Tag Archives: Afghanistan

I met an interesting woman from Iran

I met a traveller from an antique land.

You meet people. You lose touch.

In December 2001, I met a woman: an Iranian who had moved to the UK in 1973. She had lots of money.

Assasinated Ahmad Shah Massoud

The assassinated Ahmad Shah Massoud

I met her about three months after the September 11th terrorist attack on New York, After 9/11, she had arranged to go to Afghanistan with help from the brother  of assassinated Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud – Massoud had been assassinated two days before the 9/11 attack. But, after the recent killing of four journalists in Afghanistan, she was told the visit was too dangerous. So, instead, she went to recently war-torn Kosovo and Macedonia. The war in Macedonia had ended around four months before I met her. She came back to the UK with 12 video tapes and 2,600 digital still photos.

She could speak Iranian, English, Arabic, Armenian, Turkish and German.

She had hard eyes.

She told me: “I’m not rich. If I get £100,000, I spend £25,000 here and £25,000 there.”

She was abused as a child and lived in Abu Dhabi. She was a friend of actress Viviane Ventura and an acquaintance of actor Omar Sharif.

She once had to go to China to buy a plane. She knew the general involved.

The assassinated Shapour Bakhtiar

The assassinated Shapour Bakhtiar

She had British and Iranian passports and was related to Shapour Bakhtiar – the former Prime Minister of Iran assassinated in 1991 by three of Ayatollah Khomeini’s agents in Paris. And to Mohammad Mossadeq – the Prime Minister of Iran overthrown in a 1953 coup organised by MI6 and the CIA to install the Shah.

She told me she was thinking of writing her autobiography but, if that news got around, she said, there would be panic calls from Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia offering her millions not to publish. She told me she had lots of dirt on the Saudi royal family.

A former Swedish boyfriend found oil in Texas and she spent one year in Los Angeles. She had stories of the Playboy Mansion and Hugh Hefner’s parties. Once, she told me, she lost £5 million in a London casino.  Her third husband was Lebanese, a professional tennis player, half French. There was physical abuse. She mentioned a knife.

“I always went for the wrong men,” she told me.

She lived alone.

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Memories of Swedish identical twins and lonely beheadings in foreign lands

As I had no time to write a ‘proper’ blog this morning, I looked to see what the BBC had reported happening on this day in previous years…

7th October 1959: Southend Pier fire traps hundreds

Water from the past

Three hundred people have been rescued after being cut off by a blaze on the world’s longest pleasure pier on England’s south-east coast.

The visitors became stranded when a large wooden pavilion at the shore end of the pier caught fire in the early evening.

The pavilion, which is used for holding conferences and other functions, was empty at the time.

Most of the trapped people had been at the far end of the pier when the blaze started.

They had to walk most of the nearly 1.5 miles (2.4 kilometres) back because the electricity to the pier’s railway had been cut off.

However, they were not able to pass the burning pavilion and had to complete the journey by climbing down the pier structure and boarding boats to shore.

Firefighters from surrounding districts joined those in Southend to help put out the flames.

They were watched by a large crowd on the sea front – many of whom had come to see the pier’s famous illuminations.

7th October 1977: Invasion of Swedish identical twins

Identical twins from Sweden

Ninety sets of Swedish identical twins have travelled to Felixstowe for a brief shopping trip.

The twins are taking part in studies by researchers from the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm.

The scientists are investigating links between the environment and human behaviour.

But participants are viewing the excursion as a form of light relief. As one twin put it, they have come across “just for fun”.

As the twins disembarked from their ship, the Tor Scandinavia, each pair was confusingly dressed in matching outfits.

It is hoped the sets of siblings might find something different to wear when they spend their money in the local shops and boutiques.

7th October 2001: US launches air strikes against Taleban

So It Goes

The United States has begun its military campaign, Operation Enduring Freedom, against al-Qaeda and the Taleban in Afghanistan.

Cruise missiles and bombers have targeted the airports of Kandahar and Kabul and terrorist training camps near Jalalabad.

The attacks which began around 1630 GMT were quickly followed by a public broadcast from President Bush who promised a “sustained and relentless” campaign.

