On 5 January 2011, at 8.30 p.m., I was messing about at home when the phone buzzed on the sofa. It was a text from Jamie Byng, the publisher of Canongate. ‘Are you about?’ it said. ‘I have a somewhat left-field idea. It’s potentially very exciting. But I need to discuss urgently.’ Canongate had bought, for £600,000, a memoir by the WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange. The book had also been bought for a high sum by Sonny Mehta at Knopf in New York and Jamie had sold foreign rights to a slew of big houses. He said he expected it to be published in forty languages. Assange didn’t want to write the book himself but didn’t want the book’s ghostwriter to be anybody who already knew a lot about him. I told Jamie that I’d seen Assange at the Frontline Club the year before, when the first WikiLeaks stories emerged, and that he was really interesting but odd, maybe even a bit autistic. Jamie agreed, but said it was an amazing story. ‘He wants a kind of manifesto, a book that will reflect this great big generational shift.’ He’d been to see Assange in Norfolk and was going again the next day. He said he and the agent Caroline Michel had suggested me for the job and that Assange wanted to meet me. I knew they’d been talking to other writers, and I was at first sceptical. It’s not unusual for published writers to get requests to write things anonymously. How much did Alex Haley protect Malcolm X when he ghosted his autobiography? To what extent did Ted Sorensen create the verbal manner of John F. Kennedy when he wrote Profiles in Courage, a book for which the future president won the Pulitzer Prize? And are the science fiction stories H.P. Lovecraft ghosted for Harry Houdini not the best things he ever wrote? There would be a touch of all this in the strange case of Assange. But there is something else about the genre, a sense that the world might be more ghosted now than at any time in history. Isn’t Wikipedia entirely ghosted? Isn’t half of Facebook? Isn’t the World Wide Web a new ether, in which we are all haunted by ghostwriters?
I had written about missing persons and celebrity, about secrecy and conflict, and I knew from the start that this story might be an insider’s job. However it came, and however I unearthed it or inflected it, the Assange story would be consistent with my instinct to walk the unstable border between fiction and non-fiction, to see how porous the parameters between invention and personality are. I remembered Victor Maskell, the art historian and spy in John Banville’s The Untouchable, who liked to quote Diderot: ‘We erect a statue in our own image inside ourselves – idealised, you know, but still recognisable – and then spend our lives engaged in the effort to make ourselves into its likeness.’ The fact that the WikiLeaks story was playing out against a global argument over privacy, secrets and the abuse of military power, left me thinking that if anyone was weird enough for this story it was me.
At 5.30 the next day Jamie arrived at my flat with his editorial colleague Nick Davies. (Mental health warning: there are two Nick Davies in this story. This one worked for Canongate; the second is a well-known reporter for the Guardian.) They had just come back on the train from Norfolk. Jamie said that Assange had poked his eye with a log or something, so had sat through three hours of discussion with his eyes closed. They were going to advertise the book for April. It was to be called WikiLeaks versus the World: My Story by Julian Assange. They said I would have a percentage of the royalties in every territory and Julian was happy with that. We talked about the deal and then Jamie went into detail about the security issues. ‘Are you ready to have your phone tapped by the CIA?’ he asked. He said Julian insisted the book would have to be written on a laptop that had no internet access.
When I arrived at Ellingham Hall Assange was fast asleep. He’d been living there, at the house of Vaughan Smith, one of his sureties and founder of the Frontline Club, since his arrest on Swedish rape allegations. He was effectively under house arrest and wearing an electronic tag on his leg. He would sign in at Beccles police station every afternoon, proving he hadn’t done a runner in the night. Assange and his associates kept hackers’ hours: up all night and asleep half the day, one of the little bits of chaos that would come to characterise the circus I was about to enter. Ellingham Hall is a draughty country residence with stags’ heads in the hall. In the dining room there were laptops everywhere. Sarah Harrison, Assange’s personal assistant and girlfriend, was wearing a woolly jumper and kept scraping her ringlets off her face. Another girl, maybe Spanish or South American or Eastern European, came into the drawing room where the fire was blazing. I stood at the windows looking at the tall trees outside.
