My part in educating Mr Al Fayed in the demotic branch of the English language
Imet Mr Mohamed AI Fayed just once. I was entertained by him; entertained in both senses of the word. It was at a time when he was being much mentioned in these pages by several regular contributors. The mentions were all unfavourable. His famous public-relations man, Mr Cole, who has now left his service, would usually be the one who replied in Letters to the Editor, but on a couple of occasions a letter arrived signed by Mr Al Fayed himself. (I shall per- sist in including the `Al' in his name. I realise that many, including Mr Hamilton and his lawyers, deny his right to it, arguing that it is a Middle Eastern title which has to be bestowed by some higher authority, or inherited, and that he is entitled to it on nei- ther count. But I believe in addressing peo- ple as they wish to be addressed. He could call himself King Fayed for all I care. I might draw the line at Duke Fayed, but even then the principle would be no differ- ent — as in Duke Ellington.) We at The Spectator were especially delighted when the letters bore Mr Al Fayed's signature. It is no disrespect to Mr Cole's vast collected letters on his behalf to say that Mr Al Fayed writing, or at least signing personally, was an exceptional attraction from our point of view. After we printed a couple, I wrote to Mr Al Fayed to say that he had provided us with so much lively, free material that the least we could do was to ask him to lunch at The Spectator. He replied that he would be delighted to have lunch with me but would prefer it to be in the restaurant at Harrods. He added that the meal would, of course, be Egyptian or Maghrebian, with much couscous. But he quickly explained one sentence later that he was only joking, and that I would be offered the roast beef of old England.
Someone with knowledge of him explained that he had declined our offer of lunch on the grounds that he wanted to avoid being poisoned. I replied that our food was not that bad. Indeed, most of our guests admired it. No, really poisoned, it was fur- ther explained. He thinks that there are a lot of powerful people out there [lying to poi- son him. I was, of course, flattered. It is always agreeable to be thought powerful.
The lunch duly took place at Harrods: Mr Al Fayed, Mr Cole and me. Very early in the conversation he dismissed a promi- nent British politician as a 'fuckhead'. I think it was the then prime minister, Mr
Major. But Mr Howard, the then home sec- retary, was soon called a 'fuckhead' too. So were successive chancellors of the exche- quer and foreign secretaries. Eventually even Lady Thatcher qualified. Then we got on to journalists. Quite a few of us were also luckheads'. The worrying thought crossed my mind: at his next lunch, will I be one too?
After a while, I interrupted to say that, admiring though I was of his command of English, I thought the word he had been looking for, the word he must really have had in mind, was 'dickhead', not 'fuckhead'.
`So sorry, thank you,' he replied with impeccable courtesy, capping one side of his head with the palm of one hand, `Thanks for correcting me.' His tone was as if I had put him right about a point of grammar or a line of English poetry: 'A host of golden daffodils, Mr Al Fayed, not chrysanthemums.'
I then mused to him that the term of abuse in question, `dickhead', was of rela- tively recent usage. I had first heard it only about a decade before, from the lips of the young. In due course, I had heard Mr Tony Banks, a Labour politician who likes us to think that he has a command of the demot- ic, use it in the Commons.
'Really!' said Mr Al Fayed in a scholarly tone. It was clear that Mr Al Fayed also liked to keep up with the demotic, and I had contributed to his impressive command of this branch of our language. When we parted, he gave me a Harrods teddy bear. Back in the office, colleagues debated whether, in order to save me from myself, they had better perform surgery on it to ensure that it contained neither a tape recorder nor pound notes. A carving knife was fetched from the 'kitchen. I seized the beast and ran off with it into the night, pre- senting it eventually to a friend's child.
Later, in an interview, Mr AI Fayed, asked whether it was true that he tended to give his guests teddy bears, replied, 'Only if I think he's a good guy.' I do not know whether I come well out of this story.
The memory of that genial lunch came back to me on Monday when curiosity took me to the Royal Courts of Justice in the Strand for the first day of Hamilton v. Al Fayed. Until Monday, I had not thought of Mr Al Fayed as a serious figure. That is not intended as an adverse criticism of him. That the origins of the owner of Harrods
are also a matter of dispute is a similar reminder that even the grandest institu- tions, of which Harrods is one, can have something comic about them. But every- thing about Monday was serious. Frighten- ingly so, for here were two people trying to destroy one another.
That is a serious and frightening thing. It is something which rarely happens in our pub- lic life. It is nearly always absent from the contest between the two parliamentary front benches. Neither Mr Blair nor Mr Hague wants to destroy the other. Mr Brown and Mr Mandelson perhaps do. Lady Thatcher and Mr Heseltine perhaps wanted to. But neither Brown v. Mandelson nor Thatcher v. Heseltine is about destruction in the way that Hamilton v. Al Fayed is. Politicians who lose such games do not lose much save office. Office may be what they covet most. But the loss of office, or lack of it, does not lower them in the eyes of the population at large, for whom which politician holds which office is almost entirely a matter of indiffer- ence. But defeat for Mr Al Fayed or Mr Hamilton is loss of reputation in the popula- tion's eyes. The forthcoming libel action between the Tory treasurer, Mr Ashcroft, and the Times's editor, Mr Stothard will have the same horrible quality. The observer can only look on in awe.
My own test of whether someone is enduring an ordeal is whether I would wish to be them. I had no wish to be either Mr Al Fayed or Mr Hamilton this week, where- as, in the various crises of their careers, it would be amusing and interesting to be Lady Thatcher, Mr Heseltine, Mr Brown or even for a short time Mr Mandelson, pro- vided it wasn't at the time of that loan.
Street's mock-Gothic added to the hor- ror. It added to the sense that something awful was going to happen to either Mr AI Fayed or Mr Hamilton, rather in the way of the similarly sinister buildings conjured up by Edgar Allan Poe. Lawyers swarmed in one of the corridors. The fabled Mr Car- man, appearing for Mr Al Fayed, stood rigidly in a circle of solicitors and wigs, exuding that air of force of which some small men are capable when motionless, and expensive.
The judge made his joke about how sur- prising it was that none of the jury were fans of Fulham football club, which Mr Al Fayed owns. (Laughter in court.) That added to the gloom.