The Taleban has condemned the strikes and says it shot down a plane, a claim denied by the Americans.

Up to 50 cruise missiles are reported to have been launched from submarines in the Arabian Sea.

The US also flew in B52 bombers stationed on the island of Diego Garcia, and B2 Stealth bombers direct from the US itself.

Tony Blair confirmed the initial strikes involved a British contribution by HMS Illustrious and a small number of submarines.

They form part of a US-British naval coalition gathered in the region within striking distance of Afghanistan, including two US aircraft carriers.

Speaking at a news conference, US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, said key targets would be terrorist training camps and Taleban communications, fighter planes and air defence installations.

But the Pentagon says it will be mounting operations from the air and the ground, and defence experts say special forces are likely to be used soon into the campaign.

7th October 2004: British hostage feared dead in Iraq

So It Goes

Fears are growing that the British hostage, Kenneth Bigley, abducted three weeks ago in Iraq, has been murdered by his captors.

Engineer Mr Bigley, 62, and two Americans with whom he shared a house in the wealthy al-Mansour district of Baghdad, were captured on 16 September by the Islamist Tawhid and Jihad group.

His fellow contractors Eugene “Jack” Armstrong and Jack Hensley were beheaded on 20 and 21 September, when their kidnappers’ demands for the release of Iraqi women prisoners were not met.

The United States is holding two Iraqi female weapons scientists, Rihab Rashid Taha and Huda Salih Mahdi Ammash, but says it has no plans to release them.

Efforts to secure Mr Bigley’s release have been stepped up in the past few days.

Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi and Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams have appealed to his kidnappers on behalf of the family.

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Despite the attacks on 9/11, the Yanks are still living on another planet

After yesterday, more diary extracts. Well, diary and e-mail. This time from 2001, just over a week after the Al-Qaeda 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington.

Monday 17th September 2001

I got an e-mail from someone I know, a Londoner with American parents:

Thankfully all my friends and family are accounted for but it took until late on Friday/ early hours of Saturday morning to get the OK from everyone I know and care about in New York and Washington. 

My Aunt is a medic and has been working flat-out to cope with the casualties and fatalities that arrive at the medical centres/ hospitals around New York. She will need post traumatic stress counselling, as will all the rescue workers and medical staff. 

I did hope that the events of last week would prompt my sisters who haven’t been speaking to one another for the past 15 months to make their peace – they haven’t. 

I replied:

It’s difficult to comprehend what effect this must have on Americans. They have never had foreigners attack them on their own soil nor been in many wars whereas, in Britain, we have been at constant war somewhere since at least 1939 and any of us could have had our legs blown off in the last 30 years by an IRA wastebin bomb while doing our shopping.

I think they’re still a bit on another planet. When a few hundred US body bags have come back from Afghanistan, they’re liable to turn insular again. It’s a sad reflection on my superficiality but the thought did flit through my mind “Well, this may help the Irish problem in the medium term because the Americans may be less prone to see the IRA as jolly little green freedom fighters.”

Tuesday 18th September 2001

A British Moslem friend of mine, who has worked in the US, spoke to her former boss in Washington this afternoon. She said he sounded angry and told her there was real anger in the US following the attacks on New York and Washington last week. Another friend of hers – a Moslem Brit in the US – said it was dangerous for her to return to the US because Moslems were being attacked. Such is American ignorance that a Sikh was killed in a racial attack.

I watched the David Letterman TV show, transmitted from New York. He gave a ten-minute opening monologue about the World Trade Center bombing, then interviewed US TV newsman Dan Rather who was there as The Man Who Knows The Real Situation.

The perspective given was that the Baddies are mad, insane and neither cause-and-effect nor logic enter into it. There is no point trying to understand their motive because there is none. They are just Pure Evil with no cause except that the Baddies see the Americans have more money and a better life than they do, so the only trigger is Envy.

Letterman asked Rather – apparently seriously – why something could not have been done in retribution last Saturday (the New York attack was on Tuesday).

When the Independent newspaper wrote a column saying to the Americans “Welcome to the real world” they got it wrong.

