked , and on our last evening of liberty, before rehearsals for the  opera I was directing started, I offered to take him out to dinner and go out on the town.

“He said he’d love to see the street with all the prostitutes—he’d heard so much about it.”

“The Reeperbahn?” I asked.

“The walled-off part, the Herbertstrasse. There’s a hole in the wall which you climb through to look at all the Toulouse Lautrec ladies as they sit in their windows.

“There was one brutal-looking woman dressed in leather, with stays and a whip, who was in casual conversation  with an even larger woman dressed, believe it or not, as a baby, wearing a bonnet and occasionally sucking a comforter.

“The two women were getting along like a house  on fire, and all the dirty old men, including ourselves, were looking at them. Suddenly the woman in leather looked at me, drew a biro from between her copious breasts and, laying down the whip, asked me for my autograph.”

On one occasion, I asked Ustinov if he ever got involved with his female leads, some of whom, such as Sophia Loren, seemed impossibly beautiful.

“Well, I speak as one who falls in love for reasons other than beauty, otherwise I’d come out of every museum knocked sideways by what I’d just seen. I don’t think beauty is the quality that most draws you to someone. I like Sophia very much as a person.”

Ustinov thought that in some respects Alec Guinness was the best actor in the world. “I never like to say that anyone is the best of anything, but I have a tremendous admiration for him.”

“When you played Nero,” I said, “you infused him with a Ustinovian sense of humour, in fact you made him seem almost lovable. I can’t see you playing Hitler, though.”

Ustinov looked thoughtful. “I’m not sure that even Alec could. “He can look like Hitler if he wants to, but he’s too reasonable. To play Hitler was a dream of Alec’s, which I understand, because everybody would like to have a crack at playing someone as crazy as that, if only to broaden his range.”

He went on: “However, it’s very difficult to communicate Hitler’s particular lunacy to people who aren’t crazy—and if they are crazy, it’s not much pleasure to act someone rather like themselves. I don’t believe in playing someone who’s entirely evil or entirely good—I just think Hitler’s bad dramatic material.”

Shoot-Out at Bracklesham Bay  August 2016

The Second World War set England on the move. The military was mobilised and travelled to its depots; children were evacuated from London and other major cities in well-organised groups on sooty trains. People who felt intensely vulnerable and had no reason to stay in probable Luftwaffe targets, particularly elderly widows and men who considered they had given all they had to give their country during the Great War, made their way to pleasant refuges in the country or to seaside hotels.

Young staff swapped their work-places for barracks, and were replaced by  their predecessors coming out of retirement. Age was the most common denominator bonding staff and guests, but that did not mean that guests who were exigent in their demands for attention in any way lessened their requirements to  be served afternoon tea from a heavy silver tea service, no matter how hard it was for an aged servitor to pick it up.

As a schoolboy, I was sometimes taken to the Bracklesham Bay Hotel for tea during the school holidays by my mother, who lived in Chichester. I remember one of the most demanding guests was a Mrs. Brown, who bore a striking similarity to a camel. Looking down the nose she held in the air, Mrs. Brown gave the impression she was going to spit at any moment.  She had a sister called Miss Abel, who had a speech impediment which made her snuffle. Much to Mrs. Brown’s disgust, Miss Abel sometimes helped one of the older and feebler waiters to hoist the tea service on to his shoulder. “Really, my dear, he’s perfectly capable of doing that himself.”

“I don’t think he is.”

“Well then, he shouldn’t be here.”

“You’d be lost without him.”

“Really, dear.”

After the fall of France in 1940, the Luftwaffe was naturally able to extend the range of its blitz over Britain, and Southampton and Portsmouth fell within its reach and were bombed viciously. The route taken by the bombers from France heading  for the big cities of the west took them towards Chichester, where they turned left and headed along the coast towards their Hampshire objectives. Sometimes they took fright and jettisoned their bombs long before they got there, turning round and speeding their lightened aircraft to their airfield.

Other aircraft, having dropped their bomb loads, decided to fire their remaining weapons at an unscheduled target as they flew at rooftop height; a café perhaps, or a castle. Or, indeed, a seaside hotel.

I was cycling along a lane in East Wittering one afternoon, when I went round a corner and had to take action to avoid running into a group of soldiers. They were smoking and wearing the shoulder badges of the East Surreys. Parked at the roadside was a Bedford lorry, with a piece of canvas hanging over the tail-gate.

I chatted with the men for a few minutes, when one of them asked me if I would like a treat. When I said I would, though I thought they were joking, he picked me up and another one of them pulled aside the cover.

“Well, ain’t that a sight for sore eyes?” The man holding me chuckled.

I wasn’t sure what I was looking at. They looked like mannequins, but not the ones you see in shop windows. They lay on the floor side by side, and across the chest of each was a line of stitching, as if they had been passed under an industrial-sized sewing machine.

The soldier lifting me set me down.

“They blood well got what they deserved,” he said. “Teach them to strafe a hotel full of old ladies.”

“What happened?” I asked.

“Heinkel 111 it was. Thought they’d have some fun shooting up a hotel full of old ducks. Circled the hotel and first the front gunner, then the one on top—the dorsal gunner—fires a stream of bullets at the windows. Didn’t bargain though that there’d be a detachment of us on an exercise nearby. Didn’t know what hit them when we opened up with the Brens. Pilot banks almost at right angles as smoke comes out of the Heinkel, which comes down right side up in shallow water. It’s there now, as a matter of fact.

