About a year and a half ago, I was sent by Radio 4 to Moscow to do a programme on the late Leonid Brezhnev. Why I agreed to go to Moscow in midwinter is beyond me, but there we were, the producer and I, and the fixer, shivering in the slush. A fixer? Well, the producer, Neil George, had come with me, and as neither producer Neil George nor I knew any Russian or the local lie of the land, the BBC office in Moscow kindly let us have a fixer.
(This always sounds disreputable, as if it were some kind of drug pusher or someone who can get your record to Number One, but in fact it just means someone who knows the ropes and can fix things like meetings, and interviews, and transport. Our fixer turned out to be a very glamorous young lady who could fix almost anything. I was impressed on the first day when she stepped out into the street and put up her hand, and the first car stopped immediately and gave us a lift. I did not realise till later that private Muscovite drivers now act as part time taxi drivers, and if you are going the same way as they are, they will take you for a small fee.)
After Moscow, I never thought I would see her again, but not long ago I got an email from her. She was now working in London. She needed my help. Could I give her a ring on her mobile . . .?
I don’t know about you, but I am always pessimistic when I hear a plea for help. I imagine the worst. ‘Oh, I need to borrow £10,000 . . . I need to come and stay for six months with all my family. . . ‘
It wasn’t like that at all. She was now working in London for a Russian TV news channel, and she had recently had a message from head office in Moscow, asking why she had not followed up the recent story in a British newspaper that Vladimir Putin might have been behind the assassination of Princess Diana.
‘Diana?!’ she said. ‘Putin?! But . . .’
‘It was a story in The Independent,’ said her boss. ‘Written by someone called Miles Kington.’
‘Oh, him!’ she said. ‘But he is a humorous writer! It won’t be true if he wrote it!’
The thing is, you see, that in most serious newspapers in most serious countries they do not have humorous writers making things up, especially in Russia. Her boss suggested that if she knew me, she should get in touch with me and ask me to explain my conspiracy theory about Putin and Diana.
Hence the plea for help. It was the tenth anniversary of Diana’s death. Russian TV was always looking for a Russian angle to a news story. My crazy theory that Putin had something to do with it was the nearest thing to a Russian angle they had. Could they come down to my house and interview me about it?
And so it came about that she brought a charming Russian cameraman down to Bath to interview me about Putin, and conspiracy theories, and murder plots, and we sat in my sunny garden in the English afternoon, and I told them in all seriousness that the British LOVED unsolved mysteries like the fate of Litvinienko and Lord Lucan and Princess Diana, and that even when they were solved, we refused to accept the solution, preferring to keep it unsolved. I said that we admired Putin, because whenever he acquired an enemy, that enemy disappeared soon afterwards, and it would be nice if we had someone like Putin on our side, because then we could get rid of people like Robert Mugabe with no trouble. And it was quite possible that Putin had arranged for Diana to be murdered, not because she was an enemy of Russia, but because he needed the practice . . .
And when my interviewer asked me if I had sources for all my outrageous information, I said that my sources visited me in the middle of the night, leaving all this information behind in my dreams, but never leaving their names or address, and the Russians laughed, and said that would be quite enough . . .
I enjoyed making all this up, but it involves taking a risk. Years ago, just after the Falklands War had ended, when I was doing a column for The Times, I pretended that I had hired General Galtieri as my guest problem solver. Poor old Galtieri was now out of work, I said, and needed the job as an agony aunt. I used to make up reader’s problems for him to tackle, and then make up his solutions. One “reader” wrote in to ask if he thought Argentina would ever get the Falklands back again. 'Oh yes, my friend,' said “Galtieri”, 'because we Argentines have something you want in return: we have Shergar, the famous kidnapped racehorse, and we will swap it for the Malvinas. . .'
A month later the editor of The Times rang me up and said I would have to lay off General Galtieri.
‘Why on earth . . ?’ I said.
‘Because our man in Buenos Aires is getting death threats,’ he said.
It turned out that some Italian news service had picked up my Galtieri item, believed it, and flashed it round the world where everyone else believed it as well, and were happy to accept that Argentine had indulged in horsenapping. Hence the death threats. People really do believe what they read in the papers, or what they hear on the telly.
So if you hear that I have been mysteriously done away with, I would not rule Vladimir Putin out of suspicion.
Friday Sep 7 2007