Michael Dibdin: Dirty Tricks

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Michael Dibdin

Dirty Tricks

Comedy is the public version of a private darkness. The funnier it is, the more one must speculate on how much terror lies hidden.

Paul Theroux, My Secret History

24 February

Dear Charles,

Albeit with an ill grace, H.E. has now accepted the two-tier arrangement ‘de facto and pro tem’. He made various disgruntled remarks about being in the same position as Soviet diplomats vis-a-vis the KGB, but took the point about the need to avoid attributable documentation. An old-school FO wallah, he would be happier reporting solely to Whitehall, but at the end of the day he’s one of us, and sufficiently vain to be flattered at having a ‘hot line to Downing Street’ as he put it. I’m sure you will be as relieved as I am that he’s taking this attitude. A new appointment at this stage could do nothing but harm.

Having established my bona fides, I then explained that our real reason for ‘rocking the gunboat’ (to quote H.E.) was not so much to bring this fellow to justice as to divert media attention from the recent allegations concerning clandestine links between the two countries. I quoted, to some effect I think, Bernard’s remark that the man in the street has only so much time for a banana republic like this, so if the lead story is SEX FIEND SHIPPED HOME IN CAGE, no one will have any further interest in the place.

H.E. accepted this readily enough, but getting it across to the other side has been considerably more difficult. Although his views are perfectly sound, the Generalissimo is an unsophisticated man who finds it as difficult to imagine that the British press can make a cause celebre out of a sordid sex murder as he does to understand our embarrassment should the secret protocols come to light. His view is simple: Downing Street is as anti-Communist as he is, so what’s the harm if it comes out that the SAS has been training his death squads, or that the PM’s personal economic adviser helped him manage an economy in which eight families own 94 per cent of the GNP? To make matters worse, the junta is extremely touchy about any reference to its human rights record, and this makes it very difficult to communicate the key issue, that while we are quite prepared to co-operate with our ideological allies anywhere in the world, we cannot always afford to be seen to be doing so.

In the course of a gruelling two-hour audience at the Presidential Palace, I laboured hard to get this point across, and specifically to point out the destabilizing effect of any unwelcome revelations in the present UK political climate. I even went so far as to drop a heavy hint that a negative result might contribute to the very real possibility of a socialist government in Westminster and an abrupt end to the mutually advantageous exchanges between our two countries. This drew a raised eyebrow from H.E. but no perceptible reaction from the other side.

To be perfectly honest, I think the initiative’s going to have to come from that end. We’ve by no means wasted our time here. The ground has been prepared, and all that’s needed now is a touch of His Mistress’s Voice. But time is of the essence. The hearing begins next week, and the Justice Ministry need to be informed as soon as possible so that they can make the necessary arrangements to ensure that a favourable verdict is brought in. In fact extradition might well be granted without any intervention — the evidence sounds pretty conclusive — but with so much at stake it would be unwise to take any unnecessary chances. A brief telephone call should be quite sufficient. The Generalissimo may be tiresome in some ways, but at the end of the day he too is one of us.




First of all, let me just say that everything I am going to tell you is the complete and absolute truth. Well yes, I would say that, wouldn’t I? And since I’ve just sworn an oath to this effect, it might seem pointless to offer further assurances, particularly since I can’t back them up. I can’t call witnesses, I can’t produce evidence. All I can do is tell you my story. You’re either going to believe me or you’re not.

Nevertheless, I am going to tell you the truth. Not because I’m incapable of lying. On the contrary, my story is riddled with deceptions, evasions, slanders and falsifications of every kind, as you will see. Nor do I expect you to believe me because my bearing is sincere and my words plausible. Such things might influence the judges of my own country, where people still pretend to believe in the essential niceness of the human race — or at least pretend to pretend. But this country, in its short and violent history, has had no time to develop a taste for such decadent indulgences. Yours is the clear-sighted, undeceived vision of the ancients, who knew life for what it is and men for what they are, and did not flinch from that knowledge.

So I do not say, ‘Believe me, for I cannot tell a lie.’ I wouldn’t hesitate for a moment to lie my teeth off if it was either useful or necessary. Only it isn’t. As it so happens, I am actually innocent of the murders detailed in the extradition request before you. It is therefore quite simply in my own best interests to tell you the truth.

It began, inevitably, at a dinner party. That’s where the social action is in my country, among people of my class. Half the English feed fast and early and then go down the pub to drink beer, the other half eat a slow meal late and drink wine before, during and after. (I am anxious that you should understand the customs and manners of the country where the events in question took place, so different from your own. Otherwise it may be difficult to appreciate how very natural it is that things should have turned out as they did.) When I say dinner parties, I mean drinking parties with a cooked meal thrown in. And with Karen Parsons in the state she was that evening, there seemed a very real possibility that it would be. Both she and Dennis were chain-drinking. This was perfectly normal. But even then, before I knew her at all, I sensed that normality was not really Karen’s thing. She could fake it, up to a point. She could put it on, like a posh accent, but it didn’t come naturally to her.

I’d met the Parsons a week earlier, at an end-of-term social at the language school where I was teaching. We rolled up at the same time, I on my bike, the Parsons in their BMW. I thought at first they must be students. No one else I knew could afford a car like that. But as soon as they got out I realized I was wrong. What is it that sets us Brits apart so unmistakably? The clothes? The posture? Whatever it was, the moment I saw the Parsons I knew them for British as surely as though they’d had the word stamped on their hides like bacon. The man was thickset and heavy, like a rugby player, the woman thin and bony. I didn’t give them a second glance.

Parties at the Oxford International Language College, like everything else, were designed with cost-effectiveness in mind. Clive had to have them, because the competition did, but since the benefits were at best indirect he had to come up with the idea of asking the students from each country to get together and prepare a ‘typical national dish’. These were then combined as a buffet and served back to the students together with one free soft drink of their choice. Subsequent or alternative drinks had to be paid for at saloon-bar prices, so Clive managed to turn a profit on the evening.

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