Trevor McDonald

Trevor McDonaldThere’s an impostor in Sir Trevor McDonald’s office at the ITN studios on the Gray’s Inn Road. With his big square specs, short wiry mat of silver hair and slow-breaking, granite smile, he certainly looks like Sir Trevor. But this stranger lacks the calm authority of the newscaster who has presented News at Ten – with one notable hiatus – since 1990. He stammers over certain words, he avoids eye contact, he claims to be a shy, cautious and insecure man who is uneasy about being cast as a national institution. ‘All I do is read the bloody news,’ he says, tapping a pen against his fingers. ‘I know it’s a proper job but, really, people do make too much of it.’ He looks away. ‘I’ve always felt ambivalent about being recognised just for appearing on television. What I see in the mirror is different, I think, to how viewers see me. I don’t identify with that person. I’m not comfortable watching myself. Not my idea of fun.’
In some ways, the insecurity and self-effacement is perverse, because this man has always seemed to play the role of Trevor McDonald so magnificently – avuncular, poetry-quoting, cricket-loving Trinidadian; clubbable bon viveur who drinks good champagne, smokes fine cigars and addresses colleagues as ‘dear boy’. In other respects, Sir Trevor may be right to feel like an impostor. He is a gentle man at the top of a profession which is in thrall to aggressive men (Jeremy Paxman, John Humphrys). And the top is surely where he is: he’s been named Newscaster of the Year three times; he is, surveys consistently show, the newscaster most viewers recognise; and even a spokesman for the BBC, the arch-enemy, grudgingly admitted to me that Sir Trevor is probably the nation’s favourite newsreader (as well as the most highly paid, having reportedly signed a £2.5-million four-year deal with ITN). His own views on his combative profession are quaint, a reminder that, although he is only 61, he is very much a product of the pre-War school of journalism. ‘We are sometimes too aggressive,’ he says of television interviewers. ‘Politicians don’t get a chance to explain policy properly.’
He sits back in his chair, legs apart, his suit trousers riding up to reveal socks pulled well over his calves. ‘We assume we already know what the policy is and go straight into the attack.’ Although the shelves in his office bulge with volumes of poetry – ‘I wrote poetry as a child but I would never visit the crime of my own poetry on anyone now’ – the personal touches are limited to a novelty wine bottle on his desk (labelled ‘Old Git’); a couple of photographs of his handsome 13-year-old son, Jack, smiling in his school uniform; and, framed and hung on the wall, pictures of Sir Trevor in various guises: as chairman of the Better English Campaign; as a guest on Parkinson; as the subject of a poster celebrating the 30th anniversary of News at Ten. Scrawled on a yellow Post-It note stuck to his computer screen are last night’s viewing figures: ITV’s News at Ten, 6.1 million; BBC Ten O’clock News, 4.6 million.
There is weighty symbolism in this flimsy piece of paper. In March 1999 ITV axed News at Ten to make way for more films and drama. It certainly provoked drama. The channel lost a million viewers and, after much lobbying by politicians on both sides, as well as the threat of action by the Independent Television Commission, in January this year ITV was forced to restore News at Ten to its proper home. By which time, of course, the BBC had scheduled its Nine O’clock News an hour later. In the six months since they went head-to-head, the combined evening news audience for the two channels has – to the great surprise of media commentators – increased by two million.  But there is still ill will. ITN accuses the BBC of patronising its audience, and of being austere. The BBC, meanwhile, accuses News at Ten of dumbing down. Although Trevor McDonald no longer does the ‘And finally’ stories about, for instance, the rabbit who prevented burglars from raiding a pet shop, he does go in for rather a lot of matey, two-way interviews with reporters, which have become known in the industry as ‘Well, Trevors’. Trevor McDonald will cock his head slightly to the left and say, ‘Tell me, Julian. What is the situation in Baghdad?’ and Julian will answer, ‘Well, Trevor’ Trevor will then end with something along the lines of, ‘You take care now, Julian.’
The BBC has also accused ITV of dirty tactics in allowing the popular Who Wants to be a Millionaire? to overrun to 10.05pm, so that viewers miss the start of the BBC news and stick with ITV (except on Fridays, when News at Ten starts at 11pm). Its critics also point out that News at When? is usually on only three nights a week, and then for only around 17 minutes (compared to the BBC’s 32 minutes, five times a week). Alluding to the programme’s lightweight reputation, Rory Bremner has taken to calling it I Feel Like News at Ten Tonite. Trevor McDonald is too tactful to say that he finds the truncated version of the programme frustrating. ‘It’s not what it was, but I do think we are fortunate to have it back at ten o’clock. And it has been extended for the election coverage – for what it is worth, because I do think you can swamp people with too much politics. But we must remember, ITV is a commercial company. Would I like to do a longer programme? Of course I would. But I’m pretty chipper about the way things are going and I predict we will get more time. I appreciate the News at When? joke – a couple of months ago we were all over the place. But the shake-out is still going on: they know you can’t build up an audience having it one night here and one night there.’
Sir Trevor’s appeal as a newscaster is obvious: if we have to listen to bad news, it is somehow easier to accept it coming from him. He makes us feel a little safer in a volatile world. It’s to do with his kind face, his neutrality, and a voice as reassuringly familiar as the chimes of Big Ben. To what does he attribute his popularity? ‘Oh dear. I hate answering questions like this. I think it’s to do with believability. But if a young presenter asked me how he or she could become more believable to an audience I wouldn’t have a clue what to say. I’m glad people do think of me as believable, though, because there is a mortgage hanging on it.’ Trevor McDonald learnt his trade – and refined his spoken English – by sitting at home in Trinidad listening to the BBC World Service. He would imitate the precise delivery of Richard Dimbleby and the mellifluous cadences of John Arlott. He is hopelessly sentimental about the days of Empire, of notions of fair play and paternalism.
For this reason, he is as critical of politicians who try to intimidate broadcasters as he is of aggressive journalists. He recalls overhearing a telephone conversation in which Michael Heseltine attempted to bully the ITN news editor into withdrawing an item unfavourable to the Tory party. The editor stood his ground. ‘I felt proud of him for that. It tends to be the editors rather than the presenters who have to deal with that side of things.’ He smiles slowly. ‘Sadly, I’m out of the magic circle. I wasn’t even bullied by Peter Mandelson last time round! And I tend not to socialise with politicians, in order to remain neutral.’ Really? In 1996 Trevor McDonald was reproached by the Independent Television Commission for being too friendly – the Labour Party preferred the word ‘fawning’ – in an interview with John Major held in the sunlit garden of Number 10. ‘John and I were cricketing buddies long before he was Prime Minister,’ he explains with a sigh. ‘We argued more about the merits of the West Indies and England sides than about politics. It was a soft interview that was meant to run at the end of the programme, but for reasons beyond my control, it was put in at the beginning. It didn’t deserve that editorial prominence.’ Civil fellow that he is, Sir Trevor adds that he is not trying to blame anyone, it was just one of those quick judgement calls you have to make in a newsroom. It does still seem to rankle, though. His credibility as a journalist was compromised by it, and being credible is something he has fought hard for over the years.
