Friday, August 05, 2005

How To Blow Up The US Embassy

Brunch yesterday morning at 202 with George (his real name, not that it'll do you any good), who I notice has taken recently to describing me as an 'old flame', which is revisionism of the most energetic variety. Oh well: these days, it's hard to begrudge anybody their fantasies or evasions, at least the harmless ones.

For the food, I regret to say Ms Farhi has a lot to answer for. It is, to my mind, hardly on to advertise 'fried green tomatoes' and then deliver something the pillarbox hue of which, concealed in its cornmeal crust, you presumably hope will go unnoticed. More sinisterly, but at least intriguingly, when George, perhaps out of some misdirected impulse to impress, ordered the tuna burger, the young waitress informed us said burger had been taken off the menu 'until further notice'. How grand! What form this notice will, in the fulness of time, take, went unstated. A full-page advertisement in The Times, perhaps.

Fried green tomatoes, or at least those promissory words, are a big deal for me these days, but less so for George, as he was a little too keen to tell me. In fact he had recently been treated to lunch, by wallet, or perhaps purse, ostentatiously unspecified, at Le Gavroche, no less. Of course, I was able to squeeze in the news, which comes directly from Alex Who Does For Me, and is God's honest truth, sharing as they once did a gym, that the Marathon Chef goes commando, which discombobulated George more, and perked him up less, than I'd anticipated; frankly, I'd have thought, the number of layers between Petit Roux and your Omelette Rothschild are less important than the fact of such layers per se, and even in their wholesale absence any risk posed is not so much to you as to the eventual takeover of the lease by the third generation. But I digress.

The point of this story, inasmuch as I have one, is that George, wandering out of the restaurant rather sozzled in the mid-to-late afternoon, and emerging, as one does, bang outside (perhaps that should under the circumstances read 'right outside') the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square, had encountered a couple of the policemen that now guard the place giving directions to a tourist. Now, it may well be that Ms Octopus has an international readership who are not familiar with the recent and not-so-recent changes that square has undergone: I remember fondly the days, as you will not, when the embassy building's optimistic glass had not yet been obscured with protective cladding, and indeed, in the days of the great modernist Hiltons, before all that silliness in Southeast Asia initiated the great country's slide, among certain factions, into gross unpopularity, even attended a couple of free jazz concerts there. But if the once-encouraged public access to the building was eliminated from the ’60s, such changes were trivial compared to what happened in late 2001. Looking at Grosvenor Square today, it's almost as if the Americans are trying to acclimatise themselves to Baghdad by recreating it outside their London staging post: concrete barriers, of the same kind that now protect our parliamentary members from Otis Ferry and his whinnying crowd, line the park in old Eisenhowerplatz, and are yet one more disincentive to trying to park near Selfridges (the incentives for which, forgive me for saying, continue to diminish. These places are meant to be forbidding. That is why they used to be, for those of us who were comfortable entering, such oases); residents of prissy little Blackburne's Mews, running behind the great building, are ahead of the rest of us with their already-compulsory identity cards, which they must produce at the miniature Checkpoint Charlies at both ends of their street when they pop out for a pint of milk; and the local bobbies have for some time been carrying the most ferociously unpleasant-looking guns, great black tubes on a scale beyond the capacity, I would imagine, of even hungry little Alex Who Does to incorporate, and which are probably capable of shooting down the next hijacked Ryanair flight from Stockholm.

The point of George's story was that these very officers, PC Plod gone Rambo, had been engaging most, I suppose, engagingly with the misplaced tourist, and trying, with evidently limited success, to help him locate Upper Brook Street in an A-to-Z. I pronounced myself rather pleased by this vision, which seemed to me tremendously if obscurely reassuring, but George was more dismissive, particularly given that Upper Brook Street was the extension, merely a block over, of the very road on which they were stationed. Surely, he insisted, they should have known where they were. What, he demanded, would they have done had the urgent announcement suspect vehicle on Upper Brook Street come crackling over their walkie-talkies?

He had a point, I suppose, but as usual with George the point of this anecdote was less its tenuous interest -- believe me, I know -- and more, rather too obviously, the reassertion of his alleged professional life, which has receded even further over the visible horizon than his hairline, in the world of security. I have never given much credit to the more august of his claims in this respect, George's lavender tendency having remained, despite all his contorted misdirection, rather sweetly overapparent since university, and his desperate need for comfort having been, for just as long, so palpable that it would have been clear even to the most bluffly imperceptive recruiting officer quite how immediate would be George's surrender, in the sympathetic company of not only a young and broad-shouldered Soviet, but probably even an aged and podgy one, of any and all state secrets that had been entrusted to him.