Sarah made me a cup of tea and the other girl brought it into the room with a plate of chocolate biscuits. ‘I’m always trying to think of new ways to wake him up,’ she said. ‘The cleaner just barges in. It’s the only way.’ He soon came padding into the room in socks and a suit.
‘I’m sorry I’m late,’ he said. He was amused and suspicious at the same time, a nice combination I thought, and there were few signs of the mad unprofessionalism to come. He said the thing that worried him was how quickly the book had to be written. It would be hard to establish a structure that would work. He went on to say that he might be in jail soon and that might not be bad for writing the book. ‘I have quite abstract thoughts,’ he said, ‘and an argument about civilisation and secrecy that needs to be got down.’
He said he’d hoped to have something that read like Hemingway. ‘When people have been put in prison who might never have had time to write, the thing they write can be galvanising and amazing. I wouldn’t say this publicly, but Hitler wrote Mein Kampf in prison.’ He admitted it wasn’t a great book but it wouldn’t have been written if Hitler had not been put away. He said that Tim Geithner, the US secretary of the Treasury, had been asked to look into ways to hinder companies that would profit from subversive organisations. That meant Knopf would come under fire for publishing the book.
I asked him if he had a working title yet and he said, to laughter, ‘Yes. “Ban This Book: From Swedish Whores to Pentagon Bores”.’ It was interesting to see how he parried with some notion of himself as a public figure, as a rock star really, when all the activists I’ve ever known tend to see themselves as marginal and possibly eccentric figures. Assange referred a number of times to the fact that people were in love with him, but I couldn’t see the coolness, the charisma he took for granted. He spoke at length about his ‘enemies’, mainly the Guardian and the New York Times.
Julian’s relationship with the Guardian, which appeared to obsess him, went back to his original agreement to let them publish the Afghan war logs. He quickly fell out with the journalists and editors there – essentially over questions of power and ownership – and by the time I took up with him felt ‘double-crossed’ by them. It was an early sign of the way he viewed ‘collaboration’: the Guardian was an enemy because he’d ‘given’ them something and they hadn’t toed the line, whereas the Daily Mail was almost respected for finding him entirely abominable. The Guardian tried to soothe him – its editor, Alan Rusbridger, showed concern for his position, as did the then deputy, Ian Katz, and others – but he talked about its journalists in savage terms. The Guardian felt strongly that the secret material ought to be redacted to protect informants or bystanders named in it, and Julian was inconsistent about that. I never believed he wanted to endanger such people, but he chose to interpret the Guardian’s concern as ‘cowardice’.
His relationship with the New York Times was every bit as toxic. He believed its editor, Bill Keller, was determined to treat him as a ‘source’ rather than a collaborator – which was true – and that Keller wanted to hang him out to dry, which was not true. Keller wrote a long piece in his own paper saying Julian was dirty, paranoid, controlling, unreliable and slightly off his head, which naturally made Julian feel his former collaborator was out to get him. But both newspapers, in concert with others, had given over vast numbers of pages to the leaks and given WikiLeaks top billing in bringing the material. I always felt the involvement of the New York Times would save Julian from prison, and I still believe that. Even the US authorities see that it would be impossible for them to convict Assange without also convicting Keller and Rusbridger. But instead of seeing that, Julian could only see the men in personal terms as dissemblers or something worse.
He had a strange, on-the-spectrum inability to see when he was becoming boring or demanding. He talked as if the world needed him to talk and never to stop. Oddly for a dissident, he had no questions. The left-wingers I have known are always full of questions, but Assange, from the first, seemed like a manifestation of the hyperventilating chatroom. It became clear: if I was to be the ghost, it might turn out that I was the least ghostly person in the enterprise.
He was avoiding ‘our book’. He wanted to talk about the other books about to be published. ‘There’s this book by two guys from Der Spiegel,’ he said. ‘It will be more high-toned than the others. The two guys are friendly towards me but the book will contain new allegations.’ He spoke about another book to be published by the Guardian. He said it would come from journalists he’d worked with there. He was obsessed with David Leigh and Nick Davies, two of the main reporters. ‘Davies is extremely hostile to me,’ Assange said. ‘The Guardian basically double-crossed the organisation in the worst way.’ (The Guardian denies this.) ‘We left them with a cache of cables – to act as security in case any of us got it in the neck – and they made a copy of the data. They were against my getting other media organisations involved, so they leaked the data to the New York Times and others and they behaved abominably. Davies has a known personal animosity towards me.’
