When you hit the Georgian capital Tbilisi in 1992 you stayed at the Metechi Palace Hotel. Everyone did.
You got a taxi from the airport. It cost $5 and the driver spent more time negotiating bribes with the roadblocks manned by young men with AK-47s and leather jackets than he did at the wheel.
The city was a wreck, smoke-black from the recent fighting. Out the taxi window you saw the shops embracing free enterprise, selling Malaysian exercise books, Korean playing cards, fake Camel cigarettes, leather jackets from Turkey. The bookshops that sold only Soviet engineering texts and copies of the twelve century Georgian epic poem, The Knight in the Panther’s Skin, that everyone in the country already owned. The Stalinist-style parliament building, half destroyed in the fighting, its supporting columns eaten away by RPG rounds. The street vendors selling orthodox icons, nesting dolls, glassware, ornamental daggers, the family silver.
Sitting comfortably? Then put a new cigarette in its ivory holder and refresh your whisky and soda. Get the servants to stoke the fire because these old houses can get so cold at night. And make sure your service revolver in the desk drawer is loaded. Captain Grimes is coming round tonight to discuss the accounts.
The little matter of those post-dated cheques in the mess tin. You might be forced to take the gentleman’s way out. Or you might be forced to shoot Captain Grimes.
The wealthiest stratum of British society has always prided itself on loyalty and devotion to duty. But too many of the aristocrats, trust fund beneficiaries and members of the officer class who sit at the apex of Britain’s social triangle have a moral backbone like a bit of wet spaghetti. From Rupert Bellville to Simon Raven, the Earl of Erroll to John Aspinall, the most respectable part of the country has churned out black sheep on a production line scale.
So put away that portfolio of artistic French photographs and leave answering the love note from your brother’s wife until later. Let’s take a stroll through the last one hundred years of bankrupt aristocrats, corrupt golden youths, and frankly untrustworthy remittance men. Books and the odd flick will be our signposts.
We’ll start gently, with some flawed heroes. Let’s go back to the days when we still had an Empire … .
When the ambulance crew got there they found Stepan Bandera dead on the block’s third floor landing outside his apartment. The crew guessed the fifty-year-old Ukranian had died from a fall. Bandera’s crying wife insisted he had been murdered. It was Thursday 15 October 1959.
It took until the following Tuesday for the coroner’s report to reach Munich police. The Ukrainian had traces of cyanide in his stomach. Now it looked like suicide.
“We are completely in the dark as to the motive,” a police spokesman told reporters.
Wednesday, 22 August 1962. Ten past eight in the evening.
It was just a yellow Estafette van parked in front of a hedge on the road to Villacoublay. The few pedestrians around didn’t pay it any attention.
If they had, they would have seen Serge Bernier sitting in the back, a slim and blond Korean War veteran with startlingly blue eyes. A man called Lazlo Varga at the wheel. Three men in the back seat: Gérard Buisines, and the Hungarians known as Sari and Marton.
Observers might have wondered why Bernier was scanning the road with a pair of binoculars. The answer was simple: Charles De Gaulle’s limousine sometimes used this route. And the men in the van were trying to kill him.
On the morning of Monday 19 July 1976 two employees of the Société Générale’s Nice branch trotted down the stairs to the steel door of the bank’s underground vault. The pair of keys required to open the vault door had to be turned simultaneously in locks too far apart to be operated by the same man. Société Générale prided itself on its security measures.
Each man inserted his key in the lock and turned it, expecting the door to swing open. Nothing happened. They tried again. Same result. It would be three and a half hours before anyone discovered the vault door had been sealed shut from the inside with a welding arc.
The soldier in the photograph was blond as a wheat field. He had a bandage wrapped around his face and an AK-47 in his hand.
“Dominique Borella, photographié sur la rive-est du Mékong au moment de l’offensive ‘rouge’ du 3 février 1975. Bléssé depuis plusieurs jours par éclats de grenades à la jambe gauche, il vient alors d’être touché au visage …”
Dominique Borella, photographed on the east bank of the Mekong during the 3 February 1975 ‘Red’ offensive. Injured in the left leg by grenade shrapnel a few days earlier, he has just been hit in the face … .
The President of the United States gets a lot of unsolicited mail. Sack loads of begging letters, death threats, pleas for help, heartfelt congratulations, generalised hate mail, and closely worded arguments for the existence of alien life pour into the over-worked post room at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Most of it is from correspondents unaware they are less important to the President than he is to them.