The Yanks are still living on another planet.

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The man who kept accused war criminal Ratko Mladic’s hat in his living room

I posted this blog a few months ago but, with the arrest yesterday of former Serbian general Ratko Mladic, I thought part of it might be of interest again. It is about one of the most interesting people I never met.

* * *

Bill Foxton is dead now and we’re back to that famous Rutger Hauer death speech in Bladerunner.

He’d seen things you people wouldn’t believe and, when he died, almost all those moments were lost in time, like tears in rain. His death went mostly un-noticed, but he intersected with History.

In the mid-1990s, I (almost) wrote the autobiography of a Soviet sleeper agent who, let’s say, was called Ozymandias. I have blogged about him before. He believed that the British and the Spanish were the most violent people in Europe. He told me about a British friend called Bill Foxton who, he said, had gone to public school in Somerset, then joined the French Foreign Legion for five years and fought in the Algerian War of 1954-62.

“At that time, a lot of guys in the Legion were German,” Ozymandias told me, “Many of them former S.S. men. Bill told me that during the French Algerian War in the early 1960s, when they entered a village to ‘clear it up’, the Spaniards were the only ones who would shoot babies in their cradles. Even the ex-S.S. men didn’t do that.”

After his experiences in the Algerian War, Bill Foxton returned to England in the Swinging Sixties with lots of money in his pockets and met lots of girls who fancied him and, according to my chum Ozymandias, joined a privately-run special services group. They used to train Idi Amin’s bodyguards in Uganda and there was an incident in Qatar when the Emir’s brother was shot.

“Finally,” Ozymandias told me, “in 1969, Bill was employed as one of a group who were paid to go and kill Colonel Gaddafi in Libya. But they were stopped at London Airport by the British security services and the private company they worked for was closed down. Because of his experience, Bill was persuaded by the British authorities to join the SAS and was immediately sent to Ireland 1969-1973.

In a previous blog, I mentioned an extraordinary true story in which an Irish Republican was kidnapped in Belfast, drugged and put on a plane from Shannon to New York. Bill Foxton was involved in that. He was also a member of the British bobsleigh team in the 1972 European Championships. He was an interesting man.

In 1973, he was sent to fight in the secret war in Oman which, at the time, was called ‘the Dhofar insurgency’ and was said to be restricted to southern Oman; it was claimed the Omani Army were fighting some Yemeni insurgents. In fact, the insurgents were backed on the ground by South Yemeni regular troops supported by East German advisors and troops, acting on behalf of the Soviet Union. Oman was backed on the ground by British SAS troops (plus, in the early stages, the Royal Navy) and by units of the Shah of Iran’s army and the Jordanian Army. The commander of the British forces was an admiral and his problem was to cut the rebels’ supply routes from South Yemen into Oman. The British strategy was to construct three fences along the border, manned by more than 5,000 Iranian troops. Behind these three fences, inside Oman, the war was fought by the British SAS and Oman’s mainly Baluchi army while Jordanian desert troops defended the northern part of the desert in Dhofar province.

In 1975, Bill was inspecting a sector of the border fence when East German troops fired an RPG – a rocket-propelled grenade – at him. He was alone, but managed to jump back onto his jeep and drive off, holding his blasted and bloodied arm onto his torso with a torn strip of his uniform. He held the strip of fabric with his teeth and drove with his other hand, while the enemy troops continued firing grenades at him. He drove about 6km to a British base where a Pakistani medic came out to see him.

“I think I’ve lost my arm,” Bill said through his clenched teeth.

“Well, let’s have a look then,” the Pakistani medic replied sympathetically. Bill let go of the strip of fabric he was holding with his teeth and, when his arm fell out, the medic fainted on the spot. Alan fainted too. They flew him to the British base at Akrotiri on Cyprus, where his arm was amputated and, by the time my chum Ozymandias met him, he had an artificial one.

“I am a big man,” Ozymandias told me, “but Bill has a neck twice the girth of mine. He may only have one arm but, when we met in 1982, I could see immediately he was extremely tough. Red hair, red beard, strong, broad neck. We immediately got on.”

