Written by Roger Allen
The news of Daily Mirror proprietor Robert Maxwell’s death filtered out at about five o’clock on bonfire night, 1991. It seemed like the whole of Fleet Street was heading for the Canary Islands where Captain Bob had fallen off the back of his massive motor yacht, the Lady Ghislaine.
The rumour mill was running at full tilt by the time the Mirror team arrived in Tenerife. Maxwell had been bumped off by Mossad agents; committed suicide; been murdered by a member of the crew; or, more likely, had fallen off the back of the boat pissed.
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Captain Bob was to be buried in the Mount of Olives, Judaism’s premier resting place.
After a night in Madrid, I flew to Tel Aviv. Most of the Mirror team had been booked into the American Colony in Jerusalem, the Swiss-run hotel. It’s an oasis where Arabs and Jews have met to sign peace deals, where Winston Churchill puffed his cigar, Graham Greene dreamt up spy thrillers and where Lawrence of Arabia was said to have had a liaison with a young Arab boy. In room seven, to be precise. The whole place is steeped in history – and it has Ibrahim, one of the world’s best barmen.
The day before the funeral I and several other photographers trooped to the top of the Mount of Olives to work out our positions.
Great plumes of dust rose above the edge of the car park overlooking the cemetery. We walked over to see what was happening. There, fifteen feet below us, were two large men with two large grinding wheels. They were standing over a gaping hole. It was the Maxwell burial plot and it was on the very top row of the mount.
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The car park attendant walked over to join us. ‘They have been cutting all morning. The hole for the big man is too small. If they make it any bigger they’ll be into the next tomb,’ he said, looking at us.
The men below halted their work and stepped back. The November sun was still quite warm. Beside them were slabs of stone that they had cut away.
One of the men pulled out a tape measure and ran it across the width of the hole. He stood up and shook his head, bent back down and picked up his grinder. More clouds of dust filled the air.
Later we all headed off to a great outdoor restaurant, which had a whole lamb turning on a spit over an open fire. We talked about some of the funny Maxwell stories. Like how he fired people who didn’t work for him; how he sent Bill Akass hundreds of Maxwell Publishing books to sell during the first Gulf War; how he told air traffic control to ‘fuck off’ when he was kept from crossing the runway at Heathrow in his helicopter; the list is endless. He was a rogue and a pension thief, but he had a passion for newspapers and journalists, unlike the corporate owners of today.
That night a mass of reporters and photographers sat down for dinner at the American Colony.
It was a great night and we kept Ibrahim busy till the early hours of the morning.
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At dawn the next day, the sound of the Imam wailing from the mosque woke me up. I had a thumping hangover; it was 5.30am and I’d been in bed for two hours. For the next two hours, I lay sweating and rolling around in bed unable to get any proper sleep. At 7.30 I had a shower and wandered down for some breakfast.
Following two eggs on toast and a few cups of coffee, I was feeling more human. Later I returned to my assigned spot for the funeral.
The hole was vast and earth had been piled up against the tomb next to it. It must be big enough for the old man now, I thought. The lying-in-state was due to finish at about two o’clock and the body would be at the burial plot by three o’clock. The sun would be low in the sky and make the perfect picture – the setting sun with the vast vista of Old Jerusalem and the Golden Dome.
Time dragged as we waited and watched the final preparations being made at the graveside. The two men with grinders were back, messing about with slabs and trying to make the hole a bit more presentable.
At the bottom of the valley there was a mass of blue flashing lights – it was the Maxwell motorcade. The lights stood out sharply in the dusk. It would take about ten minutes for the cars to make their way up the narrow, winding roads to the car park. A lone police car skidded to a halt in the car park. Policemen jumped out, shouting orders to the security guards who had been waiting at the gates. They in turn leapt into action, pushing open the two large, black gates at the bottom of the slope so the hearse could drive as close as possible to the graveside. The second vehicle to arrive contained the Israeli special branch. They were big, fit and very mean and they all had pistols strapped to their thighs.
Two minutes later, the Maxwell procession arrived. The family cars parked in the car park. Following behind was a blue transit van full of rabbis and Maxwell’s body. One of the uniformed police officers became very excited when the transit van came into view. He started waving his arms at the driver, urging him to drive towards the slope down to the gates. The van edged its way through the parked cars and on towards the gates. As he got to the opening, it became clear that the Transit was not going round the corner.
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More and more mourners were arriving, having to squeeze either side of the Transit van.
The rabbis had jumped out and were now manhandling a stretcher bearing the huge frame of Maxwell out of the rear doors. The cadaver was covered in the blue-and-white flag of Israel. I looked below to see the Maxwell family and the hundred or so mourners standing waiting for proceedings to begin.
Back at the gates, the stretcher had been unloaded and was now in the hands of the rabbis, one of whom was shouting and pointing to the setting sun. They surged forward with the body, almost breaking into a run as the sun kissed the top of the opposite side of the valley.
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Once at the grave, it was all hands to the pump. One of the rabbis dispensed with his black Homburg hat and jacket, and jumped in the hole, waiting to receive the body. The other rabbis were lining up the stretcher at one end of the grave, ready to tip it up and send Maxwell down the chute, a bit like a burial at sea. All the time this was going on, prayers were being said and the sun was sinking lower and lower below the horizon.
I was taking pictures all the time on a wide 18mm lens.
The moment came to send the boss of the Daily Mirror into the ground. Under Jewish law he must go in naked, so the flag would be held at one end while he disappeared, saving everybody’s blushes.
Four rabbis heaved one end of the stretcher up to shoulder-height hoping that, as planned, the body would slide down into the waiting arms of the rabbi in the hole. But Maxwell wouldn’t shift – he still lay under the shroud, refusing to budge.
The rabbis pushed harder and suddenly his body, with the force of gravity, slid quickly forward. The rabbi below looked like a goalkeeper waiting for the ball. Maxwell’s body rushed towards him. It got to a certain point in its journey and then sat upright, nutting the rabbi. The poor man struggled with the body, eventually pushing it down to the bottom of the grave.
Having freed himself of Maxwell, the rabbi leaned against the grave wall, breathing very hard. Slowly he regained his composure and then went about his duties, dressing the body in the white-and-blue shroud. Moments later, in near darkness, he hopped out, grabbed a shovel and started to fill the hole.
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After a night in the bar, we were on the 8am flight to London. That morning’s paper carried six pages on the funeral and my picture.
Weeks later, the hero Maxwell morphed into the villain when the extent of his plunder of the Mirror pension fund became known.
After the madness of the funeral I wandered off into the Arab quarter of Old Jerusalem, smoke billowed from a small stand, a jolly man stood behind a flat hotplate cooking koftas, a pile of steaming chicken thighs just out of the oven was overpowering my taste buds. I sat at a table in the narrow alleyway eating the best food I’d had since arriving in the Holy Land.