For some reason, people keep asking me about Rupert Murdoch. "You're a journalist," they say, "is he going to sell News International? Is he a ruthless bastard? Does he tell all his editors to hack the phones of murder victims?" And when I reply that I have no idea, they ask, "Have you ever met him?" To which the answer is Yes.
I certainly have met Murdoch. I'll never forgot the Incident of Churchill, the Fruit Salad and the Proprietor's Shoe.
It was August 1989. I was literary editor of The Sunday Times, in the days when Andrew Neil was editor and the world was exploding with news (Tiananmen Square, the fall of Communism, the Princess Diana revelations). One Tuesday, the department editors were told that Morning Conference would take place, not in the editor's office, but in the boardroom. We'd no idea why but, when we got there, it was clear something (or someone) important was afoot: in the boardroom, tubular steel chairs lined a long table festooned with water bottles, glasses and notepads; a luxurious buffet groaned on a white-clothed side-table. I was last to arrive, and most of the chairs were taken, except two. One was on the editor's right. The other empty chair was, oddly, placed slightly behind the editor's – at first slip, so to speak. I slid into the former, and Conference began.
We talked about the Marchioness disaster, about Eastern Europe, about the imminent sale of football clubs. Ten minutes into the meeting, a bespectacled head poked enquiringly round the door. "Rupert! Come in, come in!" called Andrew Neil, as the Grand Panjandrum of the Popular Press walked in. He cut, I remember, an unprepossessing figure. His only remarkable feature was his face, which never ceased moving; little grimaces, little smiles, moues, eye-narrowings, eyebrow-raisings – he resembled a Popperfoto contacts sheet, depicting the complete range of facial expressions available to humans.
He sat just between the editor and me – too close, I thought, for comfort. I'd never been so close to a billionaire before. (Did one address them in a special way – "O Billionaire"? "O Great Potentate..."?) The meeting moved on, to City news, then Arts. Murdoch listened, putting in the odd remark. Eventually, it was my turn. Hardly had I embarked, in a faltering quaver, on my list of commissioned book reviews than Murdoch cut across me. "I was readin' this noo book on the pline over," he said. "About that appeasement business before the war? Bloody interestin'. About Churchill going off to see Hitler and talk peace?"
"Chamberlain, surely," I said, before I could stop myself.
"What?" barked Murdoch.
"I think," I said, "it was Chamberlain who visited Hitler in Munich, and ..."
"Churchill, Chamberlain, whatever," said Murdoch, as if anyone whose name began with Ch- would have done in 1938. "Are we reviewing it?"
"Er, no." I said. I'd no idea which book he was talking about.
"Why not?" Murdoch demanded. There was a horrible silence. My newspaper career suddenly hung by a gossamer thread.
"Oh, I remember now, it's called, er, Chamberlain and the, er, Abdication of Peace," I lied. "We're, er, doing it in September, along with some other books about the run-up to war."
Murdoch nodded. The meeting went on. At 1pm, we adjourned for lunch. At the buffet, I helped myself to roast beef and salad, plus fruit salad and peach sorbet. Back at the table, I ate the first course and chatted to the woman on my right. Abruptly, the meeting re-started and I turned back. Murdoch was, again, just behind me, in a more relaxed mode now, legs at angles, his left ankle perched on his right knee. He was very close to me. As the editor called us to order, I reached forward for a spoonful of fruit salad and sorbet. But I couldn't reach it. Something was stopping me.
I looked to my left. Murdoch's foot was resting against the tubular arm of my chair, his shoe immovably parked on my jacket. I reached forward again, spoon aloft, hoping to shame him into letting go his purchase on the material. He was oblivious, talking with animation about buying Manchester United. But he was also making damn sure I wasn't going to have my pudding. A small act of revenge for being contradicted? Oh yes. Annoying? Not at all. I forgot all about it, 22 years ago, and haven't thought about it since.
The woman who called her tormentors' bluff
Hats off to Dr Mila Means, a doctor who wants to open an abortion clinic in Wichita, Kansas, who has been targeted by the breed of anti-abortion extremists who shot Dr George Tiller. The "anti-choice" fraternity are seeking to intimidate other doctors by suggesting they'll risk their lives if they continue to perform operations. Dr Means received a warning that she should check her car every day for explosives. Her response? She went out and bought a bright yellow Mini Cooper emblazoned with lightning bolts, to say, in effect, "Come and get me, assholes." It makes her an easy target. But it also means that anyone in the street who goes near her motor will instantly be nabbed by the police as a suspect terrorist. Brilliant.
Recycling your sexual orientation
I can understand the annoyance of Richenda Legge who complained to the council of Beeston Regis, Norfolk, when her rubbish wasn't taken away. She was sent a form to fill in that asked her, inter alia, to disclose her ethnic origin, religious beliefs, employment status – and sexual orientation. Was she, they asked, "Heterosexual and straight, gay woman/lesbian, bisexual or other?" What can this mean? Do we now have to sort our rubbish into plastic, cardboard, glass, metal, bisexual, S&M, transvestite and "other"? And into which category do I throw the remains of my ham and Stilton quiche?