“Shot one of the gunners as he climbed out, then another. Navigator tried to balance with his hands in the air and hold a white handkerchief at the same time. He fell into the water and we was kind to him and didn’t shoot.  Sort of felt by then we’d ‘ad our revenge, if you see what I mean.

“When  the captain got out, he was in a right state. I mean, you’ve survived being shot down and now you’re looking down the barrel of a gun.”

“Did you shoot him?”

“The Captain? Naw. No need—we wasn’t angry no more.” He chuckled. “The guests who’d been fired at—one old girl was complaining about a waiter spilling hot tea into her lap.”

“Did she look like a camel?”

“Now you mention it, she did rather. Why, do you know her?” He shook his head.

“As long as we’ve got people as bloody-minded as that, this country’ll survive. Hope you enjoyed your treat.”

I thought of the peace of the hotel dining-room being torn apart by shrapnel and shards of glass, the destruction meted out to a final refuge. I thought of the bodies I had just been shown. I felt no regret, no sorrow, no anger.

The soldier turned away without waiting for an answer, and I was happy not to give one.

Ann Summers  July 2016

At the beginning of May this year I read an obituary which at once brought back memories of the first Ann Summers sex shop, which opened in 1970 with appropriate fanfair at the Marble Arch end of The Edgware Road.

The obituary was of the exquisitely tailored, merrily moralled ‘Dandy Kim’ Caborn-Waterfield, lover of Diana Dors in 1976, who subsequently became the husband of a model and actress called Penny Brahms, who had acted with Joanna Lumley in a sex comedy called The Games People Play. He was also rumoured at one time to be having an affair with Princess Margaret, and to make a habit of illegally parking his helicopter in Hyde Park whilst trysting with her. Perhaps, however, his most notable activity was the institution of the Ann Summers sex shop.

Ann, or Annice Summers, I was told at the time, had been invented by ‘Dandy Kim’ together with a Swiss woman friend of his  called Beata. They agreed that the perfect name for a sex shop should be redolent of the pristine, natural qualties of the countryside, as well as of Eve, the Serpent: apples, Sin, and—why not?—the Tree of Life.

Accordingly the company logo, which blossomed in every window of the Edgware Road shop, consisted of a brightly coloured, half-eaten apple core, long before Stephen Jobs appeared on the scene with his Apple Computer. The Ann Summers core was accompanied by classical music pouring limpidly from numbers of loud speakers, whilst an anticipatory crowd queued half a dozen abreast almost as far north as the Harrow Road.

Ann herself, whom I got to know, was an intelligent and charming blonde with a sense of humour. When I suggested that not many men needed the services of an Ethiopian cross-country runner with a fistful of powdered rhinocerous horn  before being able to perform, she replied: “Well I suffer from lumbago and spraying the small of my back with my cock-freezer hasn’t done it any good.”

Almost opposite the sex shop, on the Bayswater side of The Edgware Road, the Schweppes Company had its Headquarters in a narrow lane called Connaught Street. According to a friend of mine who was a marketing director based there, Schweppes’s marketing director who had been allocated to Israel, had recently arrived home to retire.

Hearing Beethoven playing across the road, and wondering why there was such a long queue of people, the newly returned director  fought his way across  and joined the mass, with the belief that Ann Summers sold classical records and the intention of buying his wife a set of the Eroica. He was alarmed after queuing for some time to find himself standing in front of an implement the size of a policeman’s truncheon, and asked one of the girls in attendance what it was.

“It’s a dildo, Sir. Would you like one?”

He looked at her in disbelief and fought his way back to Schweppes empty-handed.

The year after the opening of Ann Summers Ltd. Ann Summers was named Woman Of The Year by the London Evening Standard. Kim, whom I never met, became friendly with Stephen Ward, and later did time for having stolen £23000  from his intended  father-in-law and successfully blackmailing him for the return  of some confidential documents whilst staying with his fiancée Barbara Warner at the Warner’s summer home in the South of France.

However, his father-in-law was not the sort of man a son-in-law should fall foul of. He was Jack Warner, the leading Hollywood Warner Brother, and he saw to it that Kim was sentenced in absentia in 1956 by a French court to four years in gaol for stealing the cash.

According to the Daily Telegraph’s obituary of ‘Dandy Kim’ he was described during his trial as “seductive, witty, courteous, unscrupulous and the possessor of a criminal record.” He went on to run guns for the Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista and took refuge from the French courts in Tangier, where he opened a water-skiing school. He was apparently  rescued by the Kray Brothers and flown back to England, to be  eventually extradited to France to pass a mere year of his sentence.

Ann Summers turned out to be more inclined towards purity than ‘Dandy Kim’ suspected, becoming increasingly resentful of the sort of product sold by Kim under her name.

She decided to spill the beans and declared that it was not herself but ‘Dandy Kim’ Caborn-Waterfield who was responsible for the sex-shop and its wares, whereas she had only acted as a front for the shop. This had resulted—as Kim was to admit himself– in the whole idea becoming seedy instead of naughty-but-nice.

Ann became dissociated from the original sex shop and the last time I saw her was after we had shared an omelette and a bottle of burgundy for lunch at the Grosvenor House Hotel.

Sadly, I think she died in France not long afterwards as the result of a car crash.

Hero by Default  June 2016

Our Tangerine guide addressed his Saga congregation of coach people outside the English Church of St Andrew’s in the Mediterranean city of Tangier. The guide, whose name was Hamil, was wonderfully louche, with mighty Mephistophelesian eyebrows hanging like shutters above his hooded eyes. The hill on which were standing overlooks the sea opposite the Straits of Gibraltar and in the distance hovers the Spanish mainland with its ludicrous oversupply of wind turbines.

