Remembering Ross Benson

Anton Antonowicz, chief feature writer for the Daily Mirror, looks back fondly on a master of disguise

If you didn’t know him, you did not like him. Too good-looking; too
aware of it. Too sartorially self-conscious. Too fond of his own
smoke-graveled, plumvowelled voice. Over-preening,
overweaning. Over-the-top.

And, in this fashion, he would unfailingly confound those who saw the image, not the man.

Ross
Benson: master of disguise, a hugely decent, brave, talented journalist
shyly, sometimes slyly, hiding behind the front of a latter-day
Flashman.

We first met in the early eighties on a plane bound for
Warsaw and the Pope’s tour of Poland. Sure enough, his inflight reading
was ‘Flashman and the Redskins’.

Over the next 25 years we met many times in parts of Africa, the USA, and finally, the Middle East.

A
Flashman novel was rarely far from his reach; nor far from his
self-manicured hand was a glass of “brrr-utally chilled Chablis”,
accompanied by the familiar greeting: “Anton!

Welcome…to another goat-f***!”

The last of these was Baghdad 2003.

Our paths, professionally and socially, crossed often since then. However, that job was the mother of all GFs.

Ross
turned up fashionably late but, as always, right on time. He emerged
from his room swearing blue murder that Ingrid, his wife, had offered
to pack his bags. To his dismay, he’d just discovered two beloved
safari suits were missing.

“Look at me,” he said, standing there
in his tailored, nip-waisted blazer, blue trousers, brown loafers and
buttoneddown shirt, “How can I survive a war in these?”

Survive? He positively blossomed. The
shirt, it transpired, was one of four, all bought from a shop off
Burlington Arcade, each costing £80 but requiring absolutely no
ironing. The trousers also sported a permanent crease. And the jacket?
Not from Savile Row, but from a tailor in Coulsdon, Surrey, who made
all his suits. At a fraction of the price.

“Don’t let on I told
you,” said the Master of Disguise, “at least not while we’re here.
Better that Saddam’s goons think they’re dealing with at least one real
English gentleman.”

And he had them fooled. “Mister Ross, my
dear, you are a source of greatadmiration to us,” Udai al-Tahir, the
Information Ministry’s chief media handler, confided, “How could your
countrymen and the Americans dare bomb with you among us?”

“That’s precisely what I’m asking myself,” Ross replied, uncharacteristically quietly.

Back
in Baghdad’s Hotel Palestine, home to the journalists, he would mouth
his daily ‘Dad’s Army’ mantra: “We’re all doomed. Doomed, I say.

Bombs, bullets, held as human shields, gassed. Doomed beyond redemption.”

His noisome fear led some correspondents to question being in Baghdad.

There were many phone-calls back to editors. And many last-minute withdrawals.

“Wish I was pulling out too,”

Ross
offered in consolation, but Dacre (Daily Mail editor) says it’s time to
justify my grotesquely-inflated salary. And I can’t bloody argue.”

Of
course, he was genuinely anxious, but the Master of Disguise never had
any intention of quitting – as some of us were well aware.

“Well, that worked,” he whispered to me as the final convoy of seemingly disconsolate hacks headed for Jordan and security.

And
so we were left to our own devices. First organising supplies for the
inevitable war (Ross provided a box of Pringles, a few cases of beer,
some Black Label and as many cigarettes as he alone could smoke). Then,
trying to find a “safe house” where we could hide if the going got
rough. And finally, “a proper breakfast”.

This we arranged with a
man who sold hard-boiled eggs outside the Information Ministry. And it
was a daily treat. One egg each, shelled, squashed into the folds of a
slice of flat bread, washed down with a tin of Coke and, for Ross, a
flick for imaginary crumbs with his silk, top-pocket, handkerchief.