‘Because he’s an old man who’s basically at the end of his career. He can’t bear it that a one-time source of advancement has gone away. He wrote a smear about me and none of the Guardian management stood in his way.’ He mentioned Ian Katz as failing in this regard. He said the Guardian’s behaviour would likely be laid out in the Der Spiegel book, and that the Guardian journalists were obviously keen to put out their version. ‘They have scheduled the book to come out at the time of my legal hearing, to cause maximum damage.’
‘Surely not,’ I said, incredulous. ‘Wouldn’t they wait, just for old time’s sake?’
He said the third book was by his former colleague Daniel Domscheit-Berg. ‘This will be a complete smear,’ he said. ‘The guy is working from hatred of us and he will seek to make it as damaging as possible.’
‘Embarrassing or damaging?’
‘Both probably. He has chatroom stuff … conversations.’
‘Between all of you?’
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘He put out one of them before, about having been suspended. He printed all the stuff in the conversation except the parts that related to why he was suspended. There is also a book by the New York Times journalists and several other quick books. But these will be damaging too because they would just repeat the worst allegations.’
I’d never been with a person who had such a good cause and such a poor ear, nor had I met a head of an organisation with such an unending capacity to worry about his enemies and to yawn in one’s face. I asked him how he thought the court case would turn out. ‘I have, I’d say, a 40 per cent chance of being freed,’ he said. ‘If they free me on 6 February, I’ll leave the country immediately because in this country there would be a second arrest and the US will be determined to have me extradited. I would sooner be in a country where no extradition treaty exists with the US, such as Cuba or Switzerland. A lot of people in America want me dead and there was an article in the Washington Times which showed my face with a target on it and blood coming out the back of my head.’
He suggested I came with him to the police station at Beccles. We went outside and waited for Sarah to get the car. Standing there, I saw that the contradictions might just work out well for the book. I saw he had problems but he could be funny and I liked him. Ellingham Hall is surrounded by barns and outhouses. ‘I would like to convert one of those stables into an office,’ he said. He smiled. ‘And a book was born in a manger.’
‘You’d never find three wise men and a virgin in Norfolk,’ I said. He made another joke about Norfolk, about local social workers stamping cases N.F.N. – ‘Normal for Norfolk’. He phoned ahead to the police station to tell them he was coming. There were two phones on his lap but he answered neither one himself. A French journalist was following the car but lost us. At the police station, Sarah stopped and said: ‘Shall I do the honours?’ I watched as she went out and searched the bushes.
‘Is she checking for paparazzi?’ I asked.
‘I wish,’ said Julian.
I said I would write the book on condition that I could do it for the interest alone, the thrill of getting the story right and learning something in the process. I thought I would have a kind of authorly freedom by not being the author on the cover. I told Jamie I didn’t want my name anywhere on the book and that I wouldn’t give interviews or talk about the project. I wouldn’t become a WikiLeaks spokesman or go on Newsnight or confirm anything with the newspapers. I wanted to let the work speak for itself. I was assured this would work and Julian agreed.
On Monday 17 January 2011 I drove to Norfolk. It was dark and drizzly by the time I got to Ellingham Hall. I stopped the car and got changed in a lane, putting a hoody over a T-shirt, while rabbits hopped in the headlamps. I’d been told there were journalists everywhere and indeed there were lights around the fields and sometimes helicopters overhead. I looked at the driveway under a full moon, it felt almost comically filmic, a strange technological distortion of Jane Austen’s novels, with character and power waiting to combust. The house loomed through the fog, as they say, and I texted Sarah to say I was two minutes away from the door.
The kitchen was the usual thing: blue Aga, double sink, farmhouse table, plates everywhere. On top of the Aga a garlic loaf was warming and on the table a little bowl of tomato salad. I could hear American voices through the door that led to the drawing room, and one Australian voice, Julian’s. On the walls of the dining room there were many paintings hung on brass rails. One of them showed a 19th-century gentleman. I later found out he was Vaughan Smith’s ancestor who had expanded the estate after marrying into it. Vaughan’s father was ruddy-faced and in uniform. Julian later told me the white thing he was holding was a diplomatic bag.
