In my long and sometimes adventurous life I have had a few rough encounters with the law (and with the lawless, come to that). But nothing like the one that occurred this week in Majorca – of which more later. Once, at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport, I was strip-searched by the KBG after they had seen me slip a book (about the Beatles, not some stolen documents) to my tour guide as I walked to the plane. The poor woman was probably sent to Siberia.
In Aspen, Colorado, I was held at gun-point by the FBI after I had stumbled in the dark and the rain into the grounds of Henry Kissinger’s villa, mistaking it for the one I was staying in next door. Not only did the then Secretary of State survive this suspected assassination bid, but has lived on to the age of 96. I reminded him of this story when I interviewed him in New York many years later.
In Africa, where I was a foreign correspondent, I was several times faced by guns while trying to interview terrorists. On one occasion, after I had crossed the Zambezi into Mozambique by car on a shaky raft, I was met by gunmen and forced up a track and locked in a large hangar. Assuming they were Frelimo terrorists and that I was about to die in a Valentine’s Day massacre, I was surprised to find that my car was being sprayed with tetse fly repellent, after which I was sent on my way.
On another occasion, during a civil war in Malawi, I was driving with a Daily Mirror reporter towards the front line when we were stopped by armed men and told to wind down our car windows. They then stuck a gun against each of our heads and pushed flashlights into our faces, as it was getting dark. When they saw we were white, they roared with laughter and passed us cans of Coca-Cola. Had we been black, they would probably have blown our heads off.
Another time an African dictator poked me jn the chest and warned in a menacing voice: “Keep out of my politics, white man!” I got the impression that next time, if I failed to heed the warning, it wouldn’t be a finger that was poking my chest.
During the lockdown I am not allowed out very much. My wife does all the shopping because of my “vulnerable” age and because I recently spent three nights in hospital with a persistent cough, I tested negative for coronavirus, thank goodness, but positive for acute bronchitis, from which it has taken several weeks to recover.
I am allowed to drive to the rubbish dump (there is no weekly collection, since our finca is rather inaccessible on the side of a mountain) and to pick up the mail, on the assumption that I won’t meet anyone at these venues who could possibly infect me.
The other day, however, on a lovely sunny afternoon, I had a sudden yearning to see the sea. I remember having exactly the same feeling once before, when I was at school in the English Midlands, as far from the sea as it is possible to be. Psychologists may have a name for this compulsion. There was nothing I could do about it then.
This time I decided to take a diversion onto the Llenaire road out of Pollenca. I had just passed the Llenaire Hotel when I saw that cars were being held up ahead at the crossing onto the Alcudia road, with the lights flashing on police cars. Realising that I wouldn’t be able to get through to the sea, I abandoned my journey and turned round to go home. The next thing I heard was a green Guardia Civil car racing up behind me, lights blazing and siren screeching – like “an ice cream van with lights on,” as Peter Rabbit used to say. It cut across in front of me and forced me to stop. After a telling off – not just for being beyond the 1km limit from my home but for evading a police road block – I had to hand over all my identity documents. The officers, one male, one female, were wearing guns, of course, though they didn’t feel a need to get them out of the holsters when confronting a small and clearly harmless octogenarian. The female even smiled once. Eventually, I was released with a caution and told to expect a letter from them.
I will probably get a huge fine, which I suppose I deserve, though I wasn’t likely to infect anyone by driving along the sea-front and returning home. By the time the fine arrives in a few weeks’ time, it may well be legal to do that anyway.
Things will never be “normal” again
It would be callous to say that anyone was “lucky” to contract coronavirus. It is an awful disease, with uncertain origins and no known cure. Boris Johnson must have suffered greatly and felt he was close to the kind of death suffered by tens of thousands of the people he governs.
Politically, however, he has undoubtedly benefitted from the increased authority brought by his absence, chiefly because the rest of his Cabinet looked so weak and evasive. It was fortunate for him that others had to answer the persistent complaints about the inadequacies of testing and protective clothing.
The timely arrival of a new baby in Downing Street has reinforced public awareness of his humanity and increased his popularity, if only with those who liked him anyway. One has to hope and pray that he will now demonstrate the qualities of a true national leader.
It is annoying to hear from commentators whose tone implies that the need for an immediate exit from lockdown is obvious to anyone with a brain to think with and that a return to “normal” life is being obstructed by know-all doctors and dithering politicians.
The truth is no one really knows what is the right or the wrong thing to do in this deadly situation – and anyone who thinks they do know must be a fool. I doubt if Britain will ever return to what we regard as normal and minds should now be directed towards defining a “new normal” that will acknowledge the uncomfortable facts of a country with a shattered economy and seriously disrupted lives.
This is not a counsel of despair, but a dawning recognition that Britain and the rest of the world will only achieve any form of prosperity in future by abandoning old ways of thinking, living and working and having the ingenuity and enterprise to create a different kind of future for themselves.