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An apology from the police


My one great adventure
John Julius Norwich Writer
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There was one day, my little girl Artemis, who was by that time... what was she? She was six. She was going to school and there was a school bus. I remember on one occasion she... the fighting was such that the school bus couldn't deliver her back home at lunchtime. I was lunching with the American journalist Joe Alsop at the St Georges Hotel, so I had to bring her too, tiny five-year-old. There weren't many five-year-olds at the St Georges Hotel, but they were very nice about it, and Joe was charming about it, so all that worked well. And that led to my one great adventure, when towards the end of August, the hottest moment of the year, I was shot in the head.

It was entirely my fault, really, looking back on it. I had a little German bubble car, an Isetta it was called, and it was the only one in Beirut, so everybody knew it. And there was a curfew – at 8 o'clock every night we always had to be back in bed. But I had a curfew pass, because I had to go and meet the diplomatic bag at 3 o'clock in the morning at regular intervals, in the airport, so I had a curfew pass. And I was coming back just a little after 8, I suppose, 8.10, 8.15, something like that. It was a very, very hot night. And our house was on a little sort of eminence, and you approached it from below, like that, and then you went around the side and you came up the other side into the front door, so you had to sort of really drive round the house before you got to it. And just at the foot of the road, underneath the house, there was a police post. There were lots of police posts; it was just one of many which would stop one and ask to see one's papers. So I was perfectly used to this, and, normally, you used to hear them say... you just... they just sort of... they didn't have a barrier. They just sort of shouted, 'Stop!', and rather hoped you wouldn't hear, I always thought, because they were always a bit nervous at who they would be stopping. But, anyway, I mean, I got used... I just stopped anyway, because I knew that this was a regular thing. I mean, it happened every night. So I stopped, but I didn't hear any shouts of stop, but I stopped anyway, and I waited and I waited. I waited, I suppose, for half a minute or something, and no one came anywhere near me. So I thought, well, there it is; they know me so well in this little car, and it's incredibly hot and they don't like sitting in that sandbag hut. They like going and sitting out on the nearby roof, I know that, where they get a little breeze, and they... clearly they can't be bothered to come down. And so I drove on. And 5 seconds later, deafening report, windscreen shattered.

I didn't know first of all what had happened. I didn't know whether I'd sort of gone over a bomb or whether I'd been shot from the front or behind or what had happened. I was sort of bewildered and mystified. But I remember thinking, am I all right? Two arms, two legs. Twice two are four, twice four are eight, brain seems to be okay and doing a little sort of quick inventory. And I seemed to be fine, but my hair had fallen over. I did that and my hand was absolutely covered with blood, as well as my shirt. I mean, it looked like Nelson's, you know. And I was by this time surrounded by neighbours, all of whom ought to have been indoors, but they were... it was so hot they were all sitting out in their gardens or on their terraces. And I was completely surrounded by hysterical neighbours, who saw this blood-stained figure and clearly thought I was very, very badly hurt. And there were about... one moment there were about sort of six of them around me, all, you know, offering me a drink and a bandage and their sister… I don't know, I mean, everything they could think of. And I was saying, 'No, no, no, one thing only, please, please listen. My wife is up there in that house. Please, somebody go to her and tell her that I have had this accident, but that I am perfectly, perfectly all right. I look like nothing on earth, but two minutes under the shower and I'll be fine.' So, anyway, they went and got her, and she was very good and sensible. And just as we were still sort of standing there, a white United Nations jeep, which there were quite a few patrolling the city, drew up and said, 'What's all this?' And I said, 'Well, I just seem to have been shot. I thought it was... it never struck me it was the police; I thought it was the opposition, the Muslim opposition.

John Julius Norwich (1929-2018) was an English popular historian, travel writer and television personality. He was educated at Upper Canada College, Toronto, at Eton, at the University of Strasbourg and on the lower deck of the Royal Navy before taking a degree in French and Russian at New College, Oxford. He then spent twelve years in H.M. Foreign Service, with posts at the Embassies in Belgrade and Beirut and at the Disarmament Conference in Geneva. In 1964 he resigned to become a writer. He is the author of histories of Norman Sicily, the Republic of Venice, the Byzantine Empire and, most recently, 'The Popes: A History'. He also wrote on architecture, music and the history plays of Shakespeare, and presented some thirty historical documentaries on BBC Television.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: fighting, curfew, police post, car, gunshot, blood

Duration: 5 minutes, 35 seconds

Date story recorded: 2017

Date story went live: 03 October 2018