He began his career on radio and television in Trinidad. His first boss there, Ken Gordon, a leading figure in the Caribbean media, described the young Trevor as ‘an uncomplaining, dependable team player who spoke in a clipped English accent despite never having been to the United Kingdom’. In 1970, to his great satisfaction, he was hired, aged 30, by the BBC World Service and came to work in London. He moved to ITN in 1973 and, aware that he was the station’s first black reporter, made it a condition of his employment that he was not to be ‘sent to Brixton to do token black stories’. Since then he has been a Northern Ireland correspondent, sports commentator and diplomatic editor. His scoops include the first interview with Nelson Mandela after he was released from prison, an interview with Saddam Hussein shortly after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, and a memorable profile of Colonel Gaddafi, in which he spent days chasing across the desert, trying to keep up with the erratic Libyan leader. While on assignment in Uganda, he was caught filming in the wrong place at the wrong time and was bundled off to prison by a posse of policemen. A passer-by, unaware of his predicament, stopped the car to ask whether he could have the broadcaster’s autograph. ‘I was happy to oblige in exchange for a promise that my admirer would kindly call my producer back at the hotel and alert the British High Commission in Kampala that I would not be back for cocktails.’ The anecdote is pure Evelyn Waugh.
It is mid-afternoon, and Sir Trevor is between meetings about the running order for tonight’s programme. He seems more relaxed and gossipy now, leaning forward and asking questions in a hushed voice about my newspaper colleagues (he writes a weekly poetry column for The Daily Telegraph), and going off on tangents about cricket. (He bowls offbreaks but doesn’t play as much as he would like to: ‘Cricket lasts a long time, and it is not conducive to domestic peace to go off on Sunday mornings with the ITN team.’) He lives in Richmond with his second wife, Josephine, a former production assistant at ITN, and their son, Jack. The couple married in 1986, after Sir Trevor divorced his first wife, Beryl, to whom he had been married for 20 years, and with whom he has two children, Tim and Jo, both now grown-up. He thinks his children from his first marriage suffered from the fact that he was always at work, ‘trying to find a place in an extremely competitive world’. He is endeavouring to make it up with his third child and always attends school events.
The eldest of three, Trevor McDonald had no such problems with his own parents, Lawson and Geraldine. His father was a self-taught engineer from Grenada who moved to Trinidad to work on an oil refinery. He supplemented his income by raising pigs and mending shoes. The family lived in a small house with cracks in the walls that were covered with newspaper. ‘We were peasant folk, really, no one did anything of note. I had the finest parents in the world, though. I had a jammy ride. We were all great mates. My wife never believes this because so few families are like that. But I do think without my parents’ influence we would have done very little [his brother, who lives in Canada, works in radio, and his sister is a lawyer in Trinidad]. I frequently wonder how much of my career is down to me and how much is down to them.’
At Naparima College, a state school, Trevor McDonald’s nickname was Big Eyes. ‘I was boring and stuffy,’ he recalls. ‘I tended to be bookish and serious.’ He would go to watch cricket matches but then lie down in the long grass on the boundary, burying his head in Dickens, Thackeray or Hazlitt. His mother would recite poetry at meal times. ‘I never had formal voice coaching,’ he recalls, ‘but my mother was a stickler for proper speech. It was all right for my parents to be sloppy, of course, but not their children! My mother had a very Christian view of life. Never speak ill of anyone, if you can’t say anything good about someone, say nothing.’ Although he doesn’t share his parents’ religious zeal, he does think some of their values have remained with him. ‘My morals are as bad as the next person’s, but I do think one should try to have standards in life. One should try to be kind, good and gracious. I tend to be strict with my own children. I’m much more authoritarian than my wife. I think children should work at school. I hope Jack enjoys school, too, but he is not going there just for enjoyment.’ The young Trevor McDonald would be reprimanded by his parents if he didn’t greet his neighbours cheerfully in the street. ‘I had a positive outlook and I don’t think it was just because of the sunshine. In the West Indies people did look out for each other. It sounds almost utopian to talk of it now, but there was a great sense of community. No one was turned away for lunch. There was always enough to go round, and it was a sort of expanded family system.’
How is he regarded there today? ‘News of what one does gets across there pretty quickly and is exaggerated wildly. They have absorbed that North American attitude towards success stories, they love them. People say, “I knew him! I used to see him on the way to school!”‘ Lawson McDonald, he adds, could be rather boastful on the subject of Trevor McDonald, television star. ‘When I went back home, he would stand on the verandah of our house with a glass of the duty-free whisky I had just come off the plane with, and he would signal to passers-by to come in and meet me. I would be horrified by this, terribly embarrassed, and I wish I could have been more gracious. I wish I had found a way of conquering my embarrassment for his sake.’
