Friday, 29 June 2007

Tony Blair: a personal reflection on his downfall

My blogs of late have been rather theoretical, related to the fact that I have been preoccupied with finishing The Infinite Day which, God willing, I look as though I’m going to do by the deadline of end July.

As I have commented before in these pages, the problem with writing fiction is that fantasy is often a pale shadow of reality. There could be no greater evidence of this sad truth than the fact that our former prime minister, who must be held in large measure responsible for the bloody fiasco of Iraq, is now some sort of envoy to the Middle East. Anyway, I thought I would brighten things up by telling a true and Blair-related story about how for, the briefest of periods, I worked for the Syrian secret police.

While running a geology field trip for some Americans through the Middle East in 2001, I left Lebanon at one of the more obscure border checkpoints with Syria. Despite its rather agricultural status it had nevertheless more than its fair share of men in military uniform. It fell to me as a partial Arabic speaker to take all the passports and try and get them stamped. They were dutifully taken but some ten minutes later it was obvious that processing them was extremely slow. The problem was plain; the secret policeman (actually, he wasn’t very secret) was inputting the names into the computer but obviously had no real knowledge of a QWERTY keyboard, or I suspect, any language other than Arabic. With the benign lunacy that comes over me at such points in life I asked him if he’d like me to do the typing. I was expecting a brush off but instead he was profoundly grateful.

So within moments, I found myself seated at a terminal whose wires no doubt ended up somewhere in the datafiles of the Syrian secret service. (Actually, that is an oversimplification: there are eight known branches of the Syrian secret service and a presumed ninth branch to watch over the other eight.) Now if my name was Bruce Willis or Matt Damon, I would tell you how I instantly got to the root directory and locked down the entire missile system. Instead, I simply and dutifully (but see footnote) keyed in the passport names. Very soon, I was surrounded by an admiring branch of men in somewhat disreputable camouflage who clearly thought this was wonderful and plainly wanted a foreigner of their own to do their typing. The conversation turned, as it inevitably does when bored secret policeman find themselves in possession of a non-local, to politics. ‘What,’ I was asked, ‘did I think of Blair and Bush?’

You will of course realise that I had now got myself into a difficult position. Conducting political debate in one’s native tongue is hard enough but in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by people who, however apparently charming as individuals, have a professional reputation for sticking sharp objects into orifices, is tricky indeed. One slight mispronunciation of an obscure Arabic verb could mean you have insulted the Syrian president and are going to be eating sand for the rest of your truncated lifespan.

However, seized with an adrenaline-induced inspiration, I grabbed a piece of paper and drew a stick man with a stick dog on a lead. ‘This,’ I said, rising to my feet with the air of a man who has a car to catch, ‘is Bush, and this is Blair.’ And amid universal hilarity and the pinning of the paper on the notice board (where for all I know, it still is), I left with the shaking of hands and expressions of universal and probably genuine goodwill.

And incidentally (here's the footnote) those of you who are concerned about such things may be interested to know that either due to my cunning or my poor typing ability not a single name ended up in the computer without being misspelt. For all I know Syrian intelligence is still looking for a Doctor Chris Malley who entered its territory six years ago and has not yet apparently left.

Good luck guys. With Blair around you’ll need it.