As a reward for completing a rather nasty investigation which almost involved me being both arrested and hauled off by some over-enthusiastic foreign intelligence services, the editor of Esquire magazine (the brilliant and visionary Peter Howarth) suggested I do an article on James Bond’s author Ian Fleming. I was delighted and envisioned myself meeting old spooks in London and eating lots of eggs (sort of like Sebastian Faulks when he wrote the excellent Devil May Care except shorter, without the blond curls/beard and flowing Byronic white shirts and, okay, writing ability too). Anyway, I was actually informed I was being sent to ‘Goldeneye’ which was the house in Jamaica where Fleming wrote his 14 Bond books. A week later I arrived in the sunshine, stretched out on the bed, and as U2′s Bono landed in a helicopter nearby (I am not kidding), I signed the visitor’s book below entries from Harrison Ford and Pierce Brosnan, I knew I’d arrived. Alas, I was only there for a few days but I did get to sit in the same chair as Fleming, eat outdoors at my private dining table as he did and, best of all, swim in the warm sea yards from his private beach which was mine for the stay. A week later, I was back in Scotland, travelling in my Jeep to remote Plockton and then onto Inverness to meet one of the men Bond was based on. It was good to be back, the Scottish Highlands never looked better, the ex-secret agent himself was amazing but oh, how I missed that damn Goldeneye… a feeling I used in the article. Read the PDF here: FLEMING BOND
I wanted to have an in-depth look at the British National Party (BNP) for some time. Managing to gain access was the inevitable difficulty. They’re not an easy bunch to tag along with. But I persisted and eventually they let me ‘inside’. It was a surreal and unsettling journey.
Just watched Channel 4′s True Stories documentary ‘Tyson’. I was reminded of my own excursion into his orbit a decade ago. This was one of the stranger pieces I did. It was fascinating for me – someone who watched his career as a fan, journalist and fairly serious ex-amateur boxer – to finally meet him.
It was sad though: he reminded me of King Kong being paraded for the crowds. His way of asserting control was to lose control. I enjoyed meeting all the great boxing journalists who lived in that world all the time. They were great guys. Mike Costello from the BBC was such a gentleman and very helpful to me. This was also the project that brought me into contact with Esquire USA’s world-class writer Tom Junod, who I count as a friend and much-respected colleague now.
This journey took me from the grave of Tyson’s legendary trainer, Cus D’Amato in Catskill, New York State to the fetid, unreal atmosphere of the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, Nevada. By the time the article was completed, I’d had enough of the Las Vegas and the insane Tyson-Circus too. His people treated me like crap. They probably thought they’d no strategic need for me. Then, months later, guess what happened? Tyson came to Scotland for a fight at Hampden… Suddenly his guys contacted me. I was probably the only Scotland-based journalist they knew. I didn’t return their calls. But, on the day of his bout, The Scotsman printed this article – bought from Esquire where it first appeared – and ran it under the accurate (and not very original) header: ‘Requiem for a Heavyweight’. It felt like payback for me. So, I’d travelled 2,000+ miles to write this article, then stayed home on the night Tyson was fighting 60 mins drive from my front door. I’d seen enough of him, the ‘team’ Tyson surrounding him and the sad, violent madness that followed and attached itself to him like the stench of a week-old corpse.
He’d stopped being the innovative, controlled, heavyweight protege I’d watched in awe and had, pathetically, become something else: a cracked soul groping through the darkness as he searched for the man who’d made him – Cus d’Amatao.
Footnote: The main photograph of the stripped-for-weigh-in Tyson image was taken by myself in the MGM Grand. I took it on an afternoon when an alarming but by local-standards, mild earthquake, shook Sin-City: I was on the horn to my editor, the beautiful and brilliant Joanne Glasbey back in London when I suddenly had to say, ‘Eh Jo, the room and building are swaying – gotta run!’ My assigned snapper didn’t show up in time for the photo-call later that afternoon so I was dragooned into duty. I later sold this image to Vogue magazine – but never received a penny – and it’s now vanished into the black-hole of the internet and is freely available. Lesson learnt!
I see that Omar Bakri is back in the news again.
He’s now hanging around Lebanon and engaged in various dust-ups with the legal authorities out there. What’s evident is that he’s now distancing himself from the whole Jihad world and in particular keen to put daylight between himself and Osama Bin Laden.
When I spotted these reports I had to smile a little, simply because his riff has changed completely since the night I met him in a Burger King in Tottenham Hale, North London. I never found him as harmless or ludicrous as some commentators did. After investigating his links for Esquire magazine (see article link below) with two UK suicide bombers who slaughtered innocent people in Israel I always thought he was far more connected and sinister than he sometimes deliberately appeared.