According to Ozymandias, Bill Foxton had won an award from the SAS:

“At that time, Bill had already lost his left arm but was still a serving member of the SAS; he was training in the deserts of Oman with younger SAS troopers closing in on his position from all sides and he buried himself in the sand. He dug a hole with his one good arm and simply buried himself deep underground. The SAS troopers passed over him without realising until he told them and the Regiment was so impressed they gave him their Award.”

After the secret war ended, Bill decided to stay in Oman and started running the Sultan’s Armed Forces (SAF) Beach Club: apparently a splendid, well-organised place with a restaurant full of ex-patriot British soldiers from a wide variety of armies. He had his SAS Award plaque hanging on the wall of his office.

I heard all these stories about Bill Foxton from my chum Ozymandias and then, one day in the 1990s, I accidentally heard him being inteviewed – Bill Foxton – he was by then spokesman for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and apparently also head of the European Commission Monitoring Mission during the Yugoslav wars.

According to Ozymandias, Bill kept a hat in his living room in Britain. The hat belonged to Serbian General Ratko Mladic. During the Yugoslav wars, Bosnian forces ambushed Mladic’s car in an attempt to assassinate him; he was not in the car but his hat was. So the Bosnians killed his driver and gave the hat to Bill, whom they admired. That was the explanation Bill Foxton gave.

In 1999 he was awarded the OBE for his work in Kosovo.

By 2008, he was working in Afghanistan, running humanitarian projects.

The next year, in February 2009, he shot himself in the head in a Southampton park with a 9mm Browning pistol after he lost his life savings – reportedly over £100,000 –  in the $64 billion Bernie Madoff fraud.

His death was not news except in the local Southern Daily Echo in Southampton. The BBC mentioned it as a ‘human interest’ aside to the Bernie Madoff ponzi scheme fraud story, like a teardrop in rain. His death went mostly un-noticed, but he intersected with History.

Oh – that British plot to assassinate Colonel Gaddafi in 1969, the year he came to power… it was allegedly stopped because the US Government felt that Gaddafi was sufficiently anti-Marxist to be worth ‘protecting’.

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The convent school comedienne who now does the sand dance in Brighton

A few days ago, I blogged about a bizarre night at comedy club Pull The Other One in Herne Hill and a very large black man with one eye, a speech defect, a shaven head, a beard and what appeared to be an MP3 player plugged into his ears.

Charmian Hughes, who compered an early part of that show, tells me she has now received from the aforementioned gent “a special painting for being intellectual… apparently it has Egyptian connotations.”

This is presumably because the mysterious and rather eccentric gent was impressed by Charmian’s… erm… unique on-stage sand dance, part of her latest hour-long show Charmian Hughes: The Ten Charmandments which she is performing for the next three Sundays at the Quadrant on the Brighton Fringe.

Her show claims to reveal ancient wisdoms “straight from the camel’s mouth” and she will be taking it up to the Edinburgh Fringe in August.

Charmian was one of the first six girls admitted to Westminster Boys’ School in 1972 which, she says, was a bit of an “intense experience” for her.

“I had come straight from my convent boarding school,” she tells me. ‘I had been educated privately in minor fee-paying convents as the only Catholic in my Protestant family – an accident of various widowings and divorcings. At Westminster, the housemaster who interviewed me hated the head, John Rae, and I think admitted me to annoy him.

“My mother didn’t even really believe in girls’ education – she’d love Afghanistan – but she wanted to shaft my father for the fees and also thought I’d get a rich husband. She really did. My dad never paid up and my mother was very disappointed in me not getting married at 18. But she did frighten off all my male chums by demanding whether their intentions were honourable in a shouty voice.”

From such beginnings are comedians made.

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A canny gaun man, the IRA, the SAS, the Oman war and the plan to assassinate Colonel Gaddafi in 1969

I agreed with Margaret Thatcher when she said Society doesn’t exist. It is made up of individuals. ‘Society’ is something made up by sociologists.

Just like History does not exist. It is made up of and by sometimes extraordinary individuals.