He thinks that his ancestors were given the surname McDonald by a Scottish plantation owner. ‘My children often get bored by my telling them about their ancestors in the Caribbean,’ he says. In his novel The Enigma of Arrival Sir Trevor’s fellow émigré and knight VS Naipaul wrote that his knowledge of England derived from childhood reading: ‘I had come to London as to a place I knew very well. I found a city that was strange and unknown…’ Trevor McDonald’s experience seems to have been similar, and his obvious affection for English traditions has led some in Britain’s Afro-Caribbean community to dub him ‘Uncle Tom’. When he accepted a knighthood two years ago (he had already been appointed OBE in 1992), his evolution as an establishment flunkey seemed complete. Plenty of broadcasters and journalists have accepted titles in the past – Sir Robin Day, Sir David Frost, Sir Peregrine Worsthorne – but unfortunately for Sir Trevor, he accepted his honour at the same time as the Channel 4 News presenter Jon Snow turned his down. ‘I was totally shocked when I was offered the knighthood,’ Sir Trevor recalls. ‘In fact, I was convinced it was a hoax and went two days without telling a soul. I had sympathy with the view that journalists shouldn’t accept honours. If you heard that the government in, say, Uganda had made a senior journalist Grand Order of Uganda you would be suspicious. So why did I accept it? Well, I thought, “This is a great honour for the West Indian community in this country.” I’m not pretending that I didn’t feel proud, too. I called my sister and told her my dilemma. She said, “Don’t even hesitate. You have to accept it.” I convinced myself – and I don’t need to convince Jon Snow – that this has not compromised my journalistic integrity. My great regret was that my father wasn’t around to see me receive it. He would have thought, “Wow, a son of mine has been given a knighthood in England.” I thought of this and said to myself, “Dammit, I’m going to accept it. It is a big leg-up for all those immigrant families who have made the transition. I get letters from people who say, for instance, “I hadn’t thought of a career in journalism until I heard of you.”‘
But if Sir Trevor has become something of a role model for Britain’s black population, he has resisted attempts to cast him as a spokesman on racial issues. ‘When I’m asked to do overtly political things, I have to decline. But I am approached to do talks at a lot of multi-ethnic schools and I usually accept. I remember when two lawyers came back to our school to give a talk, it made a very powerful impression on me. I can see them now. They wore glasses.’ When Trevor McDonald first tasted fame, Lenny Henry included him as a character in his comedy routine: Trevor McDoughnut. Later, Rory Bremner blacked up to impersonate him (Bremner still features McDonald in his routines but no longer feels the need to wear make-up). Gerald Kaufman once said, ‘McDonald’s supreme achievement is that, while everyone of course knows that is he is black, nobody notices the colour of his skin.’ I ask Sir Trevor what he makes of this. ‘I couldn’t have determined that public perception, but it does correspond to my own experience of the world. There are racial problems in the West Indies, but I don’t remember anyone’s colour ever being discussed aggressively in my house. Race simply didn’t matter.’
So when he came to this cold wet island two years after Enoch Powell made his speech about ‘the River Tiber foaming with much blood’, and at a time when flagrantly racist sitcoms were aired at prime time, didn’t he think he had arrived in a racist country? ‘At first I was surprised that it was made so much of. I could see there were tensions about race, but it took a while for me to understand the politics behind them. I remember before I left Trinidad meeting up with a friend from primary school who said he was going to London; I asked him how he had managed that, and he said, “They sent for me. I’m going to be a bus driver.” I’ve always felt differences over colour are terribly exaggerated. But then I’ve been lucky.’ Pause. ‘Actually, I have become much more aware of my colour lately. It’s probably because of the current debates on race and ethnicity. I think politicians have to be very careful about what they say on the subject of immigration and asylum seekers, as they might appeal to baser instincts which have no place in a progressive, civilised society.’
Stories about racism and brutality – such as the genocide in Rwanda – depress Sir Trevor profoundly. He cries easily over news stories that feature children of his son’s age, and he found it almost impossible to watch the news coverage of the Stephen Lawrence case. ‘Seeing the pain of his parents on television was almost too much to bear. But we have made great strides and, for better or worse, this society is now multi-racial. I think the people who have come here have done a great deal to enrich British society.’
What does he make of Norman Tebbit’s ‘cricket test’? He smiles. ‘I always cheer for the West Indies. But I have followed English cricket for so long, and I know people like Ian Botham, David Gower and Graham Gooch so well, I really glory in England’s success, too.’ Such an ugly question didn’t deserve such a dignified answer. But it seems typical of the man. He once walked out of Noel Edmond’s House Party in disgust when asked to read out a series of messages in regional slang. ‘I don’t do this kind of thing,’ he said. ‘I’m not a comedian.’ But he is good-humoured, in a guileless way. He is, moreover, an avoider of confrontation. ‘I’d never complain in a restaurant. Wouldn’t demand a refund; I find it undignified. I tend to bottle up anger. I think perhaps sometimes I can be a little too equable.’ He always needs to feel that he is in control of his emotions, he adds, which is why he has always steered clear of drugs. ‘Someone offered me a line of coke in America once, and I asked him what it would do. I was told it would keep me awake. Well that, I thought, is the last thing I need.’ He doesn’t always sleep well, it seems, and has occasional anxiety dreams that the bongs are beginning on News at Ten and he’s stuck in the back of a taxi, clawing at the seats.
It won’t be long now before the bongs are sounding for tonight’s programme. So – or should that be ‘And finally’ – what about that ‘tache? Is it just my imagination, or is it getting smaller? Sir Trevor grins and puts a hand on my shoulder. ‘I have taken to clipping it myself lately. This leads to battles with my hairdresser who says any clipping that needs to be done should be done by him.’ Tap papers on desk. Tilt head to one side. Goodnight.


Prince Moosa

Once upon a time, in a land far away, there lived a handsome young prince who wasn’t really a prince at all and, subjective though these things are, wasn’t really that young or handsome either. His people called him young and handsome because there existed in his country an ancient custom called ‘toadying shamelessly’. And they called him a prince because the heels of his shoes were encrusted with diamonds, his wardrobes contained 3,000 designer suits, his toothbrush was made of gold…
Fairytale is the only genre for the life and times of Dr Moosa Bin Shamsher, or Prince Moosa, as he is unofficially known; fairytale with a dark twist. For Dr Moosa, probably one of the richest men on the subcontinent, lives in one of the world’s poorest countries – Bangladesh. And he has made his one (or two) billion pounds (or dollars) mostly from trading in tanks, fighter planes, ICBMs – things that cause, as the euphemism goes, ‘significant collateral damage’.
Our story begins more than a year ago, when Dr Moosa approached The Telegraph through a Birmingham-based Irish intermediary who, in unilateral recognition of the knighthood bestowed upon him by the Catholic Order of St John, prefixes his name with the title ‘Sir’. Would we, asked the Irish knight, be interested in an interview with a Bangladeshi prince who in 1994 offered Tony Blair £5 million to help him win the general election (it was declined); who, in 1996, loaned his Gulfstream jet to Bob Dole to help him fight his (unsuccessful) campaign for the United States presidency; who was on such chummy terms with Boris Yeltsin that they chat regularly on the phone and send each other gifts? Rather.
