Every morning, on my way to the Tube station, I pass an unprepossessing west London mansion block. Yesterday, on a still, sultry morning, the yellow, red and blue flag that normally flies outside the building was lifeless, drooping, almost sorry for itself. Pedestrians passed by this unremarkable scene as they made way to Harrods. A lone policeman stood vigil, but seemed more interested in the movements of a team of scaffolders across the road.
How different it all was a year ago, when this corner of Knightsbridge was the focus of the world's attention. The pavement was barricaded to keep all the photographers and cameramen at bay, mobile TV studios lined the road, and a makeshift, Portakabin police station was built to house the regular press conferences, and to quarter the dozens and dozens of constables who surrounded the building.
By now, you'll probably have worked out that this is the location of the Ecuadorian Embassy, home for these past 12 months to Julian Assange, once the most infamous public figure in the world, but who now goes about his daily business of extradition-dodging in the embassy, which apparently involves a rather large period of time on a sun bed, unnoticed and unremarked upon.
Where once we all had an opinion about Assange - seditious sex criminal or heroic freedom fighter? - we have since had our attention turned towards Edward Snowden, this year's poster boy for the whistle-blowing classes.
I met Assange only once, at a small dinner party he was forced to leave early as a condition of his electronic tagging arrangements. I had one direct conversation with him, which I opened with a gentle enquiry about the current state of his legal case. He fixed me with his alien-like stare. "The Swedish prosecutor," he said, and then paused for effect and stress, "...who is the ugliest woman I've ever met." This was the last thing I expected from a man whose sexual behaviour was under the most intense scrutiny, but he warmed to this peculiar theme. "She's like a cross between a Sherman tank and Joseph Stalin." I countered with a sarcastic response, along the lines that I never knew that good looks and femininty were important requisites for a senior legal figure, but he carried on regardless, assuring those around the table of his persecution at the hands of evil governments.
We all thought he had a God complex. I believe he thinks that God has got a Julian Assange complex. A year or so on, I still don't quite know what I think about Mr Assange. I believe people can be judged by their friends, and some of those who have supported Mr Assange - the likes of Jemima Khan and the lawyer Geoffrey Robertson - are figures with whom I have generally had common cause. But I was so put off by that exchange over dinner, which - superficial and relatively insignificant though it may have been - is clearly very revealing of the mindset of a man who apparently has a problem with treating women in a respectful way. Which, it should be remembered, is at the root of why he is holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy, and probably will be so for some time to come.
Simon Kelner is away for two weeks.Reuse content