He
tipped handsomely and, in return, the Egg Man tipped us about the daily
doings inside the ministry; the troop concentrations around the
capital; and the day when Saddam’s goons meant to search us all for
banned satellite phones. I immediately tucked my smuggled Thuriya
mobile phone into a black plastic bag, walked over to a clump of bushes
bordering the ministry andtossed it into a pile of rubbish. Two days
later the bombing began. Baghdad began to fall apart and with it, the
regime. By now we were reduced to daily coach trips observing the
effects of aerial war. And, in the evening, compulsory attendance at
Government press conferences, usually hosted by the Information
Minister aka ‘Comical Ali’.

Mister Ross, whose contempt for
Saddamistan was increasingly transparent, made a point of never taking
a single note. When asked why he had failed to show up at an impromptu
morning press call, he mimicked: “Dreadfully sorry, Mr Udai. But, my
dear, I woke with a hang-over to slay an ox.”

By now, Udai was
more interested in saving his own skin than flaying Benson’s. And, in
the madness of that day, we hatched a plan to retrieve my Thuriya: I
would scramble into the bushes while Ross masked me by pretending to
obey a liquid call.

The problem, unforeseen, was the rubbish tip had grown. Black bags galore. “Found it yet, for God’s sake?”

asked
Benson in full flow. “No”. Then: “Come on Anton. I’m attracting a
f***ing crowd.” Eventually, I grabbed the right bag. “Thank f***,” came
the strangulated groan. And Ross walked manfully away – acknowledging
Iraqi applause with the one-handed Benson wave.

But in fact he
had trouble walking at all. Near the end of our stint I wandered into
his room to find him nursing his feet. They were blistered raw and
bleeding from psoriasis, a condition for which he had given me ointment
years before. “You know I’ve got cream upstairs,” I told him. “Didn’t
want to bother you,” he replied, “Too many other things going on.” And
each day he filed around 2,000 lovely words, stitching genuine feeling
into that patchwork of quotes, claims and shockawful scenes. He could
write fast, dictate off the top of his head with ease, but Baghdad did
not call for too much of that. So he polished and he honed. If he had
to live this goat-f***, he’d make sure readers caught it too. And he
was rightly awarded for it.

We ended that war lounging over
sunset on the Dead Sea. We’d both dreamt of the moment. Me, stupidly
wondering whether the hotel served fresh oysters. He, thinking about
that first, promised glass of “brrr-utally chilled Chablis” and his
family, friends and the soon-sprouting bluebells in the Thames Valley
wood near Ingrid’s weekend home.

“Look over there,” he said waving a sudden majestic hand towards Israel. “Home of three of the world’s great religions… And another goat-f***.”

A
few weeks ago I received a phone text message from Ross who had been
back, yet again, to Iraq. “There are still no oysters in the Dead Sea,”
he wrote, his way of saying he was once more safe and sound in Jordan.

Last
week I was looking forward to meeting him for dinner. Then the news
came through from a friend, a rockhard newsman, who was crying. And I
tried to think of the Ross I knew as the phone kept ringing.

Ross:
precocious gossip columnist, award-winning foreign fireman, doing
both…twice. Ross, who tried to make money setting up the perfect
carpet business. Ross trying to produce the perfect hit in the pop
industry. Ross as would-be property tycoon. Ross, who just wanted to
get things right…….

But that phone again. James Whitaker, “devastated”, talking about the three Ross’ weddings he attended… “three weddings and now the bloody funeral”.

Another
call, another shocked voice remembering how kind the man had always
been to those just starting. A message from Ross’s son Dorian,
graveled- but-far less plum, asking for details of Dad’s charity.

Not
difficult: his father was a primemover in obtaining money from all our
newspapers when Salah al-Mousawi, a driver who helped us all, was shot
dead by American soldiers on his way to our hotel. Salah, a gentleman,
impeccable, handsome, doting on his kids.

For Ross, remembering Salah would be like looking in the best of mirrors.

Hours later I went alone to El Vino to raise a goodbye glass to a man I knew well and therefore liked so much.

That Chablis left a brrr-utal chill.

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