A visit arranged for last spring was postponed because Dr Moosa’s 20-year-old daughter Nancy was marrying the first cousin of the Prime Minister of Bangladesh. The arrangements included covering Nancy – from head to foot, while lying down – in a dowry of gold and jewels. Dr Moosa’s private jet flew in flowers from Holland, olives from Greece, cheese from France, mineral water from Ireland. The Irish knight was sure I’d understand. He arranged another visit for December, when Dr Moosa was in (unsuccessful) negotiation to buy Luton Hoo, the Bedfordshire stately home, for £25 million. This trip fell through because Dr Moosa was ‘distracted by’ the Asian stock-market crash – in which, according to the Hong Kong financial press, he lost $270 million. And so, in the spring of this year, having resisted Dr Moosa’s entreaties to fly me out first-class and put me up in his palace for as long as I wanted, I arrived at Dhaka airport on Telegraph expenses – incorruptible, impartial, giddy with integrity…
Three armed bodyguards have been assigned to me. Intimidating in black suits and ties, they greet me with flowers and a gold-framed plaque welcoming ‘the Honourable Mr Nigel’ to their country. Before there is a chance to visit the bureau de change, the bodyguards chauffeur me to the Sheraton (where I discover I’ve been mysteriously upgraded to a luxury suite, at no extra charge), and press into my protesting hand a wad of crisp new taka – local currency, which I am to distribute among the poor should I have no need of it. They also introduce me to Saiful, the liveried butler provided for my convenience by Dr Moosa. The bodyguards stand in the corridor outside the door all night; every so often, to reassure myself I haven’t imagined it, I look through the peephole to check they are still there.
Next day, I am greeted outside Dr Moosa’s office in the diplomatic quarter of Dhaka by about 20 members of his staff. They are lined up along a red carpet, and as I walk along it half of them (prepossessing young women in green saris) place garlands of flowers around my neck, while the other half (self-conscious looking men in suits) shower me with marigold and jasmine petals. A video cameraman walks backwards to record my arrival and, once inside, he switches on a blindingly powerful tungsten light which enables him to carry on filming. His cables get everywhere, and everyone has to clamber over them, squinting and groping up the stairs. The confusion is compounded by the whine of metal detectors, set off by the handguns of my bodyguards.
Dr Moosa’s office is very James Bond baddie, circa 1974. There are 12 clocks on one wall, giving the times in a number of capitals. On the desk there is a bank of telephones of varying hues, denoting levels of urgency. On the wall behind the desk is a map of the world, with Dhaka, not Greenwich, at the centre. On the other walls are photographs of Prince Moosa, some with eminent figures – Dole, Forbes, Bush – others of him alone, apparently seated on a throne, with his chin held high. On a central table there are some autobiographies to browse – Lady Thatcher’s, Sir Edward Heath’s, Nelson Mandela’s, Sir David Frost’s – all with handwritten dedications to Prince Moosa. Mandela’s says: ‘To Prince Moosa. Best wishes to a wonderful friend. Mandela.’
Dr Moosa has not yet arrived – he’s on his way back from the Middle East – so I am greeted by Miss Dil Afronze, who has a degree in English literature and is director of the Datco Group, Dr Moosa’s umbrella company. Miss Afronze tells me how proud she feels to greet me, an eminent journalist from the famous London Telegraph, to her beloved motherland Bangladesh. She looks thoughtful for a moment, then adds that it is her esteemed chairman’s wish that I should enjoy my time in Dhaka and that, on his behalf, she would very much like me to know how eagerly she has been looking forward to my August visit. ‘Likewise I’m sure,’ doesn’t really seem an adequate response, so I waft the hand, as if to say, ‘Think nothing of it, old thing,’ then surreptitiously raise it to shield my eyes from the glare of the tungsten light. Filming continues for the next 15 minutes, as Miss Afronze and I exchange pleasantries. The temperature in the room rises with the heat from the portable floodlight, and the garlands begin to wilt and to weigh heavily around my neck.
Miss Afronze tells me she cannot believe how tall and handsome I am. I’m saying something along the lines of her seeming jolly nice too, when, craning over my floral neckbrace, I notice a brochure on the table next to me. It has pictures of tanks and missiles and American flags on its cover as well as a company name, Textron. When I ask Miss Afronze about it she smiles winningly and says that these are subjects about which I must ask Prince Moosa in person. She does tell me, though, that her esteemed chairman is the fountainhead of a vast business empire operating in more than 30 countries; that he runs most of his companies anonymously, and manages some of them from such off-shore tax havens as the Cayman Islands. Along with arms dealing, his main interests are in the construction industry, manpower services and the hotel trade. He bathes every day in rosewater, she adds, and owns 3,000 suits. ‘One can’t expect him twice to be seen in the same very apparel.’
Two hours pass before Dr Moosa arrives, in a cloud of expensive cologne, and embarks on a handshake that lasts a good half minute. In its dying moments he tells me how tall and handsome I am. Entering into the spirit of the thing, I return the compliment – although, as he has to look up quite a long way to meet my eye, I substitute ‘young’ for ‘tall’. He looks a dandy, though, in his finely tailored Italian suit and ruby rings. His belt buckle winks with clusters of diamonds. There are rubies and diamonds, too, on his gold Rolex, and when he notices me squinting as my retinas adjust to their brilliance he tells me that it is the most expensive watch in the world. That it cost $1 million.
He sits down on the tall chair behind his vast desk and invites me to sit opposite, on a low sofa, partially obscured by the fronds of a rubber plant. He doesn’t want to talk with the tape recorder on just yet – that can wait for a couple of days. But for an hour or so he chats amiably about his childhood, explaining in a soft, ponderous voice that he is a simple, modest, generous man from a humble background. It was his friend, the late, self-styled Prince Alexis II, claimant to the Russian throne and resident of Spain, who started calling him Prince Moosa, and when Boris Yeltsin joined in the name stuck.
Dr Moosa shows me an article in Nation Today, a Bangladeshi magazine, which claims that he is anyway descended from an Indian king and that DNA tests will one day prove it. With a serene smile and a shrug, he adds that he does not know where the story came from. After we’ve nibbled our way through a light lunch of what seem to be sausage rolls, he pops the latches on his crocodile skin briefcase and shows me the specially commissioned Mont Blanc pen he uses to sign his business deals. It is, he relates, solid gold, encased with 4,810 diamonds – the most expensive pen in the world.
In the evening I am invited to a banquet at Dr Moosa’s new ‘palace’ in the Gulshan district of the city. Called The Palace, this spacious white building nestles between the Russian and American embassies, and its gate is guarded by two aging soldiers with plumage in their caps. This time the gauntlet of greeting is formed by 20 or so dinner-jacketed servants, and the chap with the video camera is here, too. More garlands are proffered, more petals thrown. Dr Moosa, wearing a dinnerjacket, wing collar and a maroon-coloured ready-made bow tie with matching hankie, introduces me to Fatima, his wife of 22 years; Zubi, his ten-year-old son; and three friends – the editors of two local papers and the Irish knight from Birmingham, who would prefer not to be named in this article. They are the only other guests, but the dozen servants who stand silently with their backs to the walls give the impression that the function is well-attended.
