Trying to fathom what goes on in the brilliantly analytical but peculiar and paranoid mind of Ecuador’s best known London house-guest seems, in the absence of a crack squad of Zurich’s most skilled psychoanalysts working in shifts around the clock, a futile task.
But from the anecdotal accounts of Julian Assange’s acquaintances, and remembering the photograph taken soon after he emerged from Wandsworth prison in 2010, you’d be safe to have a few bob on a very vivid spy movie fantasy.
Jemima Khan, a supporter in words and funds before she became one of many to fall out irreparably with him, described him as “the new Jason Bourne”. Until the lack of sunlight and fresh air in the garden-less Knightbridge embassy he has occupied since seeking sanctuary there in June of 2010 aged him, he had the look of the angelic-faced, white-haired Illya Kuryakin from The Man From U.N.C.L.E.
Recalling that snap of a tuxedoed Assange posing outside a press club with a martini, meanwhile, he palpably fancied himself as Australia’s second James Bond (in succession to George Lazenby).
Whatever secret-service icon Assange may have taken for his role model, Monday’s baffling press conference established this much beyond doubt. Not since poor Frank Bruno mistook himself for Frankie Dettori has the gulf between a public figure’s self-perception and the reality been so pronounced.
Exactly why the WikiLeaks demi-god summoned the media to the embassy at all remains, on the surface, a mystery. Nominally, he wished to alert a waiting world – albeit one waiting less impatiently for news of him than was once the case – to his medical problems.
He says he has lung problems and an arrhythmic heart, although the only overt sign of physical damage is the yellowing of his teeth. This appears still to be medically verified, but one assumes he is not trying to pull an Ernest Saunders, and that he is genuinely unwell. Yet no one beyond the Ecuadoreans (who have less than altruistic reasons to want rid of this nuisance) appears to care about his health, or his claim that his human rights are being violated.
Assange further announced that he will escape from his self-imposed captivity “soon”, though how? Colditz-style though an underground tunnel? By jetpack? Cunningly disguised as a diplomatic bag to evade the police stationed outside the building?
The means is as opaque as the matter of where he intends to go. On the obvious grounds of arrest, we can probably rule out Sweden (where those allegations of rape and sexual assault await), and the US, and every other country on the planet other perhaps than Cuba and North Korea.
Assange is not merely a nagging pain in the arse to various nations (though the Americans are now much more interested in Edward Snowden). Far from being a real life George Lazenby, Assange has become a pastiche of the Tom Hanks character in the film The Terminal – a pitiful, stateless person trapped in an airless, artificially lit stasis that must feel as if it will never end. As indeed it may not. Ecuador’s Foreign Minister raised the prospect that he could still be rotting away in the embassy 10 years from now.
Worse even than that for a world-ranked narcissist, Assange has become a half-forgotten curio; an almost total irrelevance to a global public that was once mesmerised by him and his saint-or-sinner ambigiuity. The agony of that probably explains why he bothered holding such a mystifyingly pointless press conference. All he really wanted to do, you suspect, was remind us that he still exists.
Somewhere buried beneath the oddity of Assange – who in adulthood has replicated his childhood, on the run with a mother who feared she would lose him in a custody battle – and this surreal Ecuadorian stand-off is a human tragedy. A man of serious talents and real courage, whose work had genuine geopolitical impact, is rapidly decaying in a hell of his own construction.
Yet the traditional formula holds: Comedy = Tragedy + Time. In the internet era of withered attention spans, the process is accelerated. After two and a bit years in diplomatic limbo, the dramatic treatment that comes to mind is neither a spy movie nor a remake of The Terminal. It is a retrograde, laughter-track’n’catchphrases sitcom based on the premise that Ana Alban, the Ecuadorian ambassador to the Court of St James’s, compels Assange to earn his keep by serving as her butler.
The template, as mature readers will have guessed, is Two’s Company, the 1970s ITV show starring Elaine Stritch as a waspy American thriller writer who hires Donald Sinden – hamming it up to the max, for a change, like an end-of-the-pier Reginald Jeeves – to run her Chelsea home.
It would be quite a comedown from The Fifth Estate, the turgid WikiLeaks film, and the only nod to his dream role would be that his insubordination when ordered to mix her a martini would vaguely echo 007’s ritual impertinence towards Judi Dench’s M. But the Julian Assange of today is a shrunken figure, pitifully and indefinitely marooned in an absurdist situation of interest solely for its comic value, and fit to star in nothing more glamorous than ITV’s Oooh, Yer Excellency!