Friday 28 February 2014

Our Never-Ending Fascination with the Rise and Fall of Tyrants

The world – or at least the world’s media – are now transfixed by the hunt for Viktor Yanukovych, newly deposed President of the Ukraine, and with exposing the extent of his corruption and extravagance while in power. The rises and falls of tyrants and autocrats always make fascinating and satisfying storylines.  

I confess that the first, (and sometimes only), criterion that I apply when deciding whether I want to take a ghostwriting assignment is whether I find the author and the story “interesting”. The most “interesting” people, however, are not always the ones you would trust to care for your children, your grandmother or even your favourite puppy.  To me, “interesting” still means people the like of which I have not come across before, or people who have lived lives that I do not yet know anything about.

Had a charismatic young German leader contacted me in the nineteen thirties and asked me to help with a book he was planning, tentatively entitled “Mein Kampf”, I might well have skipped over as naively as a Mitford sister to see what the fuss was all about. Lord knows how long it would have been before the penny dropped and I realised the full horror of what this strange little man was actually talking about and I would then have ended up as deep in the soup as the unfortunate P.G. Wodehouse. I might have been equally tempted by a ticket to China to volunteer to help young Chairman Mao knock his thoughts into shape for the infamous Little Red Book.

When I first travelled to Haiti Baby Doc would be ensconced in the white folly of a presidential palace for only a few more years before he was overthrown and fled into exile on the French Riviera. The palace now lies in ruins, as uninhabitable as the rest of the city around it, but then it still gleamed like a heavily guarded wedding cake amidst the squalor as I stood outside the gates staring in, trying to imagine the domestic life of the tyrant and his family, wondering how they managed to justify their actions to themselves and to one another. It was a curiosity which would later tempt me to accept invitations to the palaces of a variety of other rulers, wanting to see what made them different, wanting to understand how they had found themselves in such extreme situations, able to exert their will over whole populations.

I was invited to take tea with Mrs Mubarak at her husband’s palace in Cairo, just before the Arab Spring broke through and brought hope to a city darkened by storm clouds of popular resentment. Inside the palace Mrs Mubarak, who is half Welsh half Egyptian, was a gracious hostess. White coated waiters dispensed cakes, which she assured me were home made. The tranquillity inside the gilded salon was reminiscent of our own Queen’s garden tea parties – where they also provide excellent cakes – completely insulated from the boiling stew of hatred festering in the hot, overpopulated streets outside the heavily guarded walls.

It was that contrast, which I had experienced in similar palaces all over the world, that started me writing “Secrets of the Italian Gardener”. The initially peaceful revolutions that erupted at the beginning of 2011 seemed to promise something wonderful for the world, but it proved to be as brief a moment of optimism as the hippy “Summer of love” in 1969. Now Egypt is plunging back into the familiar cycle of violence and hatred and it is like nothing has changed, except that someone new is no doubt now taking tea in Mrs Mubarak’s elegant palace quarters.

When my agent at United Agents first read “Secrets of the Italian Gardener” he told me it was, “a contemporary re-casting of Ecclesiastes, a story about the vanity associated with the desire for power and possessions and ultimately about the cycle of birth, growth, death and re-birth".

As we see yet more rulers being dragged from power and more corpses piling up in the streets we remain riveted by the endless cycle of ambition and hubris.

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