Mohamed the hero of Chernobyl

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Chernobyl in 2016, 30 years after the tragedy


I have recounted here Mohamed Al-Fayed's thwarted ambition to join the ranks of media tycoons. I have little doubt that, had he succeeded in buying either Today or LBC or launched a new Sunday paper, the novelty would have worn off quickly and he would have been away on the next big thing. 

Mohamed, you see, possesses a butterfly-like concentration — except when it comes to waging a vendetta. We first met in the late '80s at the polo at Windsor at a time when he was on a major smarm offensive towards the royals, doubtless with his quest for UK citizenship to the forefront of his mind. 

Not long afterwards I was in the office after returning from a few days in Chernobyl following the 1986 nuclear disaster. I had written a couple of spreads which I'm pleased to say provoked readers into sending money for the poor buggers who had lost everything, in some cases their lives and their future health, because of the attempted cover-up and resultant delays of the Soviet hierarchy. 

Mohamed was of similar mind; he was, he said, moved by what I had described when visiting babies and children born with a variety of cancers, thyroid problems and in some cases missing or malformed limbs. I was duly summoned to the chairman's office at Harrods. 'You get me a big star to open the January sale,' he ordered, 'and I will give these kids a percentage of the first day's sales.’ 

David went off to hit the phones. In less than 30 minutes he put his face round my door to ask if Cliff Richard would do!

Clearly there was a lot of money at stake. Once back at the Express I called for David Wigg. Once we had both marvelled at the fact that Harrods would have left it so late – just days before Christmas — to recruit a household name to do the business on January 4, David went off to hit the phones. 

In less than 30 minutes he put his face round my door to ask if Cliff Richard would do! And that is when the snowball began to roll… 

Over breakfast with Mohamed and Cliff following the opening ceremony, I told the singer all about what I had witnessed on my visit to Ukraine and he immediately said that he would soon be performing five evenings at Wembley arena and that he would be happy to add an extra show and give us all the profits. Which is exactly what he did. 

Mohamed continued our arrangement and over the next few years the brilliant David recruited Diana Ross, Tom Jones and Pierce Brosnan, and the considerable combined talents of David Emery and Colin Bateman secured the services of Graham Gooch and Viv Richards as a double act to open a summer sale for Mohamed. They were respectively, the captains of England and West Indies who were competing the 1991 Test series. 

The Monday date for the sale fell three days before the Thursday start to that particular Test at Trent Bridge, Nottingham. The managements of both countries agreed that the two star players could be released to fly to Battersea heliport, be chauffeured to Harrods to do the honours, as long as they arrived back by lunch time for media commitments and practice. 

What hadn't been factored in was the weather, specifically the fog. Mohamed's pilot had been 'advised' (aka ordered) by air traffic that he couldn't land at the ground because of the lack of vision. Fayed, on the other hand, insisted he did. 

The same applied at the destination, Battersea, with the seconds ticking away to the 9am start. Needless to say, the 'copter did land and the two supreme batsman of their day were piled into a Mercedes for the short journey through thick traffic to Hans Crescent. 

I liked Mohamed; an interesting combination of half very good and half a bit iffy. He would fly into sudden rages with no warning. 

As a passenger in one of the Fayed fleet of Mercs in Paris I know how frightening – and unnecessary — an experience this can be. As did Princess Diana sadly. When they stepped out of the car Graham looked as white as a sheet and visibly shaking at the combination of fog, traffic and a Fayed driver from hell. Viv, on the other hand, was serene and wreathed in smiles. 

We may never know why the great man was not shaken like his English counterpart. Someone present put it down to the in-flight herbal medication… 

Express readers, together with Mohamed and Cliff Richard, raised more than £1million which paid for vital oncology equipment for several hospitals in Kiev which saved the lives of many very sick children. 

Fayed didn't confine our Chernobyl fundraising to Harrods; he offered a series of prizes for readers relating to his ownership of the Villa Windsor in the Bois de Boulogne. The Duchess of Windsor's pearl choker, the Duke's putter and much else. 

The winning couples were flown to Paris and back with two nights' stay at the Ritz and a tour to the Villa. A jolly time was had by all though I did take exception to one of the party of winners who, on the second evening when instead of dining so richly in one of the Ritz dining rooms, we headed off to a delightful local basement brasserie, queried his share of the bill. 

'But I didn't have a starter.' Bloody readers! I liked Mohamed; an interesting combination of half very good and half a bit iffy. He would fly into sudden rages with no warning. 

On one occasion I was meeting him at his Park Lane penthouse with Andrew Neil. We went on to the balcony just in time to see a helicopter rise from the grounds of Buckingham Palace. 'Look at that fuggin' Philip. Spending our money on helicopters, yachts, trains and planes. Fuggin' fuggers…’ 

He was certainly a turn who, whatever his failings, was hugely generous, giving millions to children's causes, much of it in association with the Express. Those were indeed the days.

© 2005-2022 Alastair McIntyre