For much of its existence Tangiers was an independent Moroccan enclave, and although it has for some decades been part of the Kingdom of Morocco, its turgid history and reputation as a place where anything can be procured for anybody who can afford it endures.

“Darling, I’ve discovered your grave!” Alison shouted from the graveyard gate. “Walter Harris—come and look!” She came trotting towards me, with an expression I found rather too gleeful.

“Walter Harris?” Hamil drew me into his arms excitedly and his overgrown moustache brushed my cheek. He then held me at arms’ length and stared at me, repeating my name. My fellow travellers looked at me in surprise and a degree of apprehension, as if I were an avatar they had failed up to now to recognise.

I first visited Morocco in 1961, and the same thing has happened each time: as soon as a Moroccan discovers my name is Walter Harris, I am embraced.

The name on the headstone which Alison had discovered proclaimed that the body beneath it was that of Walter Burton Harris, whose career was part legend and part myth.

He was born rather before my time, in 1866 into an affluent family, and educated at Harrow before a brief marriage, annulled on the grounds of non-consummation. That was hardly surprising, as he was a homosexual, or that at the age of nineteen he should have arrived in the accommodating city of Tangiers. He built himself a villa there although, unlike his headstone, it failed to materialise during our stay.

Because of his gift for languages and appearance Harris was able to pass himself off as a  Moroccan bandit,  which enabled him to travel to parts of the country other Europeans were unable to explore, as it was often the fate of those who were not Children of Islam to have their throats cut.

In 1912, a follower of Abd el Karim, a notorious rebel who operated in the Rif Mountains, was captured by the King’s forces and sentenced to a Roman sort of death: being thrown to the  lions.

The King’s wives were  seated, the lions were released from their cages into the arena, and the rebel tribesman was offered to them by an executioner. He failed to interest them, however, as they weren’t hungry and regarded the offering with the sort of dismissive hauteur any cat offered food when it isn’t hungry tends to exercise.

The executioner therefore shot it in the leg, which aroused its anger, and the sentence was finally carried out.

Walter Harris had tried unsuccessfully to dissuade the King from implementing the sentence, and subsequently returned to the more conventional diplomacy of reporting for The Times on the brutal treatment meted out to the Moroccans by the Spanish, who shared the colonisation of part of the country with the French.

The tale arose that The Times correspondent was kidnapped by Abd el Kerim and held in the Rif city of Xouan, a city much given to the cutting of heathen throats.

In those days ransoms tended to be paid, and when Harris didn’t return after his ransom had been paid, an expeditionary force was sent to Xaouan, only to discover the victim playing cards with the ransom money as stake.

The Moroccans probably hold me in high esteem because they think I am a descendant of Walter Harris, probably unaware of the brevity of his marriage and the reason for it. Meanwhile, I find considerable comfort in the fact that the grave Alison discovered in the churchyard of St.Andrew’s in Tangier, is not mine.

An Evening On The Amazon  May 2016 

Gringo Klaus was a German resident on the outskirts of Belin, an Amazonian suburb of the jungle city of Yquitos, in Peru.   If Klaus had  been a few years older he would probably have been a German war criminal; as it was he concentrated on faking Queen Anne whisky, which the locals called whisky bamba.

Long before Michael Palin introduced his polymath Peruvian guide Jorge to British TV audiences, my friend William Richmond, a British diplomat posted to Peru, had hired him as guide, comforter and friend when he made an official visit to Yquitos on behalf of the British Government. As I was staying with him at the time, I accompanied him.

The Mayor of Yquitos put a speedboat crewed by two pretty girls at our disposal; they turned out to be local TV presenters and interviewed us on Yquito’s Channel 2. They seemed particularly interested in our views on  mayoral reform: the Mayor allocated every Thursday afternoon as Clean Up Day, and all the civil servants he employed were drafted to give their services free to gathering and burning municipal rubbish which had accumulated on the outskirts of the city.

In the evenings, girls known as canoeiras started to ply their trade in canoes in the poorest suburb of Yquitos, Belin. The only mention of them in literature that I have discovered is in two or three novels by Louis de Bernière, author of Captain Corelli’s mandolin. They are in fact waterborne prostitutes, mostly of Peruvian Indian origin, who prefer canoes in which to exercise their commercial talent, rather than  huts, to save rent.

William was having a meeting with a fellow diplomat when Jorge convinced me that William and I should accompany him to Belin to sample such an interesting example of Peruvian low life.

“It is not something” Jorge told me, “that the visitor to Peru  normally sees. I know this evening you are visiting Gringo Klaus, who has a cousin in the British Embassy in Lima; I can arrange a tourist bus which will be an anonymous vehicle in Belin, if you would like to make a discreet visit  there afterwards. The jetties the girls’ canoes use are near the Belin silver market, and Klaus lives on the other side.”

“That sounds fun,” I said, “I’ll mention it to Mr. Richmond later.  Thank you very much, Jorge.”

I thought it would probably be more discreet to forget to tell William where we were going.

Gringo Klaus turned out to be a large man with a duelling scar which went well with his whisky. I thought the scar was made of wax and would have to be repaired by a make-up artist at any moment. He jovially splashed liquid into our glasses from a Queen Anne bottle. “My God, it gives you a hangover\as soon as he’s poured it,” William muttered. “Let’s go—I’ve a horrible feeling we’re going to be offered canapés in a moment.” Gringo Klaus and a young man were tossing anchovies on to a plate in the kitchen.

