This piece about murdered journalist Georgi Markov was quite evidently written in response to then-topical events, and even while writing it I anticipated that certain aspects of it would date extremely quickly and that it would have to be substantially reworked if reused in another context. Depressingly, it was still entirely relevant when I included it in Can’t Help Thinking About Me, doubled in length not just with additional detail about his career but with further reaction to then-recent hot-headed posturing by those who absolutely do know better but also know how to manipulate fear, vanity and stupidity to their own advantage. If anything, matters have only got worse since then, but I don’t feel any particular desire to expand any further on that here.
I may have some issues with the manner in which an increasing number of public figures appear to believe that they should accept absolutely no responsibility whatsoever for the consequences of their words or the actions of their following, but that’s as good as insignificant compared to the fury I feel towards the increasing number who would rather just silence all dissent and disagreement whatsoever, whether through weasel-worded legislation or passive-aggressive posturing behind meaningless slogans that others then use to wave away all and any concerns with. ‘Fake News’. ‘The MSM’. ‘BBC Bias’. Nobody who throws these phrases around is your friend and more fool you if you think that they are. It’s almost like watching every last second of a hard-hitting nineties satire show that sought to undermine the media and encourage viewers to think for themselves, and then deciding that the message you should draw from that is to vigorously follow the show’s creator’s every last utterance to the letter, even the ones that were clearly taking the piss.
“His fight will go on”. It certainly does.
The first major news story that I can really clearly remember wasn’t, as you might not unreasonably expect, a space mission or a sporting event. It was one that fascinated and terrified me in equal measure. It was about a man who was assassinated in broad daylight with a poison-tipped umbrella.
Playwright, novelist and co-creator of the television detective series At Every Milestone, Georgi Markov had been a successful and popular figure in Bulgaria since the late fifties, even at the height of communist rule. By the late sixties, however, matters had started to change and his caustic and trenchant humour was of increasing concern to the authorities; Prime Minister Todor Zhikov made several unsuccessful attempts at persuading him to more closely endorse the ruling party, his plays were increasingly prevented from being staged due to state disapproval, and his satirical novel The Roof was forcibly pulled from publication literally while it was still on the presses. Using family connections in Italy, Markov fled to London in 1969; not long afterwards he would be found guilty of defection and sentenced to six and a half years imprisonment in absentia.
While his works were being quietly yet efficiently withdrawn from view in Bulgaria, Markov quickly established himself as a prolific and popular writer and broadcaster, working regularly for Deutsche Welle, Radio Free Europe, and most famously the BBC World Service, where his defiantly-titled In Absentia took an irreverent look at news from behind the Iron Curtain, and from Bulgaria in particular; needless to say, many of his harshest jibes and criticisms were reserved for Zhikov. During this time several of his ‘banned’ plays were staged in the UK, and he also found personal stability, marrying and starting a family with his World Service colleague Annabel Dilke.
On the morning of 7th September 1978 – which, in a staggering coincidence, also just happened to be Todor Zhikov’s birthday – Markov was waiting at a bus stop when, according to what he told a BBC colleague, he felt a sharp pain in his leg and noticed a man with an umbrella hurrying away and possibly mumbling pleasantries in a suspiciously heavy accent. During the course of the day he fell ill, and was taken to hospital, where it was determined too late that he had a poison-filled pellet embedded in his leg. He had been murdered for speaking his mind, at the behest of a notoriously thin-skinned dictator. It was an act that caused alarm and outrage in his adopted homeland, and is still widely considered one of the Cold War’s darkest moments.
From this distance, it’s difficult to gauge exactly how provocative Markov’s radio broadcasts were. Other than brief clips in documentaries and news reports, none of them are widely available, and while they were later collected in print form, this is now almost impossible to find in a translated version. Even then, they were written specifically for broadcast, and will almost certainly lack the nuance and character that they would have been presented with. That said, his pseudonymous 1978 satirical novel The Right Honourable Chimpanzee – you can probably work out the plot for yourself – should give enough of a sense of his style and intent. While Dilke – herself a prolific journalist and screenwriter – remarked that she had grown concerned by the vitriol and level of personal attack in his recent pieces and was convinced that there had been previous attempts to silence him both figuratively and literally, The Times, whom Markov occasionally wrote for, felt compelled to stress that his commentary was no stronger than that of dozens of other prominent exiled dissidents, with an editorial even venturing a belief that he had been assassinated to send a ‘message’ to the rest of them. In that same newspaper, Markov’s family posted a short and to the point obituary notice – “his fight will go on”.