At the weekend, amid all the TV and radio reports from Libya and the non-reports about what is happening in Algeria, Bahrain, Jordan and Yemen, there was a tiny news item about trouble in Oman. This reminded me about one of the most interesting people I never met. He was a man you don’t meet every day.

He’s dead now and we’re back to that famous Rutger Hauer death speech in Bladerunner.

He’d seen things you people wouldn’t believe and, when he died, almost all those moments were lost in time, like tears in rain. His death went mostly un-noticed, but he intersected with History.

In the mid-1990s, I (almost) wrote the autobiography of a Soviet sleeper agent who, let’s say, was called Ozymandias. I have blogged about him before. He believed that the British and the Spanish were the most violent people in Europe. He told me about a British friend called Bill Foxton who, he said, had gone to public school in Somerset, then joined the French Foreign Legion for five years and fought in the Algerian War of 1954-62.

“At that time, a lot of guys in the Legion were German,” Ozymandias told me, “Many of them former S.S. men. Bill told me that during the French Algerian War in the early 1960s, when they entered a village to ‘clear it up’, the Spaniards were the only ones who would shoot babies in their cradles. Even the ex-S.S. men didn’t do that.”

After his experiences in the Algerian War, Bill Foxton returned to England in the Swinging Sixties with lots of money in his pockets and met lots of girls who fancied him and, according to my chum Ozymandias, joined a privately-run special services group. They used to train Idi Amin’s bodyguards in Uganda and there was an incident in Qatar when the Emir’s brother was shot.

“Finally,” Ozymandias told me, “in 1969, Bill was employed as one of a group who were paid to go and kill Colonel Gaddafi in Libya. But they were stopped at London Airport by the British security services and the private company they worked for was closed down. Because of his experience, Bill was persuaded by the British authorities to join the SAS and was immediately sent to Ireland 1969-1973.

In a previous blog, I mentioned an extraordinary true story in which an Irish Republican was kidnapped in Belfast, drugged and put on a plane from Shannon to New York. Bill Foxton was involved in that. He was also a member of the British bobsleigh team in the 1972 European Championships. He was an interesting man.

In 1973, he was sent to fight in the secret war in Oman which, at the time, was called ‘the Dhofar insurgency’ and was said to be restricted to southern Oman; it was claimed the Omani Army were fighting some Yemeni insurgents. In fact, the insurgents were backed on the ground by South Yemeni regular troops supported by East German advisors and troops, acting on behalf of the Soviet Union. Oman was backed on the ground by British SAS troops (plus, in the early stages, the Royal Navy) and by units of the Shah of Iran’s army and the Jordanian Army. The commander of the British forces was an admiral and his problem was to cut the rebels’ supply routes from South Yemen into Oman. The British strategy was to construct three fences along the border, manned by more than 5,000 Iranian troops. Behind these three fences, inside Oman, the war was fought by the British SAS and Oman’s mainly Baluchi army while Jordanian desert troops defended the northern part of the desert in Dhofar province.

In 1975, Bill was inspecting a sector of the border fence when East German troops fired an RPG – a rocket-propelled grenade – at him. He was alone, but managed to jump back onto his jeep and drive off, holding his blasted and bloodied arm onto his torso with a torn strip of his uniform. He held the strip of fabric with his teeth and drove with his other hand, while the enemy troops continued firing grenades at him. He drove about 6km to a British base where a Pakistani medic came out to see him.

“I think I’ve lost my arm,” Bill said through his clenched teeth.

“Well, let’s have a look then,” the Pakistani medic replied sympathetically. Bill let go of the strip of fabric he was holding with his teeth and, when his arm fell out, the medic fainted on the spot. Alan fainted too. They flew him to the British base at Akrotiri on Cyprus, where his arm was amputated and, by the time my chum Ozymandias met him, he had an artificial one.

“I am a big man,” Ozymandias told me, “but Bill has a neck twice the girth of mine. He may only have one arm but, when we met in 1982, I could see immediately he was extremely tough. Red hair, red beard, strong, broad neck. We immediately got on.”