We thanked Klaus warmly for the whisky bamba,  and left. Outside was our ‘anonymous vehicle’, a large yellow bus equipped with kerosene lanterns but no doors. Some urchin, in a friendly token of Carnival, which was a few days away, threw a bucket of what we hoped was water over William’s lightweight hand-tailored mohair suit.

The night was pitch dark; above us was a host of invisible stars, inaudibly serenading an invisible moon. The only light came from the bus’s kerosene lanterns as we parked on a small hill facing the river, and a brazier placed in front of a rather large lady who was nude under a voile scarf.

“Do you see the boatman, sitting in the front of the canoe?” Jorge asked. “He obeys the strict convention that, no matter what happens behind him, he never turns round.” He gave us some fairly intimate statistics about the time and endurance of the temporary lovers in the canoes, as we walked along a plank resting on a seething mass of garbage  and got into a canoe ourselves. Jorge’s brother was our boatman. When we were settled I aimed my camera at the sounds of passion across the water and was roundly cursed by a busy girl, fortunately in the local Indian dialect, which I didn’t understand.

I plucked up my courage and aimed at several more giveaway sources  of noise, and  more and more girls began to curse. Nearly all spoke the Queixan  dialect, but several cursed us in Spanish.

William was shocked. “My God,” he said, “I really shouldn’t be here. That girl just called me a son of a bitch!”

“Well, we are intruding on them.”

“Possibly, but that’s still no way to address the British Ambassador!”

I roared with laughter at his outrage, and the girls cursed even more. One or two of the boatmen turned to steer towards us, and the possibility grew that William and I would be sharing the ignominy of assault by an armada of angry prostitutes and their frustrated clients.

“I think perhaps we had better go,” Jorge said, so sacrificing dignity for safety we embarked on a boat race to the river bank, where we skidded and slipped along the muddy plank to reach the tourist bus well ahead of our leading pursuer, who suffered a necessary moment of distraction when her voile shawl fortunately brushed against the brazier she had forgotten to relinquish, and caught fire.

After we had dined in the garden, part of which was covered by a huge tarpaulin in preparation for a fashion show scheduled for the next day, I found William in the music room, staring at a photograph of himself shaking hands with the Pope.

“That’s the nearest I’ve ever been to confessing my sins,” he said, “but of course I’m not a Roman Catholic.”

“You haven’t got time to sin in your job, William.”

He sighed, and uttered one of his most favoured  phrases. “You know, Walter, sometimes it’s hell being an ambassador.”

Sarah and Tahiti  April 2016

Far below our Air France Airbus 340, the surface of the sea rested luminously on long fingers of coral pointing to the far horizon.  On one side of us the sky was still almost black and on the other the sun was thrusting itself lustily above the horizon, turning the clouds to the colour of copper.

LAX, Los Angeles’s airport with its tyrannical Department of Justice & Immigration, was already four hours behind us, and Charles de Gaulle Airport eleven and a half hours beyond that; Heathrow was a distant memory of two days ago.

In a couple of hours we would be landing at Papeete, capital of Tahiti, to spend a day and night at our hotel before boarding our cruise ship, the Regent Mariner, and heading for three weeks through French Polynesia towards Peru, where we would be disembarking at Lima for the flight back to Heathrow.

Tahiti is not a place to disappoint expectations.  It is exotic to look at and its history, like that of much of French Polynesia, is melded with our own through Captain Cook’s discovery of it whilst exploring the French Polynesian archipelago and Captain Bligh’s coming upon it after Fletcher Christian and the mutinous crew of The Bounty herded him and his remaining crew into a longboat and consigned them to what they thought would be an uncomfortable death.

We were greeted at our hotel by native dancers, in Gauguinesque attire, and after we had rested were picked up by a cluster of cars, minibuses and off-roaders and offered a drive round the island.  Our driver was a smiling woman called Sarah, who had an open truck equipped with seats.

“Would you like me to take you to the interior?” she asked us.  “The roads are hell but the forests are worth a bruised bottom to see.”

We told her our vote was to see the forests, and our speed at once increased. When I asked Sarah afterwards why she drove as quickly as possible when the traffic was densest and eased off when there was much less, she laughed.  “I like to test my driving skill.”

She tested it too when we had reached the forest and started along a track which seemed to have been dug a few minutes previously.  On one side of us there was a fishing lake full of eels which had belonged to the Tahitian royal family, who had a passion for them, and on the other cataracts poured elegantly from caves high in the mountain walls. Under us there was a slip-and-slide track which constantly sent the truck skittering towards the fishing lake.

We spent  the rest of the day and the following night at our hotel, and went aboard our ship the following morning, sorry to be going but at the same time looking forward to our next port of call, the delightfully named island of Bora Bora.

Bora Bora was memorable for our time with Luciano, a smiling man, with big round shoulders, a mop of black hair and a brown shining skin free of any sartorial encumbrance save for a royal purple tabard acting as a loin cloth.   His left hand caressed the rim of the steering wheel of the 450 horse power speed boat that he and half a dozen of us passengers were about to take across the lagoon fronting the island. In his right hand, he held a huge conch shell.

“When I blow this, you will know I am about to increase speed,” he announced. “That is when you hang on very tight.”

I looked along the boat.  She was not much wider than a racing scull, and had little to hold on to, except the person sitting next to you, and there were no lifebelts or jackets in evidence.

Raising the conch to his lips Luciano blew a blast loud enough to have summoned the Children of Israel to take their chances on a dash through the Red Sea before its waters came together.  At the same time he slammed the throttle levers forward and the boat, which he had told us had no keel and a draft of only 4.5 centimetres because the lagoon was so shallow, flung itself towards a tourist launch with an exciting touch  of centrifugal gravity which Luciano controlled in the nick of time by cutting our speed.