Filming was going on. There was always filming or the possibility of filming, which was odd for people who liked to think of themselves as hiding in the shadows. ‘You want a book to read?’ Sarah asked. ‘I’ve got tons of your books upstairs.’ The television people were from the US show 60 Minutes and were making a film about WikiLeaks. I heard Julian say to them that this was his gilded cage, the same thing he had said to me several days earlier. While Julian continued to deal with the interviewer in the drawing room, Sarah and I had a drink in the kitchen. She said she was from South London and had come to work for the organisation the previous July. She brought up the rape allegations and said they were ‘the most massive cliché’. ‘We expected flak from the Pentagon,’ she said, ‘but not smears based on two weeks in Sweden.’ She said it was bizarre what the Swedes considered to be rape but that some of her friends couldn’t believe she worked for WikiLeaks, because of these allegations, which she said were mad. She asked me about my career and we spoke about the writing business. ‘I thought I’d get to do a lot of travelling in this job,’ she said, laughing, ‘but instead I’ve been stuck in one house in the English countryside since last October.’
We sat down to dinner at ten. Vaughan joined us, pulling baked potatoes out of the oven and lasagne that had been prepared by the housekeeper. We had a joking conversation about movie rights in general and they all larked about who should play them in the movie. Vaughan was most concerned about the movie company hiring the house for filming. I told them about Battle Bridge Road, the place in King’s Cross where I lived in my twenties, which was used all the time as a film set. I told them about the day they were making a film about Oswald Mosley and doing the Battle of Cable Street in our street. The hippies who squatted nearby thought the revolution had begun and ran out and joined the fray. ‘Who’s Mosley?’ Julian asked.
When we began speaking about the book, I was concerned to get a sense of what the elements were, so that I could think about how to build the picture. I said that perhaps there should be a narrative in which the past and present alternated. ‘What did you think of Anna Karenina?’ Assange said. ‘I just thought it took too much of my life away. But then there’s this scene where the dog begins to speak, and I thought, yes, this is beginning to make sense.’
The biggest surprise for readers of his book, I suggested, would be to discover it wasn’t written luridly or defensively but quite frankly.
‘Maybe it should be experimental,’ he said, ‘like chapter one has one word; chapter two has two words …’
‘The real innovation,’ I said, ‘would be to come up with a book that sums up the relationship between the individual and the state as it seems from your position now.’
‘But I am not a complete person yet,’ he said.
‘It will be the book you can write now.’
He wanted his book to be like Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man.
I noticed he tended to eat pretty much with his hands. People in magazine articles say he doesn’t eat, but he had three helpings of lasagne that night and he ate both the baked potato and the jam pudding with his hands. He turned from being very open and engaged to being removed and sort of disgusted. About midnight, he and Sarah, while continuing to talk, lifted over their Macbooks and opened them and began to type with their faces strangely lit. After a while, Sarah exclaimed.
‘What?’ I asked.
‘Bloody hell.’ She looked at Assange.
‘What?’ he asked.
‘The Guardian have redacted the following from a cable about Tunisia,’ she said.
‘Read what they’ve redacted,’ said Julian.
She read two sentences about a deposed president having sought cancer treatment abroad. ‘They’re taking them out,’ she said.
Julian made a face. ‘They’re disgusting.’
‘Why do it?’ Sarah asked. Julian said they were obviously worried about being sued.
‘Come on,’ Sarah said.
Julian: ‘British courts.’
Julian always behaved as if he was being pushed onto the back foot over ‘redactions’.
The issue was this: on 28 July 2010, Major General Campbell, a US commander in Afghanistan, said that ‘any time there’s any sort of leak of classified material, it has the potential to harm the military folks that are working out here every day.’ The notion got under the skin of many people, including many of the journalists dealing with the leaks, and a feeling grew that WikiLeaks must avoid having ‘blood on its hands’. Julian gave several answers to the question of how the leaked material should be ‘redacted’. Sometimes he appeared to suggest that editing it was wrong, but he admitted to me that they wanted to ‘improve when it came to having a better focus on redactions’. He denied ever saying, as reported by others, that informants’ names should not be taken out and that ‘they deserved to die.’ He would go over these positions again and again, but the interviews I conducted contain many inconsistencies. And horrible longueurs.
