'Great snakes. How did you dig me up?'
I tell him about the two upturned bowler hats cropping up in a West London flea market. Yoked together, they made a double eggcup. The giveaway was the trademark - the face of a small white mongrel, discreetly monogrammed in the lining of one of the hats. 'One clue led to another,' I say, 'and here we are.'
'Well, you're only here for 10 minutes, unless you want to buy something. How can I help?' In real life, I note, he seems to be testier and more hardnosed than you'd imagine, though his eyes moisten at the mention of his four-legged companion.
The Independent has traced Tintin to the city of Wadyaseh in Khemed, where he runs a shop on the premises left to him by the Portuguese merchant Senhor Oliveira da Figuera. He need never work again, but he says he wanted something to do instead of adventuring, so some time in the last 10 years he turned to trade. The unassuming little store is in a narrow, bustling alley and is stocked with assorted oddments and bric-a-brac. Despite the climate the shop calls itself Snowy Supplies - 'my little commemorative joke,' says the owner, who is clad in local dress: a long white robe, a keffiyah and small round mirror sunglasses. It's hard to tell whether the face is still fresh and the quiff still blond. I think better of asking him to unmask. Taking a snap is clearly out of the question. But questions aren't.
'Every journalist is dying to find out how you had so many escapades, were at the heart of all the big stories about exploitation in the Far East, the Middle East, Central Europe and South America, and yet you never appeared to do a stroke of actual work . . .'
'I should have thought that was obvious. My career wasn't much different in spirit to Evelyn Waugh's or Graham Greene's. Back in the age of innocence we were almost travel writers, explorers, and we presented our findings as fiction. There wasn't the constant demand to deliver into the world's living rooms every day. I wouldn't be a reporter now - no mystery.'
'Why were you - why are you - so enduringly popular?'
'Well, my stories appealed to Belgian children first of all, but their parents began to show an interest. When I realised they were hooked I started addressing them too. I stopped the crowd-pleasing gimmicks like talking to my dog, and set to problem-solving. I never was a great one for humour. I left the japing to the Captain, the Professor and those idiotic twin detectives. And my dog.'
'But when you talk of adults, don't you really mean just men? Women don't seem to follow your adventures quite so keenly, just as they hardly show up in them. You must have taken some flak from the PC lobby.'
'Just because I don't know many women it doesn't mean I don't like them. In my field, in those days, you didn't tend to run into them. The criminals and politicians were all men. A lot of crusading reporters don't have fulfilling relationships. Anyway, the PC lobby were always having a go at Herge and me: first we were racists in the Congo, then there was all that rubbish about collaborating with the Nazis. I think my record on sticking up for the underdog is pretty good.'
At this point a customer comes in and asks the shopkeeper about the range of replica Inca bracelets on display, before moving over towards the model galleons and motorised roller skates. I take the opportunity to sneak a look at a pile of A4 sheets stacked next to the cash-box. The top sheet says: 'The Adventures of Tintin' - they are scripts for the radio drama series now being broadcast on BBC Radio 5. The next page has a cast list: Lionel Jeffries as Haddock, Andrew Sachs as Snowy, Stephen Moore as Calculus and Richard Pearce as Tintin. Adaptation by Simon Eastwood. As the customer leaves with a suspiciously rocket-shaped package tucked under his arm, the hero of the drama turns and catches me red-handed.
'So,' I stammer, 'you're not so cut off from the world.'
'I don't actually have direct contact with the radio people themselves. I have an agent in Brussels.'
'You're just as publicity-shy as ever, aren't you?'
'I suppose the limelight will always have its attractions, even by proxy. I do it to keep my arm in. I don't get one sou from the book sales. They're shifting better than ever, you know. I blame it on the in-fighting at the Herge Foundation. Since the old man died I haven't really got involved. It's quite well covered in Harry Thompson's book on Herge. I've got some copies in stock.'
'Have you heard this BBC thing?'
'Yes . . . it's not bad. They did some last year - the Scottish and Tibetan trips, and the ones about the moon-landing and the lost treasure - and the series won something called a Sony Award. I thought I'd let them have another go. Far better to be done on the radio than have to watch those fatuous cartoons on the television. They even put me in jeans once and gave me an American accent.'
'You never really made it there, did you?'
'It was their loss. I just wasn't trigger-happy enough for their taste, and we soon fell out over my plus-fours. They wanted to get rid of them - too old-fashioned or something - but I just walked away. Tintin changes his trousers for no one. Anyway, how many academics have produced theses about Spiderman?'
'What about cinema?'
'There was talk of a Herge film studio to rival Disney, but I thought the books themselves became pretty cinematic towards the end. There were a couple of movies with real actors but I mean, whatever next? Complete fabrication. I never meddled with a blue orange in my life. But this lad who's playing me on the wireless, I think he's excellent, just the right blend of wisdom and youth.'
Youth - I was coming to that. 'I've this theory that in some attic somewhere, in your old lodgings at Mrs Finch's, or the basement at Marlinspike, is a portrait of Tintin as a decaying old man. Have you done a Dorian Gray?'
'I do have a portrait, if you want to see one.'
He disappears into the back of the shop and returns with a large shiny scroll. He unravels it, and there he is, as cherubic as ever, on the drawbridge of a castle with guards in Syldavian dress behind him.
'If you want to be remembered as a reporter,' he says, 'get on to posters. I'll get it framed, and it's yours for dollars 35. Given the turmoil in the Balkans, it couldn't be more topical, could it?'
The price seems a bit steep, but you have to hand it to the little man: he knows a thing or two about marketing. And expenses - the receipt is made out for dollars 50.
The Radio 5 series continues with 'The Calculus Affair' tomorrow at 9.30am.Reuse content