Yesterday the phone rang on my desk at home.
"Are you alone?" said a voice.
"Yes," I said, "except for the cat."
Our cat occasionally jumps up on my lap and goes to sleep while I am working. She sleeps for hours. I hate to wake her up. Some of my articles are much longer than I intend.
"Get rid of it," said the voice.
"You can't trust anyone. The cat might be bugged."
"Just get rid of it."
I hustled her out of the room, closed the door and went back to the voice.
"Now, listen very carefully," it said. "We need you to help us."
"What we want you to do is this..."
Have you ever noticed that people who talk about "we" a lot never feel they have to explain who "we" are? "What we pledge ourselves to do..." say the politicians. "What we believe is right..." say the religious people. "We hold these truths to be self-evident..." says the American constitution. But who is "we"? I am reminded of Spike Milligan saying that when Neville Chamberlain came on the radio in 1939 and said that as no such undertaking had been received, we were now at war with Germany, Milligan's father leapt up and said: "What's this 'we'?"
"The fact is," said the voice on the phone, "we are very worried by the outbreak of assassinations that have recently taken place. The lady journalist in Moscow... the Lebanese politician in Beirut... The Russian who was poisoned in London..."
"You think I had something to do with them?" I exclaimed.
"Not at all," said the voice. "But it is interesting that they all had the same pattern. Someone powerful was criticised. The critic died. Very odd, don't you think?"
"Not at all," I said. "Putin is an ex-KGB man. No problem for him to arrange it. Ditto President Assad."
"They have all denied it," said the voice.
"Oh, PLEASE!" I said. "Everyone denies something. Bush denies Iraq. Richard Dawkins denies God. Arsene Wenger denies everything. As for Blair..."
"What we need," said the voice, "is something in the way of a controlled experiment. Nobody knows for sure if these critics of the regime were actually rubbed out by the regime. So what we need to do is set up a critic of the regime and observe him closely to see if anyone tries to rub him out."
"Makes sense, I suppose."
"So we want you to..."
"HOLD ON!" I cried. "You want me to have a go at someone in print to see if I am assassinated?"
"You have a position in the media from which you can do this," said the voice unctuously. "You have a great opportunity to deliver a personal and vitriolic campaign against someone. We will watch you and protect you, if they strike back. No harm will come to you. And if it does, we will look after your next of kin."
The whole idea was ludicrous. On the other hand it might make a good subject for an article...
"Who would you want me to attack?"
"Who would you like to attack?"
I mentioned the obvious suspects: Nicholas Serota... John Birt... Andy Robinson... Steve McLaren...
"Be serious," said the voice. "Grow up. John Reid is the very least we could countenance. Gordon Brown would be better."
"Be serious yourself," I said. "Neither of those two could organise a death in a cemetery. I would go unscathed."
"All right," said the voice. "What we need is someone who is ruthless and yet sufficiently afraid of criticism to be panicked into ordering a murder. Can you think of anyone?"
"Simon Cowell, perhaps?" I said. "Jeremy Clarkson?"
"Who are they?" said the voice.
"No," said the voice. "What we need is someone powerful, unpopular, frightened and well-armed."
"Tony Blair," I said.
"I'll ring you back when you've got some better ideas," said the voice and rang off.