We passed a collection of buildings which were going to be part of a new Hilton Hotel, and headed out into the bay to swim while flaunting our wake at some snorkelers on the way.  After a further half hour or so we tied up at a jetty belonging to a one-time Hollywood destination called Bloody Mary’s, where leading movie thespians came to avoid the world and get sozzled in peace.

We were scheduled a few days later to visit Pitcairn Island, two square miles of gloom and three centuries of incest might be one way of describing it.  The weather was too bad for us to go ashore, or the islanders to visit us on board, so we anchored off that part of Pitcairn where Fletcher Christian used to climb to the same cave every morning to check for sails.  This was not in the hope of espying a rescue ship, but to guard against any Admiralty vessel sent to arrest Fletcher and his fellow mutineers and take them back to England for trial and probable hanging.

In fact, the first thing Fletcher did on arriving at Pitcairn was to burn the Bounty to ashes, so that none of his crew could escape and betray the mutineers’ whereabouts.

The sole chance of leaving Pitcairn were the two heavy longboats the crew kept in a boathouse near the only cove which offered a chance of landing or leaving.                 However, today there are only 47 inhabitants left, and as handling a longboat requires several men of considerable strength to fight the waves and get the boat through a small gap in the rocks to the open sea it is unlikely, one would have thought, that Pitcairn Island will be inhabited much longer.  New inhabitants are being sought through advertising, but looking at the place one would imagine that attracting any would be equally difficult.

Halfway between New Zealand and Chile, in other words 5000 miles from each, Pitcairn is still a British dependency.  For the few islanders who meet at Pitcairn’s post office in the morning for a gossip, it seems that the best they can do for themselves is to emulate Captains Cook and Bligh, and later the ardent Gauguin, and head for the joys of Tahiti.

If they can launch the long boats while anyone still has the strength.

Prism Vistas  January 2016

I have no idea whether Hassan was the Indian prince he claimed to be. We were having a pint at the much-loved but now departed Knightsbridge pub called the Ennismore Arms, and he was waving a Daily Telegraph and tapping an elegant forefinger against a photograph of a dead tiger.

“Look at this,” he declaimed, “the world is going mad about the reduction of tigers since the days of Tippoo Sahib. Poor little tiger, cuddly  little tiger—the beast is being treated as a harmless nursery toy! My Uncle the Maharaja of Oudh was eaten by a tiger! He was enjoying his luncheon on the bank of the Brahmaputra River, which in  those days was heavily forested right up to the water’s edge—and  the damn thing crept up and overwhelmed him, even though it had many alternative choices among his gunbearers, though not so succulent as himself, perhaps. He believed in taking it easy when giving his retainers enough to eat.” I knew that Indian employees tended to believe that a skinny servant was a hard-working servant.

“In spite of the misfortune to your uncle, the idea of such a magnificent beast as the tiger becoming extinct because of the false expectations aroused in the name of traditional Chinese aphrodisiacs does seem sad,” I said. “The sort of people who suffer from passions they can’t fulfil are probably not going to take on the characteristics of tigers no matter how many pounds of ground tiger bone they ingest. They probably haven’t got the strength to climb on to their thrones.”

“In India they have no thrones to climb on since Nehru bought out our royal families and made the country a Republic,” Hassan retorted bitterly. “There would have been no Maharaja of Mysore to donate a squadron of Spitfires to the RAF early in the last war if Nehru had had his way a few years earlier than he did.” He looked  smug.

I stuck to the subject. “But it’s principally the Chinese, not the Indians, who are responsible for the extinction of the tiger. Not to mention the white rhino.” I waited for him to tell me that a white rhino had gored his favourite aunt but instead he extolled the care taken by some Hindus to preserve life.

“Take the Jains for example, who started by becoming dissenters from Hinduism.They are so concerned with respect for life that they carry feather brushes to sweep the ground before them so as to make sure that they do not cause injury to an ant by accidentally treading on it.

“Unfortunately it is a magnificent animal such as the rhino and not the ant which contributes to the improvement of sexual pleasure among the Chinese.”

“I doubt if even a Jain would worry about accidentally treading on a rhino, Hassan.”

He looked at me in the manner of someone who would rather be elsewhere.

“We started this conversation by talking about the perils facing the tiger population of India,” he said, “not that of its ants. It is tigers who are getting in the way of population density, not ants. And it is the same with lions in Africa and Asia.

And of course also with elephants.” He hazarded a biological guess which was probably off the mark.

“That is perhaps why the Indian elephant is smaller than the African.”

“So that it doesn’t get in the way of an expanding population?”

“It is possible,” he argued. “And also because it is the Indian way to get the maximum for the minimum when it comes to working. Indian elephants are the servants of their community, whereas African elephants serve nobody.” He glanced at his watch. “And now, dear boy, I have an appointment for luncheon at the Cavalry Club.”

“The Cavalry Club?” Hassan was shaped rather like the hump on a camel, and any horse attempting a charge under his weight would have been risking a heart attack.

“Oudh’s royal house was famous for its pigsticking parties in the days of the Raj,” Hassan’s tone was chilly, daring me to bracket the Charge of the Light Brigade with chasing a squealing porker with a spear, which somehow lay outside the sphere of horseback heroics.

I picked up the Telegraph Hassan had left behind and looked again at the bullet-holed photo of the tiger. I rather hoped that his story about one eating his uncle, was true.