According to Ozymandias, Bill Foxton had won an award from the SAS:

“At that time, Bill had already lost his left arm but was still a serving member of the SAS; he was training in the deserts of Oman with younger SAS troopers closing in on his position from all sides and he buried himself in the sand. He dug a hole with his one good arm and simply buried himself deep underground. The SAS troopers passed over him without realising until he told them and the Regiment was so impressed they gave him their Award.”

After the secret war ended, Bill decided to stay in Oman and started running the Sultan’s Armed Forces (SAF) Beach Club: apparently a splendid, well-organised place with a restaurant full of ex-patriot British soldiers from a wide variety of armies. He had his SAS Award plaque hanging on the wall of his office.

I heard all these stories about Bill Foxton from my chum Ozymandias and then, one day in the 1990s, I accidentally heard him being inteviewed – Bill Foxton – he was by then spokesman for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and apparently also head of the European Commission Monitoring Mission during the Yugoslav wars.

According to Ozymandias, Bill kept a hat in his living room in Britain. The hat belonged to Serbian General Ratko Mladic – who is still on the run for war crimes as I write this. During the Yugoslav wars, Bosnian forces ambushed Mladic’s car in an attempt to assassinate him; he was not in the car but his hat was. So the Bosnians killed his driver and gave the hat to Bill, whom they admired. That was the explanation Bill Foxton gave.

In 1999 he was awarded the OBE for his work in Kosovo.

By 2008, he was working in Afghanistan, running humanitarian projects.

The next year, in February 2009, he shot himself in the head in a Southampton park with a 9mm Browning pistol after he lost his life savings – reportedly over £100,000 –  in the $64 billion Bernie Madoff fraud.

His death was not news except in the local Southern Daily Echo in Southampton. The BBC mentioned it as a ‘human interest’ aside to the Bernie Madoff ponzi scheme fraud story, like a teardrop in rain. His death went mostly un-noticed, but he intersected with History.

Oh – that British plot to assassinate Colonel Gaddafi in 1969, the year he came to power… it was allegedly stopped because the US Government felt that Gaddafi was sufficiently anti-Marxist to be worth ‘protecting’.

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Dangerous holidays in quirky places

The most dangerous place I was ever on holiday was Bogota in Colombia in 1983, at a time when the Medellin and Cali drug cartels were on the rise. At that time, the presumption in Bogota was that any white Westerner speaking English was carrying large amounts of cash to use in major drug deals.

About an hour after arriving in the city, I was crossing a central road junction when I heard a slight scuffle behind me. My companion, walking about four steps behind had been mugged by two men.

“They held two knives at my throat, so I gave them my wallet,” he told me, slightly surprised. “It seemed like a good idea at the time.” It must have taken all of four seconds.

I remember, one Sunday morning, the two of us walking down a main street in the city – walking on the actual road, not the pavement, because it seemed safer to risk being hit by a car than walking close to narrow alleyways and shop doorways. It was less paranoia than common sense. A week or so later, in Lima, Peru, I got chatting to a young American in the bar of the Sheraton hotel.

“Yeah, Bogota is dangerous,” he agreed. He told me he visited the city quite often.

“What do you do?” I asked.

“I’m in the import/export business,” he told me.

“Ah,” I replied.

I like interesting places but not dangerous ones.

Yesterday I went to the Destinations holiday exhibition at Earls Court in London, courtesy of the wonderful travel company Regent Holidays. In 1979, I went with them to Albania, largely because I had read the country had no motorised traffic and was dotted with pillbox bunkers in case they got invaded by unspecified other nations. “Dotted with pillboxes” turned out to be an understatement. Albania had concrete pillboxes like a pointillist painting has dots – and they were white curved things which could be clearly seen from a distance (surely not a good idea for a pill-box).

Albania in 1979 was a restful country – said to be the poorest in Europe – and, indeed, it had virtually no motorised vehicles. Occasionally you might spot a military truck or a Mercedes-Benz limo belonging to the Party; other than that it was horse-drawn carts and people walking. It was ruled by the admirably OTT Marxist-Leninist dictator Enver Hoxha who was said to always carry a pistol on his hip and once shot a member of his government over a dinner argument.