At 10 p.m. one night I drove over to the house and Julian spoke for nearly three hours without pause. At one point he looked quite moved as he spoke about ‘backstabbers’. He talked about Domscheit-Berg. In some way he found it impossible to imagine how another person could have a view of him, or of themselves, that didn’t accord with his own. ‘Every good story needs a Judas,’ he said, and ‘nearly everybody is a fucking wanker.’ He spoke about other people he’d worked with, and felt it would be different with me. (I was never certain it would be, though I hoped so.) ‘You are in artistic control of this book,’ he said. I replied that I felt the book could become an argument about disclosure, about the difference between secrets of a political kind, on the one hand, and the tabloid hunt for salacious details about private lives, on the other. The book, I said, should be revealing on all fronts, but also be frank about revelation itself. If he could not discuss a matter of importance – his son, for example, and the custody battle, or what happened in bed with the two Swedish girls – we should seek to explain why in a statement about sleaze. I said what we shouldn’t do was close our eyes and hope no one would notice. Making the ends meet in a moral sense was the project’s great conundrum, and he agreed to let me say what happened.
On Wednesday, 19 January, it rained all day. I was beginning to wonder about the time-wasting. I couldn’t understand the slow and lazy way they went about things. They always talked about the pressure of work, about how busy they were, but, compared to most journalists, they sat on their arses half the day. Julian’s favourite activity was following what people – especially his ‘enemies’ – were saying about him on the internet. When I told him I’d sooner cut my balls off than Google myself, he found a high-minded reason for explaining why it was important for him to know what other people were saying.
That night, a guy from al-Jazeera was talking to the group. The group was usually just Sarah, who lived there, and Joseph Farrell, a pleasant twenty-something whizz kid who came and went. Another guy, an activist and academic from Canberra University, was drinking wine and talking about how to mobilise the world. It turned out that the guy from al-Jazeera was hoping to strike a deal with WikiLeaks – that’s to say, with Julian. He was offering $1.3 million to get access (via encryption keys) to the data. He also wanted to organise a conference in Qatar on press freedom. There were Russian cigarettes on the table and everyone took turns to go outside and smoke. Julian was on cigars. Sarah did a lot of the negotiating over the al-Jazeera deal – it got quite heated at one point – but Julian would intervene and in the end everything was signed, though we have no knowledge if the money was actually paid or if any of the material was used by al-Jazeera. The man from Canberra was telling everyone they should have links with the new anarchists in Paris, who had the lowdown on how badly the French government had behaved in relation to the former colonies. ‘It would be good to do better in France,’ Julian said.
Kristinn Hrafnsson, an Icelandic investigative reporter and WikiLeaks spokesman – who appeared to have survived Julian’s many culls of his old friends – was sitting next to me with his laptop open. He turned it to show an email from David Leigh of the Guardian. Someone said Leigh had just been quoted in Vanity Fair saying that Assange was ‘out of money and out of leaks’. The email from Leigh was asking for two clarifications for his book. One was to do with a dating website Assange was once a member of. And the second was a question about the identity of his father. At the close of the email, Leigh said he wanted to be ‘fair-minded’ and said that he really meant it.
‘What a sleazy cocksucker,’ Julian said. ‘Who does he think he’s talking to?’ It wasn’t the first time I noticed how deeply adversarial WikiLeaks was in its relationship with its friends. Julian treated his supporters as subjects, and learned nothing when they walked away. He hardly mentioned the right-wing press that called him a criminal and a traitor: he expended all his ire on the journalists who had tried to work with him and who had basic sympathy for his political position. In a bank safe, I have dozens of hours of taped interviews with Assange in which he rails maniacally against the Guardian and the New York Times. After many of these long nights, I would wonder if the job wasn’t getting closer to fiction than I’d suspected. Before my eyes, and with no regard for me or my tape recorder, he snapped the olive branch proffered by those he hated.
I picked up my papers and went into the dining room with Julian. After a little while, Sarah joined us. I wanted to discuss the book’s structure. Julian said we should consider having a chapter called ‘Women’.
‘I thought this was going to be like a manifesto,’ Sarah said.
