Just about this time of year, 42 years ago, Dunhill’s of London, the famed tobacconist, had a bold idea. The president of Dunhill’s, Richard Dunhill, flew 32 backgammon players to New York and had them board the QE2 for the return trip to Southampton. The backgammon players were a varied group. Like with cricket of old, there were gentlemen and there were players. For players, read hustlers and small-time con men. Among the gents were players like Michael Pearson, now Lord Cowdray; some very nice Americans, like Porter Ijams, whose aunt was canonized; and yours truly. The hustlers were a more amusing bunch. There was Jean-Noël Grinda, a French tennis player who was 6 feet 7 inches tall and took up more space than a lifeboat, and his “close collaborator,” Philip Martyn, now posing as a gentleman. Grinda and Martyn were partners in crime but pretended not to know each other (“Je ne connais pas ce monsieur”). There was also a small dark person called Joseph Desiree Dwek, possessor of five passports—Israeli, Lebanese, Egyptian, British, and U.S.; the American Tim Holland, a golfer friend of Sean Connery’s; and the eventual winner, Charles Benson, an old Etonian who made his living tipping losers for a grubby Fleet Street daily. (Benson was my first English friend, and he cost me plenty.)
First prize was 100,000 pounds, an enormous sum at the time, and the “players” took it very seriously. The rest of us were busy getting pissed and chasing the few women on board. (I didn’t win the tournament but won something better.) Meanwhile, back in Blighty, Nigel Dempster was featuring a life preserver from over his gossip column in the Daily Mail and announcing the results after each day’s play with caustic comments included. Nigel had approached me and had asked if I would ring him daily with news from on board. I obliged, as I had just finished close to four years in Vietnam, Palestine, Jordan, and Cyprus reporting for Greek and American papers and was looking for an entry into Grub Street.
The trouble was that Nigel, a good friend, referred to me as “his spy on board,” without giving the poor little Greek boy any credit. One day, while recovering from the night before—a friend of Pearson’s had streaked the length of the QE2 and was lustily booed by us because his willy was that of a 4-year-old—there was a knock on my cabin door. In came Clement Freud, bug-eyed and looking like Orlando Furioso. I was no friend of Freud’s and was not particularly pleased to be woken up by a dog food salesman. “We have reason to believe that you have been leaking information about the tournament to the Daily Mail,” said the dog food man. I got so angry to be interrogated by that deeply unpleasant—and, as it turned out—child-molesting creep, I advanced toward him, but he saw danger in the horizon and saw himself out unassisted.