The high-profile life and low-profile death of Major Bob Astles
• We pride ourselves on the ubiquity of the British press, but amid the ongoing frenzy some things go unnoticed – and one of those we announce today: the quiet passing in south London of Idi Amin’s self-styled British adviser, Major Bob Astles. In keeping with his wishes, Astles – an inspiration for the British doctor adviser in Giles Foden’s celebrated novel The Last King of Scotland – was cremated before most of his friends, associates or longstanding neighbours knew of his death from cancer, three weeks ago. Just five people attended, and they will not talk about it. One neighbour, asked to confirm the death, put the phone down on us yesterday. But perhaps that was the way to go for the man labelled “the White Rat” because of his allegiance to the dictator who murdered about 300,000 of his fellow citizens over eight years. When Amin fled to exile in 1979, Major Bob was imprisoned for six years. He later returned to Britain, but stayed in touch with Amin until the tyrant’s death in 2003. To the end, Major Bob remained a fixture with UK Ugandans, says Henry Gombya, editor of the London Evening Post, for whom Astles wrote a regular column. But he never apparently regretted his time with the bloodsoaked president. “He said that he did what he had to do. He did say he was a terrible person to work for,” Gombya tells us. And the reaction? “Many say ‘good, let him join Idi Amin’.”
• Great anticipation, meanwhile, as we await the British release of Zero Dark Thirty, the new film about the capture of Osama bin Laden. Everyone wants to see it, and naturally those who made it are keen for everyone to get the chance. Well, not quite everyone. For it’s a hot potato. On the day of its release in the US three senators, including ex-Republican presidential candidate John McCain, sent a letter of protest to Sony Pictures’ CEO, seeking assurances about the film’s depiction of torture. Others complain it puts a positive spin on the use of torture. None of this, one suspects, enhances the film’s hopes of winning an Oscar, despite five nominations. So the strategy seems to be to keep the adverse discussion to a minimum, and the Guardian’s Ian Cobain, author of Cruel Britannia, a history of Britain’s involvement in torture, appears to have suffered from that. Setting out on a promotional tour of the US, and advised that he will probably be asked to talk about the film, he asked to be present at an advance British screening. Sorry, the preview’s full, said the publicists last Monday. Cobain checked with someone who did get in. It wasn’t. What about Thursday’s screening, he said. I’m leaving the UK on the 22nd. No answer. He persisted. OK, you can come, they said. When, he asked. On the 22nd, they said. He’ll watch it in the US. One doubts he’ll praise it on CNN.
• We enjoy a new film, The Wee Man, released last week. It’s based on the real-life Scottish gangster Paul Ferris, who is now an author and businessman. And it brings to mind the Glasgow joke from a couple of decades ago when Ferris had just been acquitted of murdering a member of the city’s leading criminal family. In the aftermath, two of Ferris’s closest associates were murdered. “What’s the difference between Paul Ferris and Elvis Presley,” wags would ask. “Paul Ferris is definitely dead,” the answer came.
• A letter arrives from Nick Clegg. He’s all loved up. “I want to tell you about my good friend and colleague, Professor Steve Webb,” he says. “He is incredibly clever.” And he “understands more about pensions than almost anyone else in the country”. Lucky Nick. “Imagine how I felt, back in May 2010, when I got to appoint Steve as minister for pensions in the coalition government. It felt like serendipity.” Much better than the time in 2008, when Clegg was allegedly overheard on a flight saying: “Webb must go. He’s a problem. I can’t stand the man.” Experience has brought them closer.
• Finally, it’s official. No place for Bradley Wiggins and his type in the army. “Sideburns are not to descend below the mid-point of the ear and are to be trimmed horizontally,” says the MoD, under questioning from MP Tobias Ellwood. Poor Bradley. Doomed to stay cycling.