It’s November. Remembrance Day and most recently the Lord Mayor’s Show. Rained on like last year, a 3 mile procession squeezed onto a 1.7 mile route celebrates an office created in 1215 where the most famous Mayor was Dick Whittington – real historical character although probably better known as a pantomime one these days. Primogeniture rules where the eldest son has the right to inherit the whole estate with his siblings getting little or nothing. Dick is a younger son so he has to get a trade, resulting in his being apprenticed to be a Mercer. The Worshipful Company of Mercers are traders in fine cloth, being one of the twelve first or “great companies” of the City of London and part of the respectable business community. In contrast, Southwark across London Bridge is where you went if you wanted a good time or do something shocking like visit the theatre http://www.georgeemsden.co.uk/2007/08/all-the-worlds-stage/ History buff tells me that Queen Elizabeth I would never have actually visited the theatre as shown in Shakespeare in Love http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0138097/quotes (ladies didn’t do that sort of thing) but bear baiting would have been OK.
But today the action is very much on the north side of the river and with 15 wet minutes to spare, I am at the Royal Courts of Justice where the Mayor-elect arrives on time at 12.38 hrs in his magnificent golden coach just after the various masters of the Livery Companies in many carriages. Time for a pint and lunch in The George opposite and the exit of the red-coated Lightermen signals the return of the new Lord Mayor who has taken his oath of office before the Lord Chief Justice and Judges of the Queen’s Bench Division. Alas am too tired to partake in the free guided walks starting at Poultry at 3pm. Sir Richard Whittington held the office 3 times: 1398, 1406 & 1419 and was prosperous enough to lend money to the king Henry IV – this was before the Bank of England, see my recent visit there – http://www.georgeemsden.co.uk/2009/10/they-dont-like-it-up-em/ As the City has always promoted commerce it has at times been quite forward looking, with the first lady Lord Mayor elected back in 1970s.
13 marching bands take part plus 2,000 servicemen & women and is interesting to hear a reservist saying that it is difficult to form a group to take part as so many are away on active service. This brings me to my most recent read Curveball by Los Angeles Times journalist Bob Drogin (ISBN 978-0-09-192303-7) winner of several awards including the Pullitzer.
Helen of Troy’s beauty was said to be “the face that launched a thousand ships” and the ten-year Trojan War. But the 21st century equivalent in Iraq and now Afghanistan is sadly less pretty, if no less bloody. Curveball is the cover name given to an Iraqi taxi-driver who has been fired from previous jobs, has debts, is a compulsive liar and applies for political asylum in Germany November 1999.
All he really wants is to get his family out of Iraq, have a nice house in the West and of course, a big Mercedes. Might as well make the best of it so two months later as his application is being processed, he mentions he has information about Iraq’s biological weapons.
At first the information is considered priceless but begins to tarnish through lack of verification. Additionally Curveball’s Arabic is mangled in translation into German then English by people who do not have degrees in biology or weapon manufacture. Putting biological weapons in an explosive warhead is easier said than done, as the energy and heat from the explosion detroys the nasty stuff inside. And as one disillusioned WMD-believer American said, the only way one these weapons would kill you was if it landed on your head! The whole fiasco is only publicly admitted to be fabrication in May 2004 – long after the invasion. Before then, people who questioned the perceived wisdom that Saddam must have had WMDs (Weapons of Mass Destruction) are harshly treated – shooting the messenger. Curveball’s influence is a classic case of being in the right place at the right time and people hearing what they wanted to hear.
Curveball likes internet cafés and most of his information is gleaned from the UN website aided by careless questioning by the Germans which show him what he needs to bone up on. When standard background checks are finally done by the Americans in Iraq with his family, school friends and former colleagues, nothing stands up.
Fundamental to the whole scenario is deep mistrust by the Americans of the BND http://www.topspysecrets.com/bnd-bundes-nachrichten-dienst.html the German Intelligence Service. While the West may have won the Cold War, one might think that the Russians won the espionage one. With many agents in Germany, they brought about the resignation of West German Chancellor Willy Brandt after his close aide Gunther Guillaume, was exposed as a KGB agent. Imagine someone like Alistair Campbell or Peter Mandleson being unmasked as a Russian spy while serving with Tony Blair?
The legacy of distrust prevents the Americans from seeing much of the intelligence which is only shared when it suits. The Americans never show anything to the Germans, so why should the Germans be helpful? Interestingly, MI6 get on better with the German BND and voice suspicions earlier than their American cousins. Interesting account of the turf war at the CIA between the analysts and the field people who run agents – is Curveball genuine or not? Plus a new insult for my phrasebook in one heated meeting “You can kiss my a*** in Macy’s window” said by one lady to another!
By the time middle-ranking CIA officials are really worried, the billion dollar war machine is on the road with people’s reputations, budgets and pensions on the line. Comic moments include the discovery of traces of ammonia in two battered mobile germ factories first hailed as proof of WMDs. For once, the Saddam’s regime told the truth and the containers were for producing hydrogen – not germs. Checking with friendly Iraqis previously involved with WMDs yields a simple explanation for the ammonia – urine! and if you will pardon the awful joke, they were not taking the …….. And Colin Powell’s famous speech to the UN in February 2003 turns out to be fiction.
All in all, a good read with plenty of sources quoted which makes James Bond a bit dull. The reviews on Amazon for this book if you wish to read them, are under the paperback edition http://www.amazon.com/Curveball-Spies-Lies-Con-Caused/product-reviews/1400065836/ref=cm_cr_pr_link_next_2?ie=UTF8&showViewpoints=0&pageNumber=2
Finally and for the uninitiated perhaps, the English equivalent of a curveball (from baseball) is a googly which any cricketer might be happy to explain.