There are about 15 fish and meat dishes of varied provenance. At one point, between courses, I assume some kind of postprandial game has begun as the Irish knight leaves and then returns to announce, for the benefit of the assembled company, that a General Vladimir is on the phone from Brussels. ‘Tell him I’ll ring him back later,’ says Dr Moosa with a theatrical wave of his bejewelled hand. Later, on a tour of The Palace, it transpires that Dr Moosa changes its interior design every six months or so. The silk Persian carpets are currently red, the lighting fluorescent, the paint on the walls a graduated canary yellow. There are two giant widescreen televisions along one wall. There is also a chandelier the size of a Ford Escort and, on the wall above the stairs, next to another row of 12 clocks, a gigantic gold-framed photograph of Dr Moosa, about 12ft by 18ft.
As we walk from room to room we keep coming across the two uniformed soldiers, the elder of whom shoulders his rifle and like Corporal Jones in Dad’s Army stamps to attention two seconds after the other one. Upstairs, there are indeed many suits – but not, even at a generous estimate, 3,000 of the blighters. There are dozens of bottles of rosewater around the bath, though. And in the bedroom – which I had read in the local press was 1,200 ft sq but is closer to 20 ft sq – are stacks of presentation boxes housing a footwear collection – by Gucci, Dior etc – that makes Imelda Marcos’s look amateurish. Normally, I am told, the more expensive examples are kept in a safe in Switzerland, along with Dr Moosa’s collection of 40 or so watches, but these shoes have been brought out for me to hold up to the fluorescent light, so I can appreciate the twinkling of the crushed diamonds in their heels and the chunky diamond pendants on their tongues. It is not clear where Mrs Moosa keeps her clothes. Or her shoes, come to that.
It is 11am, and a call is put through to my hotel room: someone who won’t give his name but insists that he and three of his colleagues have to meet me because there are things they think I should know about Dr Moosa. I agree to meet the caller by the swimming-pool in half an hour. He doesn’t show up. There is one more banquet to go, lunch this time, before Dr Moosa is prepared to sit and talk in earnest. At this, I am presented with more gifts: matching watches for my wife and me; matching silk folk costumes; two crates of oranges; a silver-plated salver with a dedication engraved on it from Prince Moosa to the Honourable Mr Nigel of the esteemed Telegraph; a trophy-like object with Prince Moosa’s image on it. As I have mentioned that my wife is just about to give birth, there is also a gold spoon for the baby. I consider mentioning my 17 nieces, nephews and godchildren.
I am told that giving presents to visitors is a custom in Bangladesh and that not to accept them is considered an insult. But with its shades of Asil Nadir and Mohamed Al Fayed, and the implication that a flattering profile is expected in return, it seems more appropriate to offer them to charity. Dr Moosa makes matters worse by saying that he has heard from ‘his media friends in London’ that I am an honourable man who cannot be bought. ‘I have made enquiries about you,’ he says. Instead of adding the expected ‘and I know where you live,’ he adds that he has declined repeated requests for interviews from CNN, the BBC, the Times and the Guardian, and has agreed to this one only because he has heard that I am ‘harmless’. I splutter into my coffee and ask him to elaborate. By ‘harmless’ he means that he is sure I want to write a balanced profile, rather than to cause him harm by conducting an investigation into his business interests.
To help me research my ‘balanced profile’ he shows me some articles that have already been written about him in the South-East Asian press. ‘I am in awe of Prince Moosa’s personage itself,’ one writer enthuses, ‘his unusual talent, his strength of mind, his hard labour, his patience, his humanitarian qualities, his taste, his versatility…’ Another says: ‘He is not only a tycoon, a billionaire, a philosopher, and a raconteur, but a masterful fashion setter of immaculate taste…’ Others refer to his ‘architectural body’, his ‘poetic prose’ and his ‘film star handsome face aglow with the beauty of his thoughts’.
As we head for the television hall I reach for my tape recorder – but Dr Moosa shakes his head and gives a pained expression. First we must watch his favourite programme, World-Wide Wrestling, on an American satellite channel. After this I ask about his arms dealing and he gives the pained expression again, looks imploringly at his wife and son sitting nearby, and says, ‘These things, Mr Nigel, I do not talk about in front of my family.’
And so we head off again through the dusty, overcrowded streets of Dhaka to his office, a mile or so away. We drive in his 4×4 which is, he points out, inevitably, the most expensive vehicle in the country. Here the international man of mystery does talk about ‘these things’, but in such a cryptic, elliptical way I’m never quite sure if we are talking about the same subject. He tells me, for instance, some fascinating stories about a certain Middle Eastern leader – but he says I am not to use them. He has, he explains, many enemies in Bangladesh, so he has to be careful. And he cannot let it be known which countries he does or does not do business with, because one might be the enemy of another and therefore take its trade elsewhere. He adds that the less he says, the longer he lives.
But he can elaborate on where his arms come from. ‘It depends on the customer. During tender, some specify the manufacture should be so-and-so country. It depends whether the countries have export or import licence.’ Asked if he has any qualms about making his fortune from arms trading he pulls a face, lips downturned, and runs a finger along his collar. ‘The question is whether your business is with legitimate government or with illegal people,’ he says. ‘Mine is all taxed. I have no conscience about this. If a government needs something and I am in a position to supply it officially, then I do. I do not dream of doing illegal arms dealing. Now it is much better than before. There are strict regulations. As long as civilisation is to exist, every country must have its defence system, its air force, army and navy.’
There is a Prince Moosa website on the internet which refers to him as the ‘Prince of the Cosmic Era’. When I ask how a cosmic prince gets into a rather shadowy business like arms dealing I get his version of his life story. He seems a bit touchy and vague about his age – presumably because he likes being described as the world’s youngest self-made billionaire – but he was born on 15 October ‘about 40 years ago’ in Faridpur, 100 miles from Dhaka, in what was then East Pakistan. He has four brothers and two sisters. His father, who died a couple of years ago, was a government official and didn’t have much money. As a schoolboy, Moosa Bin Shamsher – which translates as Moses, Son of Sword – knew he was different from the other children. ‘I was more charismatic, confident and intelligent. I never stood second.’
One of his formative experiences, he says, was when the Governor-General of Pakistan was on a visit to his district and the young Moosa, aged nine, stopped the cavalcade on the roadside, recited an English poem and begged him to help provide materials for his impoverished school. Provisions were duly made. And the President of Pakistan was so impressed when he heard this story that he invited the boy to meet him for tea in Dhaka and told him he was the ‘pride of his country’.