Now that’s my kinda ruler!

You can imagine Boris Johnson, given a tiny bit more power, doing that sort of thing.

Albania in 1979 was the most eccentric place I had been until I wisely went to North Korea with Regent Holidays in 1985. I recommend the country highly. When I went, it was ruled by The Great Leader (that was his official title) Kim il-sung about whom I’m saying nothing as I might want to go back there sometime. All I will say is that I went in 1985 and 1985 was a year late for North Korea’s definitive year. It was illegal for individuals to own a radio: the simplest effective piece of state control over people’s thoughts I have ever heard of.

Regent Holidays specialised then and specialise now in unusual destinations and, during the Cold War, that often meant extreme Communist regimes. I do lament the passing of widespread hardline Communism because you were always safe travelling to communist countries and right wing dictatorships. If anyone messed with foreign-currency-carrying tourists in those countries, the perpetrators tended to end up being thrown in a cell and the key thrown away or being shot in a football stadium. This tended to minimise casual street muggings.

I went to a lot of Communist countries during the Cold War because I was sadly too late for all the truly great right wing dictatorships. The only right wing dictatorship I did visit was Paraguay under General Stroessner. He is reported to have been ousted in 1989 because his military chiefs feared he would be succeeded either by his son Freddie, a cocaine addict, or by his son Gustavo, “who was loathed for being a homosexual and a pilot”. Bigotry apparently ran deep in Paraguay.

People have always told me I should go to Cuba and maybe I should, but I never felt it was extreme or eccentric enough. Fidel Castro always seemed to me a decent sort-of chap though, like comedian Ken Dodd, he tended to drastically over-run on his allotted stage time. He (I mean Fidel, not Doddy) ousted a particularly nasty dictator in Batista; this understandably annoyed the American Mafia, in particular Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky – and it is never a good idea to annoy powerful chaps like them. The modern-day equivalent might be a pub singer annoying Simon Cowell.

Having gained power, Fidel did approach US American President Eisenhower for aid and a meeting and was rebuffed. So it always seemed to me that Fidel was a decent bloke and the Americans brought on their own heads what followed. I mean, honestly, chaps in Langley getting CIA operatives to try to kill Fidel with an exploding cigar or to discredit him by trying to make his hair fall out… well, it’s the basis for a good comedy movie and I admire the lateral thinking, but leave the poor man alone.

I prefer holidays in quirky countries with eccentric dictators and there are precious few at the moment.

I did go to Turkmenistan in 1995 because President Saparmurat Niyazov sounded doolally. Sadly, he wasn’t, at that time, eccentric enough for my taste, though he did go slightly more impressively barking a little later: re-naming months of the year after members of his family and officially replacing the Turkmen word for “bread” with the name of his mother.

I like countries in a state of flux which will have changed utterly in 20 years time. Where is there to go now? Chechnya? Ingushetia? I’m not that mad. Somalia? You’re joking.

At Earls Court yesterday, the most interesting stand by far was Hinterland Travel, who were selling holidays to Afghanistan – their brochure was sub-titled “Discerning Adventures” which I don’t think anyone could dispute.

Around 1989, a friend suggested we go on holiday to Afghanistan because, she claimed,  “it’ll be safer in a couple of years or so”. It never did get safer. At the time she suggested it, I read that commercial jets were landing at Kabul Airport by making very tight spiral descents in an attempt to confuse any in-coming heat-seeking surface-to-air missiles. There comes a point where “interesting” strays into “fucking dangerous” and, call me a wimp, but this was well over that line.

On 15th October this year, Hinterland Travel are offering a 14-day trip starting in Afghanistan costing £2,100. This adventure holiday for discerning travellers who are attracted to something slightly different from a Spanish beach holiday is called “The Retreat”. It starts in Kabul and aims to recreate the retreat of the British Army from Kabul to Jalalabad in 1842.

A note at the back of the leaflet says: “We do insist that you take out some form of insurance… principally health and repatriation cover while recognising that you will not be covered for Afghanistan re War and Terrorism.”

Suddenly Bogota in 1983 doesn’t seem so dangerous.

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