Julian bristled slightly. They were a proper couple: flirting and fighting and not-saying. ‘It is,’ he said, ‘but with personal history woven through.’
‘I just think …’
‘Don’t worry about it.’
‘Don’t worry.’ She turned to me. ‘He’s got such appalling, sleazy stories about women you wouldn’t believe it. I don’t want to hear all that.’
‘Hold on,’ he said.
‘No. Sorry. I don’t think that’s what the book’s about, your stories of sleeping with women.’
He wanted again to discuss Nick Davies, the Guardian reporter who had worked with him on the initial newspaper deal to publish the leaks. ‘The problem was he was in love with me,’ said Julian. ‘Not sexually. But just in love with me. Like I was this younger guy he wanted to be.’ He said the same thing about the Icelandic politician and activist Birgitta Jónsdóttir: ‘She was in love with me.’ I knew from then on that any understanding of him would involve a recognition of his narcissism. ‘I went to the local pub,’ he said, ‘and the people in the bar were gossiping about me, while I was there. One of them said: “The local ladies will be pleased.”’
‘Did you miss me?’ Julian asked when I came back from a spell in London. He was eating two bars of Violet Crumble (Australia’s answer to the Crunchie). I said there’d been speculation in the press about my involvement with him, that it was quite difficult, a lot of these people I’d known for years, they were friends, and not answering emails or confirming stories was tough.
‘Well, you could just come out in support of me,’ Julian said.
‘That’s not the deal,’ I said. ‘I’m anonymous. There’s no point in this otherwise.’
Sarah was clicking on her laptop. ‘That’s quite good,’ she said. ‘I’ve got you £20,000 for doing an hour’s interview by Skype.’ It was for some group of company presidents.
‘That’s not much,’ Julian said.
‘Well,’ Julian said, ‘if Tony Blair – a war criminal – can get £120,000, I should get at least £1 more than him.’
‘You want me to write back to them and say you want more money?’
‘Yes,’ said Julian.
Later, Julian was on the phone trying to instruct Alan Dershowitz – ‘the ultra-Zionist American lawyer’ – to represent WikiLeaks in its fight with the US federal government over its attempt to subpoena the organisation’s Twitter account. ‘It’s good politics to get him,’ Julian said. ‘Even if we lose him later. The middle right-wing faction in America will respond to him fighting on our behalf.’
I looked in the visitors’ book at Ellingham Hall. Under 29 November 2010, Julian had signed his name and written a message. ‘Today with my friends we tried to bring modern history to the world.’ It was the day after WikiLeaks began publishing 251,287 leaked United States embassy cables, the largest set of confidential documents ever released into the public domain. I wanted to get a lot of his childhood stuff down but he spent the night going off his head about the forthcoming edition of Panorama. It seems the reporter John Sweeney had put together ‘a swingeing attack’. Julian flames up when confronted with stuff like this.
Another afternoon, I was trying to get him to stop his undergraduate lecturing about freedom. I knew there was nothing I could use: it was all standard-grade Voltaire with a smattering of Chomsky. Sarah came in with a couple of FedEx boxes. A few weeks earlier, the billionaire (and Jimmy Choo financier) Matthew Mellon, for whom Julian was a hero, had landed his helicopter in the field outside the house and come in to have lunch. He said it was a pity a CEO such as Julian only really had one suit. Mellon said he would send him some clothes in the post. They’d forgotten about it until the FedEx boxes appeared. ‘Oh my God,’ Sarah said, ‘they’re actually in here.’
There were two suits by Oswald Boateng, a white shirt from Turnbull & Asser and a couple of ties, both from the gift shop at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The suits had bright linings, one pomegranate-coloured, the other aqua. I told Julian that Boateng was the famous black British suit-maker of Savile Row. ‘That’s great,’ he said. ‘It fits the blacksploitation theme I’m hoping for with the film of my life. I want Morgan Freeman to play me.’ He began stripping off and I saw he had a pair of Tesco’s trackie bottoms under his old suit. He donned each suit in turn and asked us to tell him how he looked. He was anxious to know if they fitted properly. ‘Isn’t this one a bit baggy on the arse?’ he asked. I looked at the note Matthew Mellon had sent. ‘Julian: Hope this finds you well. Some Savile Row suits I thought you might find useful. Hopefully there is a Taylar [sic] nearby … All the best to you and the gang.’