Back then he was keen to put himself up as Osama Bin Laden’s point-man in the UK, and equally keen to invite me back to his flat to view some ‘martyr’ videos. I declined his offer.
After the July 2005 terror attacks in London, the editor of this article was kind enough to call me and remind me how I had implicitly warned in this text that the UK capital would be next as a target. I re-read this piece and I suppose I was indeed trying to signal that to the reader – especially after meeting a dangerous guy like Bakri – but I wish I’d been wrong.
I was very moved to read press accounts from the inquest into the London terror attacks in 2005. I was especially interested in the testimony of Professor John Tulloch who gave evidence recently. I first interviewed this very brave man during my investigation into the attacks a few years back for Esquire magazine. I am posting the article here and hope you find it as interesting to read as I did to research.
Meeting terrorist leaders is a strange experience. I should know, having met, interviewed and shadowed more than my fair share.
So I watched Tony Blair being interviewed by the always-excellent Andrew Marr last night with particular interest to see what he’d say about the Northern Irish Peace Process. I reported on this heavily and was the only journalist to get access to Gerry Adams en-route to Downing Street.
At one point Tony Blair was asked about his dealings with Northern Ireland paramilitary/terrorist (pick your term) leaders Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness. Marr asked him about the fact he seemed to find the two men something akin to ‘Okay…’ Blair paused, visibly took a deep breath and answered, ‘Yes…’
I admired this.
I’ve met innumerable leaders from the dodgy-end of the spectrum who in theory I should have detested. Meeting them changed my mind. I am not saying I sign up to the causes and past-crimes or misdeeds, but once in a while – for better or worse – it is a fact these guys have more to them than meets the eye. And when you meet them you sense it and you’d be an idiot not to weave it into your work. I once read a report on McGuinness which (I paraphrase) mentioned that he, ‘Was good officer material’. It was written by MI5.
Anyway, here’s my Esquire article on him. Researching it was an experience and a half… If only to see the IRA’s ‘Boy General’ visibly flinch when I told him I knew he’d visited Cleland, North Lanarkshire, Scotland in 1968 and, as his mouth dropped open, I was able to name the family he’d stayed with and the street they lived in. For one awful moment, he clearly thought I was part of the UK’s Security Service.
In truth, my mum went to the village RC parochial hall bingo with the woman in question and one of my sisters remembers McGuinness attending local Mass.
Fact is always stranger than fiction.
And thanks to Simon Tiffin, former Esquire editor for backing this risky assignment, Features-Editor Shaun Philips for some world-class editing of my over-reaching prose and finally, William Cherry, Belfast-photography legend, for visibly not-flinching when McGuinness took me on a tour of the Stormont parliament to show me the rooms he knew 100% were, er, bugged.
Following the excellent Washington Post series Top Secret America, which I wrote about on this site recently, I wanted to share this Esquire article I did a while back, looking at the secret Echelon spying system which the USA runs, but the UK has (limited) access to. I was shocked at the level of surveillance which exists on UK soil but run and staffed by the USA’s intelligence personnel. I am now looking into how this world has expanded in the UK and also how the private sector increasingly plays a role in running it.
I always wondered about the hunt for Osama Bin Laden in the Tora Bora region of Afghanistan in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks on New York city. How was the hunt organised? Who were the men sent to find Bin Laden? What happened in the hours, weeks and months of their hunt for the world’s most wanted man? Only one man could really answer my question: Gary Berntsen – the CIA operative who handled Operation Jawbreaker. I met him on a hot day in New York and he spoke for hours about precisely was happened. This is that story…
This is an investigation I did a while back looking at rogue MI5 man David Shayler. I caught up with him over a memorable month or so in Paris as he appeared in court, left jail and finally settled into a bizarre life of dodging other intelligence agencies in the French capital. It was a weird world to enter to say the least and quite frightening at times too. I know David’s gone a bit odd these days but for the record, I will always remember the nice guy he was back then. I could leave his life and go home – he couldn’t.
In 1999 I was asked to investigate Stuart Gair’s alleged miscarriage of justice. Ten years before he’d been convicted of murdering a man called Peter Smith in Glasgow’s city-centre. It was a complex case and took much time tracking down witnesses and analysing forensic reports. I finally arrived at the conclusion that the police had got the wrong man – I suspect the detectives knew that from the beginning. It was another 7 years before I sat next to Stuart – the only journalist present – in the Appeal Court in Edinburgh and watched three judges overturn his conviction. Sadly, whilst awaiting compensation for his long years behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit, Stuart died 18 months later from a series of heart attacks.