“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.