Dr Moosa started in business when a friend of his introduced him to a foreigner who wanted to buy textiles from Bangladesh. He started trading in cotton, formed a company and made his first million in five months. ‘In 1973 someone advised me to go to Calcutta to get a better price, better product. From here I moved to international markets and sold millions of dollars of goods to Syria and Britain.’ The jump from textiles to arms was an easy one, especially as his mentor in arms dealing, the Syrian-born businessman Akram Wajeh, worked with Aristotle Onassis and Adnan Khashoggi and was a friend of the Saudi royal family.
In 1995 a Bangladeshi newspaper hailed Dr Moosa as the ideal prime minister of the caretaker government. He dismissed the idea, and now says, ‘I don’t have political ambition. Not at all. My only ambition is to see my fellow countrymen happy. I want the world to see Bangladesh as a country not to be pitied but as a country that can feed and clothe its people properly.’ Dr Moosa makes no mention of East Pakistan’s successful war of independence from West Pakistan which, in 1971, claimed three million Bengali lives. According to an article published in the Daily Mail in 1994 at the time of Dr Moosa’s offer of £5 million to the Labour Party, Moosa had supplied stores to the West Pakistan army during the war of independence and at the end of it had had to flee Faridpur to escape lynching for his alleged collaboration with the enemy.
Quite the contrary, Dr Moosa tells me. He was held in a Pakistani concentration camp, and was twice on an execution list. Each week 15 people were arbitrarily selected and executed, pour encourager les autres. He escaped death the first time because the grave he had been forced to dig for himself filled with water during a monsoon. On the second occasion he tripped, fell and bashed his face so badly that he was freed – ‘because there is a tradition in our country of showing mercy to the sick and the old’. He has an awkward way of holding his right arm – because, someone has told me, of the bayonet injuries he sustained during his internment. But there was an article in the Guardian, also at the time of the Blair offer, which said he was beaten up after complaints about a manpower exporting business he had set up in the late Seventies. Moosa had vanished from Bangladesh, it said, resurfacing in late 1982 after General Ershad seized power in a military coup. The Guardian added that Dr Moosa was wanted in Malaysia, where he was alleged to have committed a fraud. A spokesman for Dr Moosa was quoted as replying that he had never even been to Malaysia, let alone committed fraud there.
When I call the Malaysian Embassy in London, they can find no record of this alleged fraud. Other calls paint a similarly opaque picture. The editor of Forbes magazine says Dr Moosa is not on their list of the world’s billionaires. ‘But that doesn’t mean he isn’t one,’ he adds. ‘There are more secret billionaires out there than you can ever imagine.’ A call to Mont Blanc reveals that Dr Moosa does indeed own the world’s most expensive pen – one of several Meisterstuck Solitaire Royals, each costing £97,500. Another call, to Pacific Western University in the United States, establishes that it awarded Moosa a PhD in 1988 after a correspondence course.
What about the strategically placed books and photographs? All genuine. There is even a biography of Tony Blair lying around, signed by the subject, although not specifically dedicated to Dr Moosa. I am shown another article from the local press. ‘Dr Moosa gave Tony Blair the greatest gift he could,’ it says, ‘a mirror to reflect his inner qualities for the people to applaud in the best way they knew how – through the ballot box. In a way he’s Tony’s best friend.’
So what does Dr Moosa have to say about the donation he offered to his best friend? ‘This thing, Mr Nigel, it is difficult for me to talk about. All I say is that Mr Tony Blair is one of the best prime minister. He is honest. He is not greedy for anything. I respect his principles in declining offer. I don’t know why all that fuss made of £5 million, though. Was it considered a big donation? Or was it ethics?’
Dr Moosa says he donated ‘large sums’ to help the victims of the terrible floods in Bangladesh in 1986 and 1988. And last winter, when 18 homeless people a night were dying during freezing weather, he distributed several tons of clothes around Bangladesh. Asked if he thinks it would help solve the nation’s problems if he donated all his money to the poor, Dr Moosa shakes his head. ‘No. Too big a problem. One Moosa alone cannot solve world problem. We have 120 million people. Most of them are poor. If you give them cash money, it will be spent overnight. It is better to help by creating jobs.’
It may be bad form to go on about money, but the rings he is wearing at the moment are – yes – the most expensive in the world, he says, the ruby alone worth $1.2 million. The emerald cost $700,000. I ask him how he feels when he looks at his rings and then at the grinding poverty in Dhaka. ‘I don’t have bad feeling,’ he says with a shrug. ‘Because I do a lot for them. I do a lot.’ He adds that the cause of the poverty is bad government. ‘Democracy is a luxury Bangladesh can’t afford because the people are too illiterate and corruptible. Britain and West should impose a government. Had there been no British rule worldwide the human civilisation wouldn’t have reached the present astounding stage. I want that the British should dominate the world and I wish that Mr Tony Blair could control this world domination. Many politicians I meet are of the opinion that the world would be better place if Downing Street still ruled waves rather than White House – because Americans are decadent with their nakedness.’
In his obsession with all things British Moosa reminds you of ‘Al’ Fayed. With a wry smile, he hints that he would have no problem getting British citizenship if he wanted it. ‘They look at your bank balance,’ he says.  It is his love of the British way, he adds, that makes him a stickler for gentlemanly conduct. It is not easy to get the measure of this man, to glimpse beyond the obfuscation, inconsistencies and hyperbole, but it is clear that, in person, Dr Moosa has a certain composure and flamboyance which may add up to charisma. The impression of breathtaking vanity and egotism may be just a matter of nuance being lost in translation. Asked if he would be content if he had no money left, for example, he says, disarmingly: ‘No. But the chances of it happening is nil.’ On the legacy he would like to leave to his eldest son Bobby (who is studying at the University of Texas), he says, ‘I am still very young. Around 40. I have many years to go. But my legacy will be my lifestyle. My cleanness. My morality. My modesty. My simplicity. My large heart for many people.’
One of the ways in which his large heart does its stuff is in the various offers he makes to the people of Bangladesh. He wanted to donate £125 million worth of fertiliser, he says, as well as build a $1 billion hospital. Both offers were declined. He says he cannot understand why: ‘Did they think I was trying to smuggle ICBMs in the fertiliser?’ When I ask a spokesman for the Bangladeshi Embassy in London about this, he explains the offers were refused because Dr Moosa seems too shadowy. ‘I’m sure we would accept his offers but we just don’t know enough about him. We wish we did.’
Because of the powerful fluorescent lighting in his office, it is easy to lose track of time. It is now dark outside, 9.30pm, and Dr Moosa has been talking since lunchtime. It may be because my resistance has been worn down, but I have reached a sneaking admiration for his chutzpah. He takes a (staged?) phone call as we are talking, for instance. It is, he says, from General Vladimir and concerns – I hope I wasn’t hallucinating at this point – a loan of $500 million that a certain Latin American country want him to make them. ‘We wait till after the elections,’ Dr Moosa says, ‘because the new generals will fire the old ones.’ A fax arrives moments later which he shows me, after carefully folding over the top of the page to hide the headed notepaper. It is, apparently, confirmation of the requested loan.