My own assumption, if you are curious, is that George did play some kind of supporting role in the great drama of our secret state, but that it was an administrative one, and even at the late stage of his career did not score particularly well on the great security-clearance pole-vault. Now that career is as permanently behind him as the slight but growing hunch about his shoulders, but like the rest of us, he has plenty of time for retrospection, and so it is understandable that, keen to walk off his stupor of grenadin de veau aux morilles, he wandered round the square in the mental drag of an active intelligence officer. And here, so he related, he became somewhat excited, because the conviction slowly gripped him that a tremendous oversight had been made by those charged with protecting our American cousins. Now, if you and I were gossiping over puds in the Fifth Floor restaurant, I would relate quite happily the details of George's theory: I don't, after all, believe the poor chap really knows what he's talking about, and while even I will concede the Americans seem to be ballsing things up a bit at the moment, I'm sure they are giving it their all, considering the frightful eyesore they are prepared to make of that lovely square, as far as such prophylaxis is concerned. But this friendship of ours is virtual in more than one respect: I am sure Ocky's friends are a lovely bunch, but how can I be sure that I am not unwittingly dropped in on, say, by one of the minions of the unpleasant Mr al-Zawahri, who popped up on our screens yesterday with more of his finger-waving hectoring?

(Those of us who fell prey, in our middle years, to a passing obsession with the Nouvelle Vague, will have noticed a peculiar thing about this latest transmission -- not that Mr al-Zawahri looks not unlike Ronnie Barker in a stick-on beard, which he does, but that whatever you learn in CIA or al-Qaeda training camps, it does not, apparently, include learning to focus a video camera. It is the gun propped up behind him that is sharply-defined, not the crabby Egyptian, who is dressed, by the way, to fit right in with Selfridges' Autumn/Winter Black and White promotion, but appears nevertheless in a terrible blur. But then he is in the centre of the screen, which is where today's cameras are taught to auto-focus: so the possibility arises that far from an oversight, this is a deliberate aesthetic choice on the part of the film-maker, and if so, the question follows, to what end? I don't, I must tell you, have a good answer to that. I toyed momentarily with the hypothesis that it was somehow meant to impair the intercession of whatever artful CIA algorithms are now crawling all over the image, but if he wanted not to be recognisable he'd have stayed off-screen; I considered too the possible agency of simple vanity, the soft focus doing for the ageing grouch's skin what it used to do for movie post-starlets before digital smoothing took over, but if that was a concern he would have gone for a more flattering angle than the veritable belly-level to which we are relegated. Or maybe it is a mistake to look for an explanation in the effect on al-Zawahri alone, and we should rather consider the intention behind the mise-en-scène entire: the director may be drawing our attention to the gun even as we listen to the translator's inevitable voiceover, either because it is a neat symbol for violence, or because it says this is what is constant: our leaders may change but our methods will not. Or maybe the camera just found nothing to focus on in the white expanse of tunic and went for an easier option instead. But once again I digress.)

In any case, George became quite worked-up over the course of relating to me his apparent insight, and went straight off after brunch, in a taxi, no less, to compose an email to various authorities, on which he copied me, and which was copiously illustrated, the following being but one of many attachments.

Poor George! And yet is the unvarnished desire for human contact, for someone simply to listen, so evident in his excited little missive, any different from whatever illusions I myself am sustaining as I bash out this now embarrassingly overlong circular to persons of whose existence, apart from the delectable Harry's, I can hardly claim certainty?

But perhaps I am grown too cynical. Perhaps there are thousands of you out there eager to share in the little ups and downs of my day; perhaps, even, George's urgent memorandum will not be peremptorily deleted by a spotty functionary, but make its way up some serious and secretive command tree and result in refinements to security arrangements that may in their turn prevent or discourage all kinds of unwelcome nastiness on the very door of the enchanting Gavroche. Perhaps the noisome little yahoo to whom all the people George has busied away several of his precious remaining hours for eventually report will stop using the unlovely Mr al-Zawahri's idiosyncratically-video'd harangue as an excuse for the dizzying and apparently impromptu sophistry that this all goes to show that Iraq is -- note he did not say was -- a part of the war on terror (a war I believed had been dropped in favour of global struggle, but has now come back, not unlike the phenomenon which eventually led to my presence on this blog), and go and do something useful instead, like jump off a bridge. After all, as young people like Ocky and Harry keep showing us, there's something rather beautiful about optimism, in the end.

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