Naked and glistening

Dan Jacobson

  • The Diamond Underworld by Fred Kamil
    Allen Lane, 244 pp, £6.50, November 1979, ISBN 0 7139 1086 0

There is an ‘Africa’ one revisits every time they show certain kinds of old movie on television: the Tarzan films, for example. It is a rather strange part of the world, inhabited for the most part by white men in jodhpurs and pith helmets, with revolvers strapped around their waists, who are followed about by hordes of half naked porters carrying bundles on their heads. These bundles seem to be used for one purpose only: they are to be thrown down on the ground whenever the porters fall into a panic and run off jabbering into the jungle. By the look of it, the jungle consists chiefly of a few square yards of rhododendrons, but it can give way suddenly to vast tracts of sand under a blazing arc-lamp, or to high mountains of paster-of-paris, some of which conceal lost cities, or prehistoric creatures, or other revolver-toting, pith-helmeted whites. From the way they frown and scowl and talk English with a foreign accent, the latter can clearly be seen to be up to no good.

That, by and large, is the Africa which the author of this preposterous autobiography inhabited during the early years of his manhood. A Lebanese by origin, he went like many others from that country to make his fortune in West Africa. He opened a store in a small town in Liberia. There he was lucky enough to witness jungle maidens dancing, ‘naked and glistening except for a few strings of coloured beads around the hips ... like statues of living bronze writhing in a dance from hell’; he was also presented by Chief Gaswa with a ‘boy’ who was intended to be his servant for life. ‘I knew that according to tribal custom I must give him a white man’s name on the spot. “I call you Philip,” I said ...The chief raised his hand and the drums exploded once more.’ Then, in a strange fit of philanthropy, he entrusted several thousand dollars of his hard-earned money to a diamond-smuggling stranger from Sierra Leone, who promptly took off with it, as any self-respecting diamond-smuggler would. Whereupon our intrepid autobiographer swore a mighty oath against the smugglers, and rounded up a small army of mercenaries from the bars of Monrovia, who were apparently so impressed with his air of command that they followed him without asking about the purpose of the expedition. Accompanied, of course, by a team of native porters much given to drinking and drumming, he set out for the interior. By seizing a single hill on the border between Sierra Leone and Liberia, he and his Thermopylean few were able to close the entire border, and to make many a rich haul as the stupid smugglers came stumbling into the trap. All this was done, however, not for the sake of the money, but solely to vindicate the author’s honour, dignity and self-esteem.

Naturally, his achievement so impressed the Central Selling Organisation, the body which controls the marketing of practically all the world’s diamonds – and which is in turn largely controlled by the De Beers and Anglo-American Corporations – that they prevailed upon Flash Fred, as the author was eventually to become known, to turn ‘official’ and come and work for them in South Africa. This he did, though only after a spell in Europe, working for a ‘private agency’ which ‘had evolved as a sort of civilian subsidiary to Nato’. In South Africa he seems to have acted as a double agent, not to say agent provocateur, on behalf of the police and the diamond companies in their pursuit of dealers in illicit diamonds. He certainly deserves his sobriquet in one respect: the accounts of his various adventures flash by in an impenetrable blur of names (especially of cars – Mercedes, Alfa-Romeo, Cadillac), and obscure allusions to places, journeys, sums of money, winking lights, pre-dawn vigils, knives, guns and lipsticked girls. My favourite tale, I think, is the one about the entrapment of some illicit diamond-dealers which took place when Flash Fred and the police concealed their car in ‘the bush ... untouched by man’ just outside ‘the protected area of Kimberley’. About that I have two observations to make. The first is that I spent almost twenty years of my life in Kimberley without ever hearing anybody refer to its ‘protected area’. The second is that you are a lucky man if you can find a bush, any bush, big enough to hide a bicycle behind.

Anyway, the author eventually fell out with the head of Anglo-American security: the company would not, he claims, pay him his share of the value of the diamonds he retrieved from the smugglers; its officials began to get jittery when he traced a large-scale ‘leakage’ to high executives in the company; threats were made against the life of his wife and daughter to induce him to hand over certain files. So he hijacked a plane, and compelled it to fly to Malawi. From there he demanded that Harry Oppenheimer, chairman of Anglo-American, come to the airport to discuss his complaints. This Mr Oppenheimer declined to do. The hijacking fizzled out.

Flash Fred was sentenced to 11 years’ imprisonment in Malawi, but was released after about 18 months. Like much else in the book, the reasons for his early release are not made clear. Subsequently, and (the author insists) quite unfairly, he was associated in the press with a plot to get money by blackmail and menaces from various directors of Anglo-American. At that point the bemused reader sees that among the names flashing past are those of Harold Wilson, Peter Hain, Jeremy Thorpe etc, who were supposed to be the targets of the ‘South African connection’. There the book ends, the author still asserting fiercely that justice has not been done to him.

He is quite sure what ‘justice’ would be at every stage – as far as his own rights are concerned, at any rate. Indeed, the author’s moral fervour is unremitting throughout the book. When he traps and double-crosses the diamond-smugglers, consigning them to long terms in prison, he does so because they are very bad people. When he fights against the big diamond-mining and trading corporations, he does so because they too are very bad people – and monopolists to boot.