High life | 4 December 2010

Taki lives the High Life

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The irony is such that the word itself loses meaning. The ultimate Afghan conman, an oxymoron if ever there was one, is someone Hollywood couldn’t make up. A catch-him-if-you-can type of script wouldn’t make it past the first rewrite. Even ‘based on a true story’ wouldn’t help. If it weren’t for the dead and maimed for life, I’d be laughing my pants off. Just as funny was the timing, at least from my point of view.

I’d gone up to Connecticut to spend the weekend with Graydon and Anna Carter, he being the supremo of Vanity Fair. Once there, I was given a Robert Harris book, Selling Hitler, about the conman who convinced everyone but David Irving that the Hitler private diaries were for real. That particular fiasco saw a hell of a lot of self-important people end up with lotsa egg on their faces.

Typically, it began on April Fool’s Day, 1983, when the distinguished historian Hugh Trevor-Roper, by then Lord Dacre, was telephoned by the London Times, told of the greatest historical discovery ever and asked to fly to Switzerland to inspect them. They were in a bank vault and being guarded like Fort Knox. We all know the rest. Trevor-Roper fell for the con, as did everyone else involved, meaning Rupert Murdoch, Newsweek, Stern magazine and most journalists with the exception of David Irving. In fact, Irving was denounced as an historian without merit during numerous press conferences, until even he, towards the end, began to waver and doubt his original pronouncement that the diaries were as fake as Clifford Irving’s (no relation) fake diaries of Howard Hughes had been 11 years earlier.

Again, the irony of it all, as far as I’m concerned. I remember a top Newsweek editor telling me in Athens that Newsweek does not buy fake stories when I said to him that Clifford Irving was a conman. What did the poor little Greek boy know back then? Absolutely nothing, but even that long ago I may have been wild but I always had common sense. Why would Howard Hughes pick a third-rater like Clifford Irving to write his authorised biography? It didn’t make sense then, and the fact that Hitler’s diaries suddenly appeared as if by a puff of the magic dragon didn’t make sense 11 years later. Even at first glance, everything looked wrong. The paper, the ink and the signatures. And they were dull, too dull even for the Führer. But the hacks were hungry, and they willed them to be true. This is why we have arguments in sport. In tennis, for example, a player and his supporters will a ball in, and his opponent and his fans will it out, and see it the way they want it. It’s happened to me thousands of times.

But back to the Afghan impostor. So desperate are the Americans to find a way out that they trusted some peasant that the Brits had spent a year developing, a soi-disant top Taleban commander empowered to speak for them and to negotiate. To their credit, the CIA was sceptical, but cleverer people such as General Petraeus prevailed. The smelly cleric with goat shit all over him and as illiterate as they come was welcomed into the inner sanctum, flown by private jet to meet the other conman, president Karzai, and you know the rest. Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, the impostor, was unknown to the Taleban except for his very smelly feet, if that. Talk about lotsa egg on faces; this guy makes Trevor-Roper look like Sherlock Holmes.

During the Congress of Vienna, where people knew each other from correspondence or portraits, a fake would have been discovered almost immediately. Talleyrand and Metternich were no fools, nor were their flunkies, versed in diplomatic language and manners. In Afghanistan, smelly feet and illiteracy are the sine qua non of the enemy. Any swindler who has not taken a bath in months can be taken for a Taleban leader. The situation is so bizarre that the path of least resistance lies in Munchausen-like tales and fantasies. Nothing is for real except death, illiteracy and foul smells. Go figure, as they say you know where.

In fact, I am starting to doubt that my friend Harry Laden is the Osama Bin Laden who was made a member of White’s and so generously bought drinks for everyone at the bar for so long. Or that President Ahmadinejad of Iran is who he says he is. He could be an Israeli impostor by the name of Moshe Gilad, a preposterous conman who once pretended to be a bearded lady in a circus and, better yet, passed as Irene Papas, the Greek actress, in a Hollywood première. Just the things he says, about driving the Israelis into the Med, are enough to raise my suspicions. What better friend could the Israelis have in order to extract even more billions and F35s from the Americans than Gilad playing Ahmadinejad?

Just as Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction turned out to be duds, so I’m afraid the 80 billion greenbacks spent every year on intelligence by Uncle Sam could turn out to be an illusion. Perhaps all the moolah goes straight into the coffers of Goldman Sachs, recycled, washed and into the pockets of Lloyd Blankfein, who might not be Blankfein, after all. I wouldn’t put it past him to be Mansour, all shaven head and washed and wearing a Western suit. Stranger things have happened, such as the fiasco back in Afghanistan, where Lloyd Blankfein posed as a Taleban leader and got away with it.