Jamais vu

Stoppers have a limited palette: Vietnam, Stalingrad and one battle in Afghanistan. Every military action undertaken by the US and her allies now has to be compared to one or other of these events rather than, say, Sierra Leone.

There is actually no obvious historical analogy to contemporary Afghanistan. Saying “Hi, we’re your friends, we’re just going to burn your livelihood” would never have worked well at any time, anywhere on earth.

Iraq does have an obvious parallel, but it doesn’t seem to have been made much. A state that is basically a post-war conglomerate of several different ethnic and religious regions, collapsing into appalling violence after the removal of a strongman? The former Yugoslavia springs to mind.

Buy the damn opium from the Pashtun farmers, and expedite the break-up of Iraq into its natural constituents.

Why John?

I was recently asked why I called this blog Freeborn John.

The Wikipedia entry is a good start, and here’s a quote from it:

John Lilburne then began in earnest his campaign of agitation for freeborn rights, the rights that all Englishmen are born with, which are different from privileges bestowed by a monarch or a government. His enemies branded him as a Leveller but Lilburne responded that he was a “Leveller so-called.” To him it was a pejorative label which he did not like. He called his supporters “Agitators.” It was feared that “Levellers” wanted to level property rights, but Lilburne wanted to level human basic rights which he called “freeborn rights.”


A Muslim blogger writes about a Muslim victim of a Muslim bomber.

If we don’t help the blogger, and his hero, what kind of people are we?

Answer: editors of The Lancet.

An Explanation

A good rule of thumb with blog posts is that the more frequently the word “I” appears, the worse the post is. On that basis, it might be best to click away now. This post is about my reasons for dropping out of sight after the rally for free expression last March, so the use of the first person is hard to avoid. Even so, I reckon that if I’m going to tell the story I might as well tell the whole story. So interminable length provides even more reason to turn to the TV listings.

I have been featured in the media twice before. The first time, in 1983/4, was when I broke the Opticians’ Monopoly, as a consequence of which you can now buy reading glasses without prescription, for a reasonable price, in a chemist’s shop. I’m very proud of that, and anyone interested could dig out more details of what Kenneth Clarke in the House of Commons called “The Risdon Affair” (Hansard, 1983, November I think, not online) if they care to. This post is not about that episode. I’d be happy to blog about it some other time, but it isn’t a problem.

The other occasion is, and in March I took a chance with it. Strangely enough, the internet age has made the preceding period in some ways more opaque. Whereas in 1989 a journalist would have gone to the cuttings library and discovered all sorts of interesting things, today they google and some events prior to 1990, give or take a year, are hidden to them.

A rather difficult personal issue in 1985/6 saw me disappear into the underbelly of Glasgow, emerge driving a minicab at night in Peckham, S.E. London, then reappear, with a surprising number of extremely colourful acquaintances, working for a spy equipment shop in Mayfair. I left and set up my own “security” business in the Borough, just south of London Bridge, in partnership with an ex-armed robber called Tom.

You can probably picture the next couple of years: bug sweeps, body armour, unofficial meetings with the Foreign Office, ex-SAS soldiers, hidden video cameras… and there were less predictable things, not least a 325 carat rough diamond spirited from South Africa to London for me to sell, and get arrested while trying to get it out of a bank’s safekeeping impersonating the depositor, with a fake passport and a faxed sheet of his signatures in my pocket (I was charged over this but the case was thrown out by the judge at half-time, no case to answer, the owner had asked me to get it to show to a buyer from one of London’s biggest auction houses because he couldn’t get back to the UK in time).

I rather liked the excitement, the boozy meetings with Gulf Arabs in Park Lane, the cleaning lady who found a bug when it dropped off the bottom of a chair in the boardroom of one of the UK’s biggest companies, the security director of another FTSE100 company who discovered a plant was bugged when his car FM radio started broadcasting a meeting as he looked for a parking space…

One week, a couple of years later, I went on holiday to Morocco for a week, on the outbound leg stopping off at the Heathrow Hilton for a two hour meeting with Robert De Niro, who was researching his character for a forthcoming film, then on my return driving straight from the airport to CIB2’s headquarters in Vauxhall to be interviewed about a police officer I had gently persuaded to drop his attempt to get a £40,000 bribe from someone. A mutual friend had asked me to help “straighten out” the problem, I had done so quietly but a third party had told the police.