I spoke to Jamie Byng, who made the point that Julian didn’t appear to see how unattractive he could seem. He said the book would fail if we didn’t know how to temper or transform that; if the book didn’t save him from himself and go deeper than his defences. I knew what he meant. I told him I was trying to give Julian a crash course in self-deprecation, and would continue to insist that he not make himself the hero of every anecdote. I told Jamie the work WikiLeaks was trying to do might be bigger than Julian’s ability to articulate it.
There was this incredible need for spy-talk. Julian would often refer to the places where he lived as ‘safe houses’ and say things like, ‘When you go to Queensland there’s a contact there you should speak to.’
‘You mean a friend?’ I’d say.
‘No. It’s more complicated than that.’ He appeared to like the notion that he was being pursued and the tendency was only complicated by the fact that there were real pursuers. But the pursuit was never as grave as he wanted it to be. He stuck to his Cold War tropes, where one didn’t deliver a package, but made a ‘drop off’. One day, we were due to meet some of the WikiLeaks staff at a farmhouse out towards Lowestoft. We went in my car. Julian was especially edgy that afternoon, feeling perhaps that the walls were closing in, as we bumped down one of those flat roads covered in muck left by tractors’ tyres. ‘Quick, quick,’ he said, ‘go left. We’re being followed!’ I looked in the rear-view mirror and could see a white Mondeo with a wire sticking out the back.
‘Don’t be daft, Julian,’ I said. ‘That’s a taxi.’
‘No. Listen to me. It’s surveillance. We’re being followed. Quickly go left.’ Just by comical chance, as I was rocking a Sweeney-style handbrake turn, the car behind us suddenly stopped at a farmhouse gate and a little boy jumped out and ran up the path. I looked at the clock as we rolled off in a cloud of dust. It said 3.48.
‘That was a kid being delivered home from school,’ I said. ‘You’re mental.’
‘You don’t understand,’ he said.
There was plenty of laughter at the table in Ellingham Hall, followed by long periods of boredom. The laughter had a lot to do with Sarah, who had a nice way of teasing Julian, and a lot to do with the man himself, who responds well to jokes. It was all part of that discontented winter, when the book kept sliding back on itself. On a good day, it was inspiring to see them go after some lying politician or some corrupt tin-pot government. It was exciting to think, in that very Jane Austen kind of house, that no novel had ever captured this new kind of history, where military lies on a global scale were revealed by a bunch of sleepy amateurs two foot from an Aga.
Eventually, I found a house to rent in Bungay, ten minutes away from Ellingham Hall, a place to work quietly and get away from the general stagnation. I was driving a lot and trying to find a way into the book, but the delaying tactics on Julian’s part had become insane. When I tried to talk to him about dates, he talked about his forthcoming trial hearing and told me Fidel Castro had sent a message to say WikiLeaks was the only website he liked. The 60 Minutes programme went out in America and the response was massive. One commentator said Julian should win the Nobel Peace Prize; another said he had set back the cause of democracy by decades. In the midst of all the kitchen chaos, Julian puffed a cigar and reminded me, as if I needed reminding, that nobody is simply one thing: history was full of messy characters exercising their rudeness and eating with their hands while changing the world. I tried to keep that in mind as the days passed. ‘In one fell swoop,’ said Foreign Policy, ‘the candour of the cables released by WikiLeaks did more for Arab democracy than decades of backstage US diplomacy.’
One of the things Julian found it hardest to admit to was the amount of hacking he did himself. He had worked out that being an ‘editor’ was somehow a necessary front for much that he did. He objected to the idea that WikiLeaks ‘stole’ secrets: according to him they simply understood, at a deeply sophisticated level, how the flow of information in society could be altered. Far from being a slave to machines, he doubted their morality, feeling that computers were already being used all over the world to control us, and that only the moral and the wise and the fleet of finger, such as those at WikiLeaks, had the requisite understanding. At the time of the Egyptian uprising, Mubarak tried to close down the country’s mobile phone network, a service that came through Canada. Julian and his gang hacked into Nortel and fought against Mubarak’s official hackers to reverse the process. The revolution continued and Julian was satisfied, sitting back in our remote kitchen eating chocolates.
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