It is always nice to get back and find you haven’t been burgled. The locks were secure, the windows intact, and with a song in my heart I opened my bank statement. It all seemed pretty satisfactory, if a tiny bit emaciated, and for a second or two I let my eye run down the list of outgoings. Funny, I thought. What was this ‘payment to Egg’? I seemed to have been making all sorts of payments to something called Egg. In fact, Egg had received several grand from me. I looked closer, the beginnings of suspicion frosting my heart.
Lastminute.com – £754. Che? Two big payments of more than £500 to a credit-card firm called Capital One. Hmmmmm. Another payment to Egg, of £1,000! Aaaargh. With the cry of one who finds a great tapeworm coiled in his innards, I twigged. I was being diddled. Someone had stolen my debit-card details. All the time we were in Uzbekistan, he or she had been living it up at my expense. I rang Barclays Premier emergency helpline, scrubbed the card, and asked what they could do to catch the thief. ‘Not a lot, I am afraid, sir,’ said the fellow. I just can’t believe it. These computer johnnies are so expert at following electronic trails that they can tell in a trice what websites you may or may not have visited five years ago – and now the bank says it can’t even tell whither they electronically dispatched all my hard-earned dosh. Well, I say to hell with it. I am going to pursue this. I am going to catch the little swine and, as Samuel L. Jackson says in Pulp Fiction, I am going to smite them with a terrible vengeance. Still, as banking disasters go, it’s better than the time Barclays contrived to pay my entire salary to someone else called Johnson.
Amazing how the world changes, eh? There we were in former Soviet Central Asia, the heart of what Ronald Reagan once rightly called the evil empire. We were standing on the smashed-up old roof of a summer palace of Tamburlaine the Great (1336-1405), looking out at the pleasant green spread of a town called Shahrisabj. For more than a week we had been travelling in Uzbekistan, and we had hardly met another Westerner. Now I became aware of some large freckly girls in trainers, consenting to be photographed with the jabbering natives, and hulking sweaty-nosed black GIs. That’s right: it was the US military, from the base at Karshi-Khanabad. Just think, I said to my children. When I was a nipper this place was full of Russian troops, not Americans. Hundreds of feet below us, on the commie piazza, was a gigantic statue of Tamburlaine, Uzbekistan’s major contribution to world history. You know what, I told them, 15 years ago, that wasn’t a statue of Tamburlaine, that was Lenin; and yet here’s the funny thing. Round the statue were noisy Uzbek wedding parties, beautiful girls in white, and their grooms in black tie. Now, I said to the children, the wedding parties come to be photographed with big bronze Tamburlaine just as they came to be photographed with big bronze Lenin. What conclusion do you draw from this about human nature? ‘Well,’ they said brilliantly, ‘it shows that people want someone to look up to, and it doesn’t really matter who it is.’ Correct! I said. You may think it odd to put up statues to Tamburlaine, who was famous for his pyramids of skulls. But in the mass-murderer stakes, of course, he comes a long way behind Lenin.
If you go as a tourist to Uzbekistan (and I very much hope you do) the main items you are shown are the mosques and madrasas and whatnot. These often turn out to have been built by Tamburlaine (qv) and are of really astonishing beauty. Domes of turquoise and eggshell, arches and colonnades, all arranged with effortless rhythm and elegance. There is nothing like it on earth. But as you stare at them, you are struck by a kind of inertness. There is no cheesy smell from the carpets; no mosquito drone from the muezzin; in fact, there are no religious observances going on at all in these monuments. Stalin’s archaeologists lovingly repaired the sites; Islam itself was stamped on in a way that was brutal, repressive and quite amazingly effective. The Koran was banned. The last veil was burned in the Soviet Socialist Republic of Uzbekistan in 1959. Polygamy was outlawed. Modern Uzbekistan is robustly secular, flowing in pissy Uzbek beer and blind-making Uzbek vodka, with bottle-blonde Uzbek girls tottering by in high heels. We looked at their tiny skirts, and it was amazing to think that Afghanistan was just a few miles down the road.
It won’t last, of course. There are many wonderful things about Uzbekistan, but two drawbacks. The food is quite disgusting, consisting either of lamb ‘ploff’, or of a slimy lamb and noodle soup called ‘lagman’, or lamb shashlik, all of which coat your skin and hair in a ghastly lamby sheepfat emulsion. The second problem is that it is a police state, with checkpoints everywhere and a grim human-rights record. There is no secular opposition (the last time President Islom Karimov stood for election, he received the votes of 95 per cent of the electorate, including that of his chief opponent), and the result is that religion provides a focus for dissent. Slowly the mosques are opening, and the anti-religious thaw is accelerating since it began in 1993. Whatever happened this year in Andijan, when Karimov’s troops slaughtered between 80 and 300 people, Islamic revivalism was there in the mix. For the older generation, used to the iron certainties of communism, it is all very troubling. Our guide in Bokhara is a distinguished lady in her fifties, who is proud to have worn her red Pioneer tie, and to be an atheist. ‘I don’t agree with people who curse the Russians,’ she says. ‘I think they did a lot of good. Now people don’t learn Russian any more, just Uzbek and English. It is very sad.’ I see trouble ahead. I see chronic friction between the secular russified majority and a growing Islamist minority. Perhaps that is one reason why Karimov is now kicking the Americans out of their base, and turning back to Moscow. Whatever you say about the Russians, they have no qualms when it comes to abusing human rights, if that means cracking down on Islam.
I also discovered on my return that Peter Oborne has exercised his sovereign right, as political editor, to slip in no fewer than two columns in praise of Ken Clarke; and I therefore feel bound to say that I share his admiration but for many powerful reasons that will in due course be set out in these pages it is my policy and therefore ex officio the policy of this magazine that the next leader of the Conservative party should be David Cameron.