The film De Niro was researching is called The Score and, it might just be coincidence, if you know what it’s about, but the main theme of my contribution was, don’t get involved in other people’s plans. I had done exactly that, to my cost.

One of my customers at the security company was called Darius Guppy who, because he had been Earl Spencer’s best man (then he was called Charles Althorpe), and because Spencer’s sister was Princess Diana – and because there was a sense that Guppy might not be entirely wholesome – was in the eye of the press. Guppy had latched on to me, and was quite funny in his way. He wanted to keep a low profile, so when he telephoned my office, he’d say his name was Harry. Whoever answered the phone would put him on hold, then buzz me and say “Guppy’s on the line”. Then Tom would pretend to be a fish, trying to make me laugh as I spoke to him. I had found a manufacturer who would make false-bottomed flight cases when Guppy asked – after an abortive attempt to make them myself (I’m not a craftsman). He had told me he was trying to move some of his “wealth” out of the country to avoid capital gains tax. Whatever. I wasn’t troubled by his motives. I had taken my morality off the hook: engaged tone, please try again later.

Then he came to me with another tax problem. I already knew he liked to travel to places like India and Colombia with a suitcase of cash, buying gemstones for his public company, Inca Gemstones Plc. He told me he had hired a consultant in Colombia and paid them in gems. This might have been a tax offence in Colombia but wasn’t an issue anywhere else. However, it had been off the books, had left him with a shortfall of stock, and there was an audit due…

So he had a plan. A cunning plan.

He would be robbed, in New York where a small robbery would pass almost unnoticed. This was pre-Giuliani and there was a lot of crime in Gotham City. And we were only talking about thousands. Nada.

So I agreed. For £10,000 I flew to N.Y., went down to Philadelphia where I had a connection, bought a gun, drove back to N.Y., went to Guppy’s hotel room, tied up him and his partner, Benedict Marsh, fired a shot into the bed to make it look real, and left. I drove upstate and threw the gun into a lake, then flew back a day later… To be met by my girlfriend, who was holding a press cutting. There had been a £1.2 million pound robbery in New York…

Exaggeration, said Guppy. You know the press. It’ll all blow over. But there was a potential problem. I might have been seen. It would be best if I shaved off my moustache (my guilty secret… I had a moustache…). I declined, though now I realise he was talking sense. But in fact, as it turned out, this wasn’t just fashion advice.

I grew increasingly suspicious of Guppy in the following months. I didn’t buy this exaggeration line, though it did seem that it had all blown over. Then people started coming to me, telling me that Guppy was trying to isolate me, turn people against me. So I put him under surveillance. I bugged his house and his phone.

We hadn’t completely fallen out yet, and he was arrogant enough to think I wouldn’t be proactive about things, so since he had become slightly paranoid, he asked me to sweep his house for bugs. Unfortunately, my team didn’t find anything.

But I did find a lot in my tapes of his conversations. His gold smuggling had gone wrong, and three shipments had been found by the Indian customs. The robbery in N.Y. had actually been an insurance scam, and he had sold some of his allegedly stolen stock back to the dealer who had sold it to him in the first place. The dealer had become suspicious and told the police. The eagles were circling…

Luckily, for him, he had a fallback plan. He had given the N.Y. police my description, from which they had produced an artist’s impression of me – without a moustache. That was why he had asked me to shave. His plan was to say he had really been robbed by a slight acquaintance to whom he had mentioned the N.Y trip but who he didn’t know well enough to recognise without his moustache. Yes, his fallback plan was to frame me for robbing him, to disappear to another country while I was arrested and convicted, then reappear a few years later when there had already been a conviction and the appetite to investigate him would meet with budgetary obstacles.