The Matador  August 2015

I probably inherited my liking for steak tartare from my father, who died before a major outbreak of hygienic overkill by the Blair Government’s attempt at wiping out foot and mouth, shoved it off our menus.
England’s pastoral landscapes became buried under pyres of blazing cattle, and a roll-call of bankrupted farmers accompanied the tolling of church bells to commemorate the passing of the roast beef of Old England and, of course, steak tartare.
It was some consolation, therefore, to enjoy recently the finest steak tartare I can remember. The occasion was not in England but in the Moroccan city of Marrakesh.
Having gone on strike against tourist blight – being dragged by a tour guide through endless identical bazaars selling endless rows of identical tat – Alison and I were sitting beside a mercifully deserted swimming-pool at the Es Saadi Hotel.
It was midday, the ice in our g & ts seemed to shrug apologetically before it brushed affectionately against a slice of lime before melting. At this point, Ibrahim our waiter appeared, and presented us with menus. As if illuminated in neon letters, the words ‘steak tartare’ overcame everything else.
One thing disturbed me slightly: one likes a restaurant waiter to be plump and sleek, whereas Ibrahim looked as if he hadn’t eaten for weeks. His skin was the colour of saffron and his cheeks concave, reminding me of a sandwich without any filling. However, as soon as he returned with a large pan and the ingredients for the meal, I was reassured.
His knife became a sword, his jacket a cloak, his movements those of a matador. He sighted down the blade at the steak, and dextrously thrust at it, patting and shaping it and castigating it with a large spoon until he judged it was time to mix in the raw egg, garlic, onion, and Worcester. The sword made a brief offensive pass at a red pepper, which split accurately along its median.
The sun shone reflectively from Ibrahim’s bald head as he exchanged a dagger for the sword, and picked up a fork which resembled a trident. The matador was being given a hand by Neptune.
The dagger and trident sawed up the whole sublimely orchestrated dish until it possessed the consistency of gravy; Ibrahim picked up the sword with a flourish and saluted before laying everything down except the pan, which he used to toss the mixture like a pancake until it had absorbed the juices.
Ibrahmin, panting as though he had just undergone a torrid courtship in a four-poster, placed his oeuvres d’art in front of me and stepped back, waiting for the verdict.
I looked at him with amazement and gratitude, a man who should have been wearing a necklace of Michelin stars. “Marvellous!” I said reverently. “That alone is worth travelling two thousand kilometres for. We’ll be back next year, just to have your steak tartare.” We shook hands fervently, and I found myself praying that he wouldn’t die of starvation in the meantime.

Vodka Galore  June 2015

In 1960 or thereabouts, I went to the Dorchester in London to interview a pretty senile Somerset Maugham for the old Today Programme. The interview was never broadcast, because I refused to edit out Maugham’s stutter, which was very much part of his personality. He said nothing of much consequence anyway, but he said it with a sort of reptilian charm.

Shortly afterwards, I went to see Compton Mackenzie on behalf of ARGO Records; he was staying at the house in Blomfield Road in Little Venice which Kingsley Amis shared with the author Elizabeth Jane Howard. Mackenzie at the time was advertising Grant Standfast whisky, but of course preferred a good malt. As it happened, Mackenzie had been on a severe vodka session, so Elizabeth Jane took the bottle of malt without giving me a sample.

Mackenzie loathed Maugham, of whom I think he was intensely jealous, as he had published more books than Maugham but was not nearly so famous, Whisky Galore being his only really famous book.

The scandal of the day was that Maugham was auctioning his valuable art collection giving the proceeds to his catamite-secretary Alan Searle, instead of to his daughter, Lady Jane  Hope, whose mother was called Syrie. Both were close friends of Mackenzie.

“Willie?” Mackenzie shouted. “He wrote about medical students starving to death on £300 a year in the 1890s but in those days it was a lot of money!” He glared at me, vodka-eyed. “He should never have married Syrie, poor  girl. Jane said to me the other day: ‘Uncle Compton, do you think Daddy’s going to disinherit me in favour of Alan Searle?’

“Terrible fellow,Willie!”

“I’ve only met him once,” I said, and couldn’t help adding: “I thought in a way he was quite charming.”

“What?” Mackenzie took a gulp of vodka and bellowed at me:

“Must have been one of his off-days!”

Luciano  May 2015

Luciano was a smiling man, with big round shoulders and a brown shining skin free of any sartorial encumbrance save for a royal purple tabard concealing his priapic endowments. His left hand caressed the rim of the steering wheel of the 450 horse power boat he and half a dozen passengers were about to take across the lagoon fronting the island of Bora Bora, in French Polynesia. In his left hand, he held a huge conch shell.

“When I blow this, you will know I am about to increase speed,” he announced. “That is when you hang on very tight.”

I looked along the boat. She was not much wider than a racing scull, and had nothing to hold on to, except the person sitting next to you. The sides of the boat were not embellished by anything in the way of a guard rail, and there were no lifebelts or jackets.

Raising the conch to his lips, Luciano blew a blast loud enough to have summoned the Children of Israel to take their chances on a dash through the Red Sea before its waters came together. At the same time, he slammed the throttle levers forward and the boat, which he had told us had no keel and a draft of only 4.5 centimetres because the lagoon was so shallow, flung itself towards a tourist launch with an exciting touch  of centrifugal gravity which Luciano controlled in the nick of time by cutting our speed.

We passed a collection of buildings which were going to be part of a new Hilton Hotel, and after a further half hour or so tied up at a jetty belonging to a one-time Hollywood destination called Bloody Mary’s, where leading movie thespians came to avoid the world and get whistled in peace.

