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Simon Parke: Mohamed, Mia, and me

19 May 2010

“I WOULD like to buy an elephant.”

“Certainly, sir. Would that be Indian, or African?”

Harrods, the store where you can buy anything, is a toy with a new owner, leaving the former one with more time for contemplation. And there is much to contemplate — not just for him, but for me, too.

First, there is my envy. For a man who started with so little, Mohamed al-Fayed (the “al” was an aristocratic invention) had phenomenal gifts for networking; he also had the energy to make things happen.

The son of an Egyptian school-inspector, he became not only the owner of the most famous shop in England but made it the third most popular tourist attraction in Lon­don. For those of us who sit, de­pressed and resentful, waiting for destiny to happen, he was a man who somehow forged his own.

And then there is self-examina­tion. On a pheasant shoot, Mr al-Fayed would have former SAS men on either side of him, shooting sim­ul­­tan­eously, so that he could claim any hits as his own. Not glorious, I grant you — but then how much of my success has leant heavily on the gifts of others? Mr al-Fayed, greedy for praise, became well acquainted with self-deception. Am I so different?

And then the ruthlessness. In his battle with “Tiny” Rowland — who called him “the phoney pharoah” — for the ownership of Harrods, there were many low blows, culminating in the Tory MP, Neil Hamilton, being paid by Mr al-Fayed to ask awkward questions in Parliament. When Mr Hamilton failed to deliver, Mr al-Fayed exposed him as just another corrupt politician. “I’m cleaning up British politics,” he declared. I, too, have twisted the truth for my own pur­poses.

Mr al-Fayed had a dream of being “one of the Establishment”, but he never achieved British citizenship. So what better moment than when photographed on his yacht in St Tropez, hugging the most sought-after woman in the world — Diana, Princess of Wales? A dream come true, surely? I have had a few of those, and the foolish feeling is this: surely nothing will ever be the same again.

And then the dream turns sour. Mr al-Fayed was responsible for ap­proving the plan that placed Dodi and Diana in the hands of a drunken security guard, who then drove them to their death in Paris. And he was also responsible for evading respon­sibility because, for ten years, he blamed an establishment conspiracy for their deaths. Denial is not a stranger at my door, either.

Dreams of winning make good films, but poor life. The actress Mia Farrow, after three failed marriages, said: “I get it now. I didn’t get it then: that life is about losing and about doing it as gracefully as possible . . . and enjoying everything in between.”

Ms Farrow has something for Mr al-Fayed and me to learn, because there is a great deal in between.


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