Tripoli‘We have some civilian martyrs for you,’ said the Libyan government minder, with the triumphant look of a Soviet housewife who has just found a bottle of Scotch in the state-controlled supermarket. He pulled aside a blanket to reveal a charred, twisted corpse, blackened arms fixed stiffly upwards, skin seared away to reveal the tendons.It was the kind of thing that stays in the memory — but mainly because that body, and another one next to it, were the first two that any western reporter in Tripoli had seen in weeks.
Writing a James Bond novel? What could possibly be simpler? Surely all one needs is an arch, semi-meaningless title — something like ‘Never Kiss Death Goodbye’ — then a villain with a camply sinister name, a heroine with an even camper double-entendre for a name, a seasoning of sadism and you are away.But it’s not that easy at all. If it is, then why have the writers who picked up Ian Fleming’s mantle got it so wrong? Even the class acts who have come closest to nailing the authentic 007 style — Kingsley Amis, John Pearson and Sebastian Faulks — have missed something small but crucial, as I shall explain.
It is a matter of great comfort to me, as a football fan, that all the allegations made against the various Fifa delegates have been shown to be utter fabrications. I had been a little worried. We know now, though, that they are utter fabrications because the boss of Fifa, Sepp Blatter, a man of unimpeachable honesty and integrity, has said they are — and that’s good enough for me. It had been alleged that one Fifa delegate, the Paraguyan-born Nicolas Leoz, had demanded a knighthood in return for supporting England’s bid to host the 2018 World Cup.
If you had to think of one city on earth where the rulers should not try to impose a standard of ‘good behaviour’, it would surely be New York. Who in their right mind would seek to sanitise this concrete jungle, to sedate the city that never sleeps, to demand conformism and obedience from the inhabitants of a place which, in the words of a popular tourist T-shirt, is known as ‘New York F**kin’ City’?You’d be surprised.
There aren’t many things on which John Humphrys is undecided, but one of them shows itself nearly every time he presents the Today programme. It’s a trait shared by many broadcasters, and indeed people from all walks of life, and constitutes one of the great social barometers of our time. It’s the inability to decide whether your ‘a’s should be long or short.If your upbringing conditions you to pronounce ‘grass’ to rhyme with ‘ass’ rather than ‘arse’ — if, in short, you’re a non-posh non-Southerner — there is a temptation, on moving to London, to lengthen your ‘a’s in order to fit in.
I once became obsessed with a huge boil on the back of General Mladic’s neck. We were in Pale — the Bosnian Serb ski-resort turned capital — at a meeting of their parliament, in the summer of ’94. I was there as the Balkans correspondent of the Observer and had, by that time, met Ratko Mladic several times. He was holding court, surrounded by henchmen, at the centre of the awestruck MPs; a menacing, enormous man with bulging arms and shoulders, like an inflatable killing doll.
In 1951, Winston Churchill, then leader of the opposition and aged 77, scored a humiliating Commons victory over the new chancellor of the exchequer, Hugh Gaitskell. Not for nothing did Aneurin Bevan call Gaitskell ‘a desiccated calculating machine’. His dry Wykehamist tone made his financial statements seem interminable, and this one soon had the House restless. Churchill made a diversion. He began to search his pockets.