The use of the word ‘fight’ is significant there, as a popular perception has arisen that Markov was somehow ‘asking for it’; that he’d knowingly and intentionally goaded the authorities until they reacted in the manner he should have been anticipating all along. With that in mind, it’s worth looking at a couple of things that you might have seen or heard while the police were busy trying to figure out what had happened to this mild-mannered broadcaster and how. Over on Radio 3, a spoof documentary by a then-unknown Rowan Atkinson introduced the world to Sir Benjamin Fletcher, a statesman with definite echoes of certain real-life contemporaries, not all of whom enjoy intact reputations today. Soon afterwards, he joined the cast of Not The Nine O’Clock News, a series that essentially specialised in note-perfect impersonations of global politicians while calling them out for hypocrisy, greed, bigotry, wet liberalism and any other charge that may have arisen. Peter Cook and Dudley Moore sent a letter to Margaret Thatcher asking what, as leader of the opposition, she planned to do about them having ‘the horn’, and the former caused a sensation at the inaugural Secret Policeman’s Ball with a ruthless takedown of the judge presiding over the farcical Jeremy Thorpe trial. And then, of course, there was Life Of Brian. We’re all familiar with the varying degrees of trouble the above may or may not have caused, but – as much certain parties may have wanted it for The Pythons – can you really visualise arrests or worse as a consequence?
Still not convinced? Let’s put it in a modern setting then. What if it was Armando Iannucci, Frankie Boyle, Josie Long, Russell Brand, Charlie Brooker or Stewart Lee? Or, for that matter, Toby Young, Camilla Long, Rod Liddle, Julia Hartley-Brewer or Dan Hannan? And why should we stop there? Since social media has given us all a platform, chances are that your various timelines are full of ordinary everyday people expressing views and opinions that certain authority figures would be quite happy to see them locked up for. Or, to take us totally and utterly into the realms of hypothesis and extrapolation, what about the cast and crew of an American television sketch show trading in mild traditional satire? This is not in any way to suggest that people should not be challenged for what they say – on the contrary, a huge proportion of the blame for whatever issues we have now rests with the fact that people no longer seem to feel they have to take responsibility for their words (and yes, before some lower-case smartarse pipes up, search hard enough and you’ll probably find an example of me doing that at some point, whoop de fucking do) – but if you think the answer is censorship or worse still threats of violent retribution, you’re a part of the problem yourself. Markov’s ‘fight’ was, simply, a fight to be heard.
Officially, Georgi Markov wasn’t ‘heard’ in communist-run Bulgaria, although his works circulated illicitly and were considered invaluable texts by a growing resistance. After the fall of the regime – and Zhikov – late in 1989, he was hailed as a national hero and awarded Bulgaria’s highest honour, the Stara Planina, in recognition of his ‘exceptional civic position and confrontation to the communist regime’. In 2014, a statue of Georgi Markov – grinning from ear to ear, as he always was in those tiny photos behind newsreaders’ heads – was unveiled in Journalist Square in central Sofia. Recognition that is well deserved, although the cowardly and despicable act that led to it was most certainly not.
Freedom of thought, and the freedom to express opposing views, should indeed be fought for. And if you’re seeing even the faintest echo of any of the above around you right now, then perhaps it’s time to stop giving credence to those who oppose it, or worse still claim to endorse it whilst peddling nothing of the sort.
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You can find an extended version of this article feature, with more background on Georgi Markov, in Can’t Help Thinking About Me, a collection of columns with a personal twist. Can’t Help Thinking About Me is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.
© Tim Worthington.
Please don’t copy this only with more italics and exclamation marks.