Exhausted and bewildered, I return to my hotel at midnight to find an anonymous typed note has been pushed under my door. It informs me that Dr Moosa is a stranger in Bangladesh. He is not a fair taxpayer. It requests that I ask myself if the documents shown me by Dr Moosa’s office are true or fake, and whether I know what his real business is inside and outside the country. It ends: ‘Don’t forget minimum professional ethics only because of unusual reception and gifts. Please don’t disclose this letter or quote a name. I trust you for your newspaper’s reputation. We don’t want to see a Western journalist is purchased by a so-called Bangladeshi TYCOON. Thank you.’ I like to think Dr Moosa would approve of the word ‘tycoon’ being in capital letters.


Martin Gilbert

An author should be allowed his vanities. In the case of the historian Sir Martin Gilbert, the vanities fill two whole shelves of his library in North London. These are the books he has written since he graduated from Oxford in 1960, more than 75 of them. ‘This is where I start,’ he says, tapping the spine of one. ‘And here is my latest.’ He taps another, Churchill and the Jews, published this month. ‘Two shelves in chronological order. And over here….’ he rakes the backs of his fingers along another shelf, playing the spines as if they were piano keys. ‘… over here are my new translations.’ The steady, resonant tock of a grandfather clock can be heard in the room, dulled by the wall-to-wall books. ‘It’s a little vanity every author must be allowed.’
Actually this is a house, not a library. ‘I bought a five bedroom house, turned the smallest bedroom into my bedroom and put up shelving in the rest. Three floors of books. ‘What can you do?’ he says, almost apologetically. ‘An historian has to read.’ A tour of his shelves is revealing. Here is a book inscribed by Harold Wilson, for whom Gilbert once worked as an advisor. Here is the new book on cricket by John Major, for whom he also worked, advising him on the special relationship with America and accompanying him on trips there. On his most recent trip to the States, incidently, Gilbert attended the white tie banquet held in honour of the Queen at the White House. He was the only British guest present at the personal invitation of the president, as opposed to the British ambassador. ‘He remembered me from a talk I gave to his staff at the White House a few years ago.’
His subject?
‘War leadership.’
So he’s to blame!
‘No, no!’ Gilbert laughs wheezily. ‘It was after that.’
The 70 year old author has the energetic bearing and lucidity of a younger man, but his voice is subdued, his delivery careful. He is not afraid to leave long pauses as he mulls over a thought or searches for a precise word. Precision is his modus operandi. That and pedantry. ‘For me the word pedant is a paean of praise.’ He lectures regularly — he is a visiting professor at the University of Western Ontario, as well as an honorary fellow of Merton College, Oxford — and earlier today he gave a talk at University College, London. But most of his time is spend in scholarly silence broken only by the ticking of the clock and the rustle of a manuscript. This is where he works, when not in America or, the other country he visits frequently, Israel.
Sir Martin — he was knighted in 1995 for services to history and international relations —  is on his third marriage (he has a 40 year old daughter from his first and two sons in their twenties from his second). Clearly industriousness does not come without a domestic price. A measure of his output is the ‘by the same author’ page at the front of his books. Most authors have one. He has two. Among his most important works listed there are his one volume histories of the first and second world wars and his seminal history of the Holocaust. But it is for his eight volume biography of Churchill — as well as its numerous companion papers — that his reputation rests. In addition to these he has written more than a dozen themed books on Churchill, such as Churchill and America. But his finest and best selling work is the single volume Churchill: A Life, published in 1991, written in long hand with a new fountain pen bought for the task, and running to almost a 1000 pages. It is definitive.
He has had one huge advantage over the countless other pretenders  to the Churchill biographer crown: he is the official biographer and therefore the only man with, as it were, an ‘access all areas’ backstage pass. The story of how he pulled off this coup is an object lesson in timing and networking. In 1962, while working as a junior research fellow at Oxford, he approached Lady Diana Cooper, widow of Duff Cooper who had resigned from the cabinet after Munich, and asked if he could read any of her late husband’s unpublished material. She was impressed by him and wrote to ‘Darling Randy’ her friend Randolph Churchill: ‘Martin Gilbert loves Duff and hates the Coroner and is full of zeal to set history right. Do see him.’ (The Coroner was Chamberlain.) Randolph, who at  the time was researching his father’s archive with a view to writing a major biography, began sending Gilbert telegrams asking to see him. Gilbert was reluctant at first because, well, I’ll let him tell it: ‘Randolph invited me to Stour, his seat in Bergholt, Suffolk, but I was loathe to go because I had seen him drunk and loud mouthed at the Randolph Hotel bar and had heard about his unpleasant, extreme right wing views — views bordering on the fascist. He had a reputation for being what was then known as a fascist beast.’
Randolph was, indeed, known as ‘the beast of Bergholt’. He proved friendly enough though. One of his first questions to the young Gilbert was: ‘Are you musical? all Jews are musical.’ He was eccentric, too. He would refer to archive discoveries as ‘Lovely grub’. ‘History was for him a feast, full of delicious morsels,’ Gilbert says. ‘And so, despite his unpredictable rages, it became for me.’ Randolph would explode frequently, blowing hot and cold, but he took to his protégé because he didn’t ‘wilt under fire’. Gilbert recalls having to stay up until 2am on his first night at Stour, standing his ground. Next morning as Randolph was cheerfully pottering on his terrace, ‘his dressing gown blowing in the wind, his slippers shuffling on the flagstones’ he asked Gilbert to work for him, as one of a team of five researching the Churchill papers. ‘I thought it would last six months. It lasted a lifetime.’ When Randolph died in 1968 at the age of 57 Gilbert was the chosen successor. The Churchill papers were brought across country from Stour in a pantechnicon, under police escort and put, for safety, into the basement of the Bodleian library. They weighed 15 tons. ‘Merton gave me a sabbatical in 1970 and it lasted several decades.’
It’s a massive archive, and Churchill is a massive subject, arguably the most important in history — was he not overwhelmed by the scale of his task? Gilbert smiles thinly. ‘I’ve arranged the archive material for my next book on Churchill in my studio next door. I’ll show you if you like. You’ll be the first person to see it.’ He leads the way out of the house and around the corner to a modern looking studio. There are 25 desks lined up end to end, each with a pile of green papers on it, stacked according to years. ‘I’m beginning to think that it was a mistake laying them out like this. It does look daunting, doesn’t it? I aim to go through each file systematically. I decided not to use the catalogue. If you skip files that say “miscellaneous” then that is the file where the nugget will be.’
