Such are the perils of broadcasting from home. However, not all TV interviews conducted over an internet connection are quite so funny. Since coronavirus put an end to the booking of studio guests, I have been forced to make a habit of ending interviews early with that increasingly common interruption: “thank you, we got most of what you had to say”.
There were biographies of Mandela and Tamerlane and studies of Middle Eastern conflict by authors as contrasting in their outlook as Robert Fisk and Bernard Lewis. – Colin Brazier on Gaddafi’s library
Plenty has been written about the conversion of domestic spaces into workplaces, and its broadcasting variant – the transformation of a study or bedroom into a makeshift studio. In particular the use of props, especially bookshelves, has become a parlour game for the Twitterati. I confess to craning my neck through 90-degrees to see what some of my correspondent colleagues have been reading. Or rather, what they want us to believe they’re reading.
There’s a temptation to overdo it. The Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab was mocked for framing himself between two columns of Neo-conservative classics, including the autobiography of Austrian bodybuilder-turned-politician Arnold Schwarzenegger. A bit odd, but nothing to compare with the weirdest collection of books assembled by a politician to say something about themselves. That honour, if I can call it that, belongs to Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, who I interviewed in Tripoli in 2009, a couple of years before his violent death.
The setting for this bizarre journalistic encounter was not the beloved Bedouin tent which, it was said, he even insisted on erecting inside luxury hotel rooms. Nor was there any sign of the all-female squad of Bulgarian bodyguards he was reputed to employ. Instead, me, cameraman Phil Hooper and our dogged producer, Kelvin O’Shea (who’d spent months negotiating the interview) were instructed to set up our gear in Colonel Gaddafi’s library. It was a cavernous space, 1,600 square-feet at a guess, with books lining each wall from floor to thirty-foot-high ceiling.
“He’s read them all – they are not just for show,” offered a small, dapper man, working for the Libyan press department. (What became of him, I wonder?) There were thousands of books, and I had plenty of time to have a good look around. Even for a dictator who was reportedly unwilling to leave the safety of his fortified compound (he was said to have been reluctant to fly over water, so many assassination attempts had there been), it seems unlikely he’d read even a fraction of this strange, eclectic collection.
Mostly Arabic, there was a smattering of English titles, including Margaret Thatcher’s The Downing Street Years (hardback edition). There were biographies of Mandela and Tamerlane and studies of Middle Eastern conflict by authors as contrasting in their outlook as Robert Fisk and Bernard Lewis. And if Brother Gaddafi, as he liked to be styled, grew tired of tomes about clashing civilisations there was always a hardback copy of A Royal Duty, by Princess Diana’s former butler, Paul Burrell, in addition to several copies of the Holy Bible.
It was almost impossible not to think of Michael Jackson, complete with ample evidence of heavy botox usage. – Colin Brazier on Colonel Gaddafi
This was pretty surreal stuff. But the bookshelves were just a first instalment of oddness. We waited and waited for the Dear Leader to arrive. Patience was just beginning to wane when he appeared, unexpectedly, from behind a false book-case which swung back on a well-oiled hinge. It was a coup de theatre as preposterous as it was astonishing. All eyes had been trained on the library door. But suddenly there he was – emerging from a secret tunnel behind us. I felt like an extra in The Mousetrap.
He wore brown slacks, ostrich-leather shoes and a brown short-sleeved shirt emblazoned with parrot-green maps of Africa. Not a look that could be described as muted. His goatee was carefully-groomed, his beatnik hair tousled. His permanently narrowed eyes sparkled in an otherwise strangely immobile face. It was almost impossible not to think of Michael Jackson, complete with ample evidence of heavy botox usage.
After a few Sphinx-like nods in my direction, he took his seat for the interview. Much shorter than his staff had told us to expect, we hurriedly reframed and narrowed the shot. As we did so, he spotted himself in our TV monitor. He continued to stare, totally without self-consciousness, for two long minutes. He seemed like a man who had not used a mirror for years and was surprised by what he now saw. Nobody, certainly none of his flunkies, dared interrupt this strange reverie.
In Tripoli every building in Libya was, until the uprising which claimed his life, plastered with images of The Leader, none of which reflected his increasing frailty and age. By this time, the good looks which made him the poster boy of Arab nationalism were long gone.
After his death, I thought about that strange library, with its Bond-lair pretensions and unexpected titles. Of the thousands that made up his collection, the Paul Burrell book, a book of royal tittle-tattle and below-stairs indiscretions was the one that felt most out of place and therefore, somehow, most likely to have been actually read. I was glad when the interview was over, but strangely saddened when news of his death – richly deserved by many measures – was announced. He was a bizarre man, but pitiable nonetheless. Given his track record, I’m not sure he would’ve responded well to an unexpected interruption during the course of his interview.
Colin Brazier is the author of Sticking Up For Siblings: Who’s Deciding the Size of Britain’s Families? (Civitas)
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