I wrote last week how I've always wanted to pretend to have been in the British Army but have never been able to absorb enough military lore to carry it off convincingly. A few years ago I had to accept that it was never going to happen so instead, for the past decade or so, I've occasionally been pretending to be an Arabic professor in Middle Eastern Studies at SOAS which is the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. I've decided recently after careful thought that my speciality is heretical Islamic sects such as the Druze and Sufisism.
It's quite easy for me to pretend to be an Arabic professor, for a start I've got the clothes, lots of chunky Italian knitwear, unstructured corduroy trousers in Autumnal colours and loose fitting linen and woollen jackets but I do also know a fair bit about my pretend subject. Round about the time of the '82 Israeli invasion of the Lebanon I was in a cinema in Leicester Square and sitting a few rows behind me was a balding pop-eyed man. (I think the film was the first Rocky.) I said to my wife, "You know I think that balding pop-eyed man sitting a few rows behind us is Walid Jumblatt leader of the Druze militias based in the Shouf Mountains of the Lebanon, one of the major combatants in the ongoing civil war." "You're always saying that," she replied, but after the film had finished and we were filing out I approached this man.
"Excuse me," I said, "Would you happen to be Walid Jumblatt leader of the Druze militias based in the Shouf Mountains of the Lebanon?"
"Yes, yes I am," he replied.
"How's that working out for you?" I asked.
"Oh you know, the money's good but there's a lot of office politics..."
"Sure it's the same at my sandwich bar, it's so hard to get everybody just to do their bloody job properly..."
So there you have it, a major player in the Lebanese conflict was in a cinema in London. Perhaps the elusive leader of Hizbullah, Sheik Hassan Nasrullah is at this very moment in a picture house in Britain watching The Breakup. If he is the Israelis will probably start rocketing every Odeon and Filmworks in the UK but they'll say it was the cinemagoers own fault if they get killed.
I went back to my wife who was waiting outside the cinema and said, "I asked him and he is Walid Jumblatt leader of the Druze militias based in the Shouf mountains of the Lebanon."
"Right," she replied "...and did you pretend to him that you owned a sandwich bar?"
"Well yeah I might have given him that impression..."
"Why do you do that?"
"At least I didn't tell him about the new imaginary baked potato machine we're getting in."
"But you're a successful comedian with a hit TV show, why would you pretend you own a sandwich bar in an unspecified part of Central London?"
"Did you promise that any member of the Druze militia who called in could have a free coffee or soft drink?"
"Yes, or their associates in the Christian Falange."
"Honestly, after that thing with the half-price flapjacks and the Angolan MPLA you'd think you'd have learnt your lesson."
The funny thing though is that, while it's not at SOAS, I am actually a professor (whereas I don't really own a sandwich bar even though over the years I've met several people who claim to have eaten there). My professorship came about like this. About 10 years ago I judged some kind of competition at a place called Thames Valley University and the trendy vice chancellor there at the time, an ex-musician with a Rod Stewart haircut and a huge silver earing asked me if I'd like to be an honourary professor. I readily agreed, there was a ceremony at which I was invested, that year I gave a couple of lectures to students who had no idea who I was or what I was talking about, the trendy vice chancellor got fired and now lives on a canal boat in Amsterdam and that was it for my academic career. Except that in 2000 I did two pilot programmes for ITV called Ask the Professor.
In this programme, me, as host, and several real professors answered questions from an audience of ordinary members of the public about world events. I sensed there was a real hunger out there from the general populace for real authorative information from people who knew what they were talking about rather than the partisan propaganda they were usually fed on TV by politicians and think tank "experts". Because ITV is really cheap it insisted that the pilots were transmitted so they went out with no publicity at different times in different regions, usually about 10.30pm or 11, but they still did really well, gaining over three million viewers and an unprecedented 25 per cent audience share. ITV still decided not to go ahead with a series. I was furious, God knows I've done enough stuff on television over the years that deserved to be cancelled butAsk the Professor was cheap, popular and answered a huge and still unfulfilled demand for unbiased information yet the idiots in charge still refused to make it.
So now when I read the weekly stories in the newspaper about how ITV is failing, losing audiences hand over fist and the share price is tumbling I laugh and laugh and laugh and know the reason why and there'll be no half price flapjacks for them.
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