Initially the Churchill books took an age to research because of the official secrets act. ‘When I started working for Randolph in 1962 you couldn’t see anything after 1912. I remember visiting John Profumo to ask his permission to see just one or two files from the thousands on Churchill at the War Office in the  First World War.’
Although he never formally met his subject, he does remember being struck by how short he was the first time he saw him walking out of Downing Street in 1955. When I ask what the one question is he would ask Churchill if he walked into the room now he  reflects for a full minute, drumming his fingers. ‘Did he believe in 1903 that when he set up the Unionist Free Traders that he might be able to persuade the Tory party to adopt free trade. Or did he accept that he would have to become a liberal at that stage and that that was his way of signalling to the Tories and liberals that tariffs were an issue that he was not prepared to compromise upon.’
Oh. Well, I did ask. But given all the intrigue in Churchill’s life I had been expecting something more colourful. I try a different tack: does Gilbert ever catch himself talking to Churchill as he is working, you know, muttering to himself? ‘No, I don’t. And I’ve only twice dreamt about him. Once when I was having a real problem with the Dardanelles chapters and I was walking along the seafront and there he was in front of me. I rushed up to ask this pedantic question that was bugging me. The other time was a few weeks ago. He was being affable and pleased to see me.’
Gilbert has dedicated many, many years to the study of this one man — a lifetime, indeed — does he feel his subject has overshadowed his own life? ‘Not really, because I very deliberately tried to do some other pieces of writing in between the Churchill volumes. And I’ve always made an effort to read writing other than his own, so as not to lapse into a parody of his style.’
As well as a being an adventurer, a hard drinker and a maverick, Churchill had experience of war and understood its exhilarations and traumas. He also, of course, made history, rather than observing it from the sidelines. Sir Martin is 70 now. When he looks back at his own life does he feel a certain ennui, a sense of having lived a flat life by comparison with his hero’s, as an observer of history rather than a maker of it? ‘I know what you mean but no, I don’t think…I did my National Service but I had no aspirations to be a solider. I just published a book on the Somme and every page was difficult to write. I kept thinking back to my mindset at 20 and wondering whether I would have survived a day and kept sane. Churchill did, incidentally. He wrote a letter to his wife after two months in the trenches: “All the excitement dies away and there is only dull resentment.”’
His latest book is the marriage of his two big subjects, Churchill and the Jews. There was some controversy about it early this year when a Cambridge academic claimed to have found an anti-Semitic article that had been ghost written for Churchill — the article, which was never published, described Jews as ‘Hebrew bloodsuckers’. Gilbert swatted the academic away like a fly, pointing out that 1) he had first unearthed this document 20 years ago and quoted from it in a book and that 2) Churchill had refused to have the article published because he disagreed with it.
He asks to see my copy of  his new book. I hand it over gingerly, pointing that I have annotated it throughout. He tells me not to worry and turns to a page in which he quotes Churchill’s instructions to the ghostwriter. When he has read it he says: ‘… So we do know what he was thinking…’ This leads me to ask about something that has been bothering me. Even though he can claim to know the mind of Churchill better than anyone, he never speculates about what Churchill was thinking. Why is that? ‘Well I was fortunate with this book in that I didn’t need to because I had access to the secret evidence Churchill gave to the appeal commission on Palestine. It reveals his true positive feelings towards the Jewish state and his contempt for the Arabs. He had wanted his evidence destroyed in 1937 but his secretary Mrs Hills, who I knew, never threw anything away. She kept the proof copy. Thank you, Mrs Hills. She performed a service to history. Other prime ministers were more successful in destroying their archives. I had two spells of working for Harold Wilson and he used to just screw up documents and drop them in the waste paper basket. I saw him do it. “That is my archive,” he would say.’
Although speculation is not Sir Martin’s game, he has tried to piece together the substance of  Churchill’s private conversations. ‘I found an account of him warning Lloyd George that he must not have too many liberal Jews in his cabinet. Three being too many. That was in 1917.’
One of the difficulties in having Churchill as an historical subject was that he wrote so much history himself. Would it be fair to say that the difference between them as writers of history is that Churchill liked to tell a story whereas Gilbert prefers to stick to documented evidence? ‘Yes, Churchill liked the purple passages and the grand sweeps which are fun to read but they don’t advance the narrative.’ Historians who resort to the word ‘perhaps’ are simply trying to mask their failure to get to the truth, he adds. Perhaps, I say, but at least that is more fun. Gilbert smiles the thin smile. ‘I believe in true history. What happened in the past is unalterable and definite. Failure in historical research is no crime. It is one of the hazards of the profession.’ He also thinks you have to be careful not to leap to conclusions that the evidence does not support — ‘Wanting something to be the case does not make it so.’ This may be why he is regarded in the profession as more a chronicler of history than an interpreter of it. Perhaps.
Bearing in mind the current success enjoyed by TV historians such as David Starkey and Simon Schama, as well as the astonishing sales of books such as Stalingrad, I ask him why he thinks we are all suddenly so obsessed with history. ‘I think because it is now history. My generation lived through that war. It wasn’t history to us then. Now it is far enough in the past to seem very different from our lives. When I was writing about the Somme I thought: how do you describe what Britons went though? At least the Second World War had movement. But there is no movement in the First World War and I think that is why Americans are now anxious about Iraq. There is no movement. It has become a war of attrition.’
Speaking of which, I cannot help noticing a small stars and stripes flag on his desk. ‘That? The first President Bush gave it to me. We were filming in the White House and I gave him a copy of my Second World War book. Six months later, when Saddam invaded Kuwait, I started getting messages from journalists asking: “Did Churchill believe in assassination?” “What was Churchill’s view of one country invading another?” I was puzzled then I was told that on Air Force One that morning the president had produced my book and said: ‘I’m going to go into Kuwait. This book is proof I should do it.” The journalists had assumed it was my Churchill book. It wasn’t. It was the Second World War book I had given him.’
Timing and networking again. In his memoirs Bush describes how he had read the first 15 pages of the book, the ones which describe how the Germans had  begun killing civilians within days of invading Poland — mayors, priests, clerks. ‘Bush said he wasn’t going to allow history to repeat itself.’
So Gilbert was to blame for that war, too, I say.
He laughs wheezily, his face creasing momentarily before resuming an expressionless composure. A thought hangs between us unsaid: the historian did have a hand in history, after all. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.