»  Taki's Magazine

March 31, 2011

  Entertaining Mr Gaddafy


Mention of Libya always makes me think of Joe Orton, I'm sorry to say.

Does anyone remember Joe Orton? Well, the people maintaining that website clearly do, though mainly it seems as a "gay icon," a thing Orton would have hated. He was actually a British playwright briefly famous in the mid-1960s. He died at the hands of his lover Kenneth Halliwell in a murder-suicide, August 1967.

Orton's plays were considered transgressive at the time, and I recall being much amused by them in my college days. To judge from the few clips I could find on YouTube, they have not aged well. They seem not to be staged much any more. Entertaining Mr Sloane had a ten-week run at an off-Broadway theater in 2006. Loot seems not to have been produced anywhere of consequence since 1986. So fleeting is glory!

Well, in 1978 John Lahr wrote a biography of Orton with the memorable title Prick Up Your Ears. It includes an account of a farcical trip to Libya taken by Orton and Halliwell in March 1967, five months before the murder-suicide. This is the only appearance of Libya in any work of literature known to me later than the Aeneid; so as you'd expect from a bookish type, it's what always comes up first on a word-association test with "Libya."

The trip was an utter disaster. The hotels were all full, so that Orton and Halliwell ended up sleeping in a tiny cabin on a ship moored at Tripoli. Halliwell was already half-demented by Orton's success as a playwright, he himself being deeply unsuccessful. Orton recorded the fiasco in his diary.

"Oh my God!" Kenneth said, rounding upon me savagely, "look what a mess you've got us into now! Dumped on a ship in the middle of some wretched fascist state! I'm going to faint!" I found myself saying, "Pull yourself together! There's no need to behave badly."  "I warned you what it would be like. No travel agency does Libya. I'm not surprised," Kenneth said …

On board the evening was just beginning … A few middle-class Libyans were strolling about. "Wog bourgeoisie is even worse than the home product," I said, rather wishing Kenneth was in a better mood to appreciate the remark. "Shut up!" Kenneth said …

Libya was at that time under the rule of doddering but pro-Western King Idris, whose portrait I have been surprised to see on display in some of the recent news footage from rebel territory.

Idris was nothing so modern as a fascist. His country had only got its first secondary school in 1935, when he was already middle-aged. Idris was a sensible reactionary willing to let national affairs be settled by consensus among tribal chiefs. Unfortunately he had no clue how to cope with the oil money flowing into his treasury by the mid-1960s. He did not grasp either the temptation that money presented to ruthless power-challengers, or the degree to which it relieved Libyans of the need to work for a living.

Two and a half years later, by which time the commingled ashes of Orton and Halliwell had been thoroughly absorbed into the "Garden of Remembrance" topsoil at Golders Green Crematorium in north London, a group of Libyan army officers deposed Idris and set up a republic. Their young leader Muammar al-Gaddafy then commenced his assault on the dictator longevity world record. He has now been in power a remarkable 41 years, 7 months, and counting.

Much water has flowed under the bridge these forty-odd years. Libya's population has quintupled, but constitutionally the place has gone backwards under the crude gangsterism of Gaddafy. To be sure, the colonel has mellowed somewhat with age, and seems to have been chastened by the spectacle of Saddam Husein being run out of his capital by American tanks, but he is still a nasty piece of work.

Those 41-plus years in power show impressive survival skills, but Gaddafy's present situation looks dire. Think of the logistics: with no allies, how will he keep his troops supplied with food and ammunition? The NATO bombing can't have helped, though it seems to me to have been foolish and ill-thought-out, a purposeless intervention in a tribal fracas that was none of our business.

(And speaking of survival skills, what a strange thing it is that we still have NATO, twenty-odd years after the disappearance of its raison d'être. As tenacious as individual dictators can be, survival-wise they are no match for entrenched multinational bureaucracies.)

I see in today's newspapers that the Italians are trying to fix up Gaddafy with a bolt-hole in Africa somewhere. What a melancholy prospect! I always felt a bit sorry for Idi Amin, monster though he undoubtedly was, for having to spent his declining years in Saudi Arabia. On reflection I think Gaddafy taking the reverse route to exile may be even more pitiable.

And who will be entertaining Mr Gaddafy? Robert Mugabe I suppose might have a palace to spare, but I doubt the climate would suit Gaddafy. Mali, perhaps, which is at least Muslim and sandy.

The old murderer might of course take a stand on principle and refuse to leave Tripoli. In that event he must be told by someone he'll listen to — if any such person exists — what Rance tells Geraldine in Joe Orton's play What the Butler Saw: "I can't encourage you in such a self-indulgent attitude. You must face facts like the rest of us."

Meanwhile the chaos deepens and the human tsunami pours ever more copiously over the great berm. In the large scheme of things, Gaddafy's a blip. It's those thousands of determined refugees heading north across the Mediterranean, and the millions who will follow them, that will fuel historical development in the coming decades.