That was a difficult situation. I decided on maximum retaliation. Not only did I go to the police and tell them what had happened, I also sold the News Of The World one of the tapes I had made, on which Guppy could be heard discussing a plan to beat up a Screws journalist. The tape, which subsequently was serialised by the Guardian Diary and splashed by The Daily Mail, included conversations between Guppy and the prospective assailants, and also with a journalist Guppy knew at Oxford, who had a line on the home address of the target. The journalist was called Boris Johnson.

Johnson has taken enough stick for this, by the way, not least on Have I Got News For You. If I had known what he would become, I’d never have released the tape. I regret doing so, regret the problem it caused him and assert that it’s water under the bridge and one of our few decent and honest politicians should be untroubled by this episode.

Anyway, it all made the papers in a massive way. I spent three days in the witness box, some 60 additional prosecution witnesses came forward, and Guppy was convicted. And I was roasted. I was a grass. I had given evidence to save my skin from the earlier false passport charge that had been thrown out without my even having to enter a defense. It was a horrible time, though I felt that I had not played a role that was exactly glorious so I slunk away, and didn’t sue for libel, not when his “contemptible book” (Lyn Barber, the Observer) was published, and not when they made two TV movies about the affair, all of which took Guppy’s line at face value. To be clear, the line of a self-confessed purjerer who was trying to position himself as well as possible for his next crime (he was busted by the Sunday Mirror as soon as he was released from prison, when he met a well known “face” in Chelsea, planning a video counterfeiting scam). Of course he couldn’t admit he had deceived me, then tried to frame me. Who would work with him then?


So what.

The press weren’t interested in what actually happened, they were interested in a story. And the story wasn’t me, so who gives a shit?

This was nearly twenty years ago. 1989, to be exact. I knew it would muddy the waters for the free expression rally if it came out, but I decided partly to gamble on it not doing so, and partly just to do it anyway. Nobody else was. Let’s be clear about this. I have a quiet life. Nobody knows about it. I am responsible for people’s IT security, among other things. This coming out again now could lose me business, lose me my business, lose me my house… it could be a bloody mess.

And there’s another thing. I’m ashamed of it. It was a disgraceful thing to do. I’d prefer to leave it in the past.

After the rally we talked about forming an organisation to campaign for free expression. A one-off rally is one thing, a movement is another. I couldn’t possibly be involved without coming clean, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to. Oddly enough, the death threats I received in the build up to the rally were neither here nor there, I expected them and I’ve been threatened, followed, approached, attempts have been made to intimidate me before; but this was an ogre, a dark cloud above me and when the rally finished, I was ill, for a couple of weeks.

And I went quiet. If I had said anything, I’d have given the game away. I wanted to keep the option of silence, of a quiet life. I actually resented the fact that I had to organise the rally in the first place. I give money to Amnesty International… I vote… there are people who should have been doing it instead of me… but they didn’t. I felt I was the last person who should have been organising the rally, and I felt that was exactly the position I found myself in.

So there we are.

I completely understand if people who have been supportive before now feel they want to withdraw that support.

But I also feel that there is a lot to do. I want to do some of it.

And I also have a cunning plan…


The BBC has drawn me out of the cave I’ve been sitting in for the past six months, and I have some explanations to make for my reticence.

So: explanations with illustrations will be posted here next week.

More radio

I took part in a Radio 5 Live phone in this morning between 9:00am and 9:30am, and have now been asked to take part in a World Service phone in, with a worldwide catchment, this evening between 6:00pm and 7:00pm, UK time.


The other guests will be Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and a representative of the Muslim Brotherhood from Cairo.

Radio 5 Live

I will be taking part in a radio discussion tomorrow, Saturday 15th September, on BBC Radio 5. The subject will be freedom of expression and its limits, the context will be the calls for the Pope to apologise for the offense he has caused parts of the Muslim world. Broadcast time will be around 8:30pm.

There will be another person taking part but I don’t yet know who it will be.

UPDATE – I will be debating with Dilip Hiro.