We were scheduled three days later to visit Pitcairn Island, two square miles of gloom and three centuries of incest might be one way of describing it. The weather was too bad for us to go ashore, so we anchored off that part of Pitcairn where Fletcher Christian used to climb to the same cave every morning to check for sails.

This was not to try to spot a rescue ship, but to guard against an Admiralty vessel sent to arrest Fletcher and his fellow mutineers and take them back to England for trial and probable hanging.

Two longboats were in a boathouse near the only cove which offered a chance of landing or leaving. However there are now only 47 inhabitants, and as handling a longboat requires several men of considerable strength to fight the waves and get the boat through a small gap in the rocks to the open sea, it s unlikely, one would have thought, that Pitcairn Island will be inhabited much longer. New inhabitants are being sought through advertising, but looking at the place one would imagine that attracting  any would be equally unlikely.

Halfway between New Zealand and Chile, in other words 5000 miles from each, Pitcairn is still a British dependency. For the few islanders still meeting at Pitcairn’s post office in the morning for a gossip, it seems that the best they can do for themselves is to emulate Captains Cook and Bligh, and later the ardent Gauguin, and  head for the joys of Tahiti.

If they can launch the long boats while anyone still has the strength.

A Secret Mating  March 2015

The signal from Buckingham Palace was succinct, if not stark. ‘HRH Prince Philip will be visiting Morocco unofficially next month in order to study the mating habits of the Sacred Ibis. You will please ensure that no publicity whatsoever attends the visit, and that King Hassan is in no way involved’.

Our Man in Morocco, William Richmond, was an old friend of mine, and had invited me to stay with him for a few days at the British Embassy in Rabat. The signal arrived the day after me.

“How on earth am I expected to keep HRH’s visit secret from Hassan? He’d be so livid if he found out that I would probably be declared persona non grata and kicked out of the country immediately.” William took a comforting sip of whisky from a heavy crystal glass.

“It seems to me that you should pass the buck to the Foreign Secretary.”

“That would probably involve the Prime Minister. I think I’d rather face HRH than Mrs.Thatcher.”

“Couldn’t you just ask the King to keep quiet about Philip’s visit?”

“ Keep quiet? Hassan doesn’t ‘do’ keep quiet; he’s a showman. He told me once he wished he could still execute people by having them fed publicly to the lions. Besides, he wouldn’t actually want to help Philip do anything because Philip’s never forgiven him for keeping the Queen waiting for their meeting, if you remember. There was a fearful row and somebody threw a glass like this”—he held up his Scotch—“at somebody else. It was somehow hushed up. Oh God,” he sighed, “sometimes it’s such hell being an ambassador. Why can’t the bloody Sacred Ibis mate somewhere else? I believe they’re still found in Turkey as well as here.”

He brightened. “I’ll have a word with Haroun el Glaoui, the King’s private secretary. He’s by way of being a friend of mine, and he has a reasonably agile mind. Perhaps he can think of a solution.”

“I thought the el Glaouis were exiled back in the 50s for conspiring with the French against the Sultan. Didn’t Pasha el Glaoui turn up at a Swiss hotel with three hundred wives?”

“That was a different branch of the family. I’ll telephone Haroun for an appointment straight away.”

That evening William came back to the Embassy from his meeting looking disconsolate. “El Glaoui told me that if he kept HRH’s visit from the king, he could be executed for treason.”

“When is Philip arriving?”

“Next week. I don’t need a seer to tell me it’s going to be a disaster.”

He told me what happened a few weeks later, when he was on leave in London.

“El Glaoui told the King about HRH’s visit, so at least he was aware of it. Of course, he wasn’t going to miss the chance for a dress parade.

“I had to get up at five a.m. to go to a small military air base just inside the Sahara, which had been used by the Royal Moroccan Air Force to fight the Polisario rebels.

“The three Range Rovers demanded by Philip were matched by nine Mercedes Benz 600 limousines whose attendance was ordered by the King. There was a guard of honour in full regalia, and as the Andover of the Queen’s Flight made its approach run, one of the guard raised his rifle thinking it was hostile, which given HRH’s fury at the welcoming assembly laid out for him was probably accurate.

El Glaoui went as white as I’ve ever seen a Moroccan manage to go, but on reflection the guard with the rifle decided not to fire and to stand easy till the order came to present arms.

“HRH was mollified slightly by the fact that the limousines were up to their axles in sand and couldn’t move, and I was roped in as a baggage handler to help with the cameras and cans of film. Philip wouldn’t even look at the guard of honour, and of course I was blamed for disobeying the signal about privacy.

“The wretched birds he’d come to see—their scientific name is apparently threskiornis aethiopicus—were living in an oasis which contained a small fort armed with an ancient  7lb  Krupp belly- boomer, which is apparently the only one in the country. I think it was manhandled there from German West Africa after the Great War, and it’s regarded in Morocco as a national treasure.

“Once more HRH ignored the soldiers lined up to welcome him, because he was keen to get some shots of the birds roosting in the trees or doing a spot of fishing in the water. He’d got a wild life cameraman with him for good measure, but just as they were ready to start shooting, the commander of the fort decided to honour HRH with a salute from the cannon.

“There was a fearful roar and if they’d been gifted with human speech the ibises would have forgotten about being sacred and become as profane as HRH.  As it was they rocketed out of the oasis and screamed hysterically up and down over the desert.

I was standing wrapped in cameras from head to foot, so HRH couldn’t blame me for the cannon going off, and as he was technically a guest in a foreign country he could hardly create hell because he’d been given  a salute. All he could do was to climb into one of the Range Rovers and shout himself hoarse with the windows closed.

