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How to hijack the advice of a prudent spouse

Very Unusual Jobs Indeed

No 33 in our series: a counsellor who counsels counsellors

"Counsellors go by different names. Sometimes they are called siege experts. Sometimes they are called kidnap consultants. Sometimes they are called hijack specialists. But they are all counsellors of one sort or another, because in the last resort they all talk people out of doing the wrong thing."

Theo Dunlop falls silent. He gazes out of his window across the river Thames. A boat struggles gamely upstream against the current. "We all want to do the wrong thing from time to time. For instance, you're driving along a country road, late for an appointment and you're stuck behind an old farmer doing a steady 10 mph, so you try to overtake and you actually find yourself pulling out to do so when there really isn't time or space to overtake safely, so what happens?"

You go ahead and hit a car coming the other way and die?

"Well, let's hope not. What I was going to say was that a voice from a passenger, maybe your wife, says: `No, darling, you'll never make it' and you see sense and pull back. That's counselling. We all use it in daily life. We don't always recognise it as such."

He falls silent again. The boat isn't making much headway against the stream. It's a tiny tug pulling a huge barge. And now there's a pleasure boat behind it, overhauling it fast.

"In a sense," says Theo Dunlop, "a hijack expert is saying the same sort of thing. He is saying to the terrorist who has taken over the plane, `No, darling, you'll never make it'. But it takes a long time to get to call a stranger `darling', as it were. It takes days and days, sometimes, to talk a hijacker out of a hijack situation. That's because a hijack expert has to get into a position of trust and bonding with the terrorist before he can influence him. When your wife leans over in your car and urges you not to overtake, you go along with what she says immediately, because she has spent years getting into a position of trust and bonding with you. But a hijack expert has to get into that position in two or three days. That's a high-energy process. Do you see what that implies?"

Yes, I think so. It means that when someone hijacks a plane, the authorities should send in the terrorist's wife to tell him not to be so bloody stupid.

A thin smile from Theo.

"What it means is that after a siege or hijacking is over, the counsellor, the man who has done all the talking, is drained dry. He has given his all, winning the subject's confidence. He has to identify with the terrorist, in a funny sort of way, and share his thinking, so that he can guide the terrorist back to normality.

"At the end of it all, the hijack expert, if he does his job well, is slightly deranged - he has taken part of the terrorist's mind on board. And that's where I come in."

Silence again. Out there on the Thames, the barge is going even more slowly. The pleasure boat has lost patience and has started to overtake the barge. It will be a long process. Will he manage it before the next bridge?

"It is my job to talk the hijack expert back into normality. After the terrorist has gone, and the police have cleared away the mess, I sit down and talk to the man who has done all the talking for the past three or four days, and gradually nurse him back into the real humdrum world. I have to think him back from the state he has thought himself into."

So you go round the world, following sieges and hijacks and kidnappings, waiting till it's all over and then counselling the counsellor?

"That is what I do. Of course, it is a stressful job. Maybe it is not as stressful as actually talking a hijacker into laying down his guns, but I am always dealing with people who have stared into the wrong end of a gun, as it were, and I then have to stare into their eyes and become their friend and bring them back from the brink. I deal only with people who have been on the edge. That puts me on the edge, too. It is a hard job, with no public reward."

And do you, Theo Dunlop, also require counselling? When things get too awful, is there a counsellor's counsellor's counsellor who can help you?

"Chance would be a fine thing," says Theo Dunlop.

Silence resumes. Together we stare down at the Thames, where the pleasure boat would probably have run into the bridge, had not a woman appeared on the ship's bridge and waved her arms and screamed at the captain until sullenly he put the ship in reverse and, water churning, let the tug and barge go ahead of him.