By JOHN KEANE
Everybody warned this would be no ordinary invitation, and they were right. Three hundred metres from Knightsbridge underground station, just a stone’s throw from fashion-conscious Harrods, I suddenly encounter a wall of police.
I try to remember my instructions. Look straight ahead. Avoid eye contact. If asked my name, reply with a question. Ask who authorised them to ask. Climb the stone steps. Act purposefully. Appear to know exactly where you’re heading. I don’t.
Through a set of double doors, I’m confronted by more police officers, this time armed, with meaner faces. “Good afternoon”, I say politely, as I edge towards the receptionist. “I’ve an appointment at the Ecuador embassy. Am I at the correct address?” “Ring the brass bell”, grunts the bored-looking man squatting at his desk.
A few minutes later, after some confusion about whether or not my name’s on the appointments list, I’m ushered inside. I’m greeted by the personal assistant of the most wanted man in the world. “Julian is taking a call,” says the well-spoken and debonair young man in black-rimmed glasses.
“I’m terribly sorry. Please do have a seat. Would you like some tea, or coffee, or polonium, perhaps?” There’s a smile, but it’s pretty faint. I know I’ve reached my destination: a prison with wit and purpose.
The deadpan irony sets the tone of the lunch and dinner to come. The silver-haired “high-tech terrorist” (Joe Biden’s description) appears quietly, dressed in crumpled slacks, a V-necked pullover, socks. He’s relaxed, and welcoming. The quarters are cramped.
We shuffle down a corridor into his office, where we occupy a desk covered in laptops and cables and scraps of paper. It’s black coffee for him and tea for me. I offer gifts that I’m told he’ll like. Popular delicacies from down under: a couple of honeycomb Violet Crumbles, chocolate biscuit Tim Tams, a bottle of Dead Arm shiraz from my native South Australia. I know he likes to read.
Lying on his desk is a biography of Martin Luther, the man who harnessed the printing press to split the Church. To add to his collection, I hand my pale-skinned host a small book I’ve mockingly wrapped in black tissue paper with red ribbon, tied in a bow.
The noir et rouge and dead arm pranks aren’t lost on him. Nor is the significance of the book: José Saramago’s The Tale of the Unknown Island. Inside its front cover, I’ve scribbled a few words: ‘For Julian Assange, who knows about journeys because there aren’t alternatives.’
I’d been told he might be heavy weather. Fame is a terrible burden, and understandably the famous must find ways of dealing with sycophants, detractors and intruders. People said he’d circle at first, avoid questions, proffer shyness, or perhaps even radiate bored arrogance. It isn’t at all like that. Calm, witty, clear-headed throughout, he’s in a talkative mood. But there’s no small talk.