“It was late at night when threskiornis aethiopicus  finally came back to roost in the palm  trees. Next day I was deputed to have a word with the fort commander and make sure the cannon wasn’t loaded. Then we picnicked on chicken, and wondered if it tasted like ibis. I don’t know how near extinction they are, but if HRH had stayed a few days longer, I would probably have joined them.”

Surbiton MI5  February 2015

I spent my married life in Surbiton, a long time ago and not far from the site used in the TV series The Good Life. Surbiton was a pleasant place to live, and the express trains stopped there rather than at Kingston upon Thames because Surbiton was where the directors of the Southern Railway lived. We had a garden with a terrace, on which it was ideal to drink Bacardi and lime whenever there happened to be a hot summer’s day, with a copse at the bottom of the garden and a profusion of bamboo that frustrated my wife in her attempt to locate tomato plants in the same place. By and large, I would back a bamboo to beat a tomato plant when it came to fighting for Lebensraum against a sunny space in front of a wall, but she tried hard to change the natural order of things.

The drive in front of our garage was a steeply inclined, poorly macadamed ramp, which tended to melt in summer and freeze in winter. Brake over-zealously, and the car would slide down the ramp and crack the garage’s wooden doors. It happened that I met a one-eyed Spaniard in a local pub. He wore a greasy bandana and had skin that shone with patches of tar, giving the impression that he had just had a run-in with Sir Henry Morgan on the Spanish Main. He was in fact the head navvy, or road engineer, for Kingston Council. Inevitably, he was called José.

“I’ve just met someone who’ll repair our driveway for twenty quid,” I told my wife, who had an obsession about ‘the neighbours’, which shot past ordinary privacy into the far realms of secrecy. “He’s coming early Friday morning.”

“Well, don’t tell the neighbours. You never keep anything to yourself.”

“What on earth’s wrong with telling the neighbours?”

“Well, if you do, everyone will jump on the bandwagon and try to get their driveways repaired on the cheap and then the Council will stop it.”

“Why should any of the neighbours want cheap repairs to their driveways? We’re the only people who have a potholed surface and cracked garage doors.”

“Why do you always have to argue? Just try to keep quiet for once, instead of broadcasting everything round the neighbourhood.”

I avenged myself by picking and eating the only tomato to have survived until it was almost ripe.

Friday morning was hospitable to nature. The sun shone. Birds sang and cats prowled, but not with any particular intent. Some way down the garden, a bamboo was sunning itself where the tomato had been.

“What on earth is that noise, Walter?”

I listened. Something that sounded like a mob was coming along the street, accompanied by a rhythmic thudding. We went into the street. A procession of small children and a few adults was skipping along the tree-lined pavement, alongside a huge sky-blue steamroller adorned with glittering gold letters. ‘Kingston upon Thames Council’ they proclaimed. High up on the steamroller’s seat José sat waving ardently at the steamroller’s admirers, his bandana dangling racily near the rapidly-rotating fly wheel.

“You’re right,” I said turning to my wife. “If I’d been more discreet, the neighbours would never have known. I’ll go and take some lessons in security from MI5.”

She gave me a look that would have pulverised a rock but said nothing more. Surbiton’s MI5 was temporarily out of business.

The Advantages Of Being An Artefact  January 2015

New Year often makes you feel differently about things. With a general election moving remorselessly towards us, seemingly forever, how pleasant it would be to change into an egg – preferably a rotten one – to be flung at a politician. How much more satisfactory it would be to explode over Ed Balls’ jacket, for example, than merely leave the ballot paper alongside his name blank.

Cameron should be changed into a wind farm, although in spite of the House of Commons’ capacity for generating wind, I doubt whether he would produce any more watts than the real thing.

What a delight to be valuable, a Queen Anne commode, for example. A human being grows old and with age loses intrinsic value; when dust returns to dust and ashes to ashes, even as fertiliser we’re hardly worth a penny a sack, whereas an antique can confront the auctioneer’s gavel with its value surging each time it appears.

There are delights and compensations in comparatively unblemished survival, however. If our minds hold out we can speak them, and if our organs continue to work we can still be confident that our appetites will continue to be satisfied.

Such pleasures are not, one might say, handed to a Meissen dinner service on a plate.

To grow old safely is to become an astronaut of history, taking a view only given to those who survey their past from the excitement of antiquity. There used to be a phrase in the small print of life assurance policies that read: ‘any descent from an aircraft in flight shall be deemed to be part of such flight’. I was never quite sure what it meant.

Evidently, it was an occurrence that required a certain degree of detachment, another gift of old age.

A hermit can populate his cave with goats, or with angels. The bleating of kids or the choir of cherubims may vie for his attention, but it is to them he will turn for comfort, and trust to be convinced that he is leading a full life. The vocations of most of us have lain in earthier directions; as someone in one of my novels says, “we are all ideas in a dirty mind.”

2015 is at present an unexplored desert whose oases are not known to us. We may find they exist, or be disillusioned as our aspirations encounter only mirages.

To one ancient and fulfilled, there is understanding that each year lives and dies, and lives again, “the year is dead, long live the year!” To many, 2015 will be desperately important, and I would be a hypocrite if I pretended that my astronaut status placed me beyond involvement in so many destinies including of course those of my grandchildren; there is a limit even to the detachment of old age.

There is also perhaps a slight wistfulness that one day my participation will have to end, whereas in other circumstances I might have achieved an ever-increasing glory in the salesroom at Sotheby’s.