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The view from the top

<strong>The Anatomist: the Autobiography of Anthony Sampson</strong>

<em>Politico's, 416pp, £19.9

Soon after Anthony Sampson had come down from Oxford in 1951, one of his friends from there, the young South African millionaire Jim Bailey, offered him the editorship of Drum, his newly launched sex and sport magazine for the Johannesburg townships. For a shy youth with no previous journalistic experience, it was not quite as bizarre an appointment as that of Evelyn Waugh's William Boot to Abyssinia, but getting on that way. My favourite line in this posthumously published autobiography comes from those early years. "One morning," he writes, "I was woken up [in a Soweto shebeen] by a sexy black woman, saying 'Sampson, can you buy me some beers'." As it happens this is the book's only mention of the author's sex life, apart from his regretful denial that he was ever the lover of Nadine Gordimer, the South African Nobel Prize for Literature winner, in spite of her early novel, in which Sampson is the hero, very much suggesting otherwise.

From this same transformational period of Sampson's journalistic life also comes the book's only joke. On his way to Soweto one day, a black colleague - perhaps Nelson Mandela, since Drum's all-black staff included most of the future ANC leaders - pointed out a sign saying "Natives cross here". Someone had changed it, Sampson tells us, to "Natives very cross here", a blackly humorous way to describe the revolutionary rage coursing through their veins.

Not only did Sampson lose his virginity and find his journalist vocation as a result of these experiences but, just as important, he forged an epic friendship with Mandela, whose bestselling official biography he eventually wrote decades later. It is an astonishing story. Sampson did not simply report on the townships; he lived the life, taking great risks to do so, if only because sex between black and white in those days was still a serious criminal offence. All of this deservedly helped to guarantee him, on his return to London four years later, a hero's welcome from David Astor, the anti-colonialist editor of the Observer, for which, with great distinction, Sampson wrote for most of the rest of his life.

What this autobiography shows, however, is that Sampson's genuinely intimate identification with the oppressed blacks - to a degree unequalled by any other white reporter at the time - did not come out of the blue. He also describes how in his earlier wartime role as a naval officer he had landed up in Hamburg, where he immediately identified with the oppressed Germans, because their plight - compared to his own comfortable billet in the only luxury hotel still standing - shocked him deeply. As it happened, I was also in the same officers' mess about this time - our paths did not actually cross until later - and far from feeling sorry for the Germans, I can very distinctly remember thinking that they were only getting the medicine they deserved; which almost certainly explains why he, rather than I, went on to become the foremost investigative journalist of our generation.

The launching pad that really sent Sampson's fortunes soaring was the Anatomy of Britain series of books, in which, with unnecessary statistical thoroughness, Sampson demonstrated that Britain was run very largely by the public school elite in general and Old Etonians in particular - really not so much a discovery as an elegantly written statement of the obvious. Fortunately for Sampson, the book coincided with a period of extreme economic stagnation and although this was actually due to the almost criminally selfish behaviour of the trade unions, the "old boy" upper class network provided Sampson with a much more colourful scapegoat. Aristocracy bad, meritocracy better: that was the theme of this famous series - gossip column stuff dressed up as sociology - and it was just what the public wanted. Everyone who was anyone wanted to be included, rather as today they want to be in Hello!. It made Sampson's name and fortune; ensured that he was asked to every smart dinner party, initially only by the powerful and ambitious in Britain but eventually by top dogs the world over.

For, during the next 30 years or so, Sampson gave the same anatomical treatment, with the same rewarding results, to the European Union, Nixon's America, the oil magnates, the conglomerate ITT, and last but not least, the arms dealers, all of whom came back for more. Take the arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi's reaction, for example. "It was impossible," writes Sampson, "to shame or embarrass him: after I had denounced his arms deals in The Arms Bazaar he still seemed more than glad to see me, to talk about the world and to show off his wealth. When he gave me a long lunch in London and I asked for a glass of wine he ordered a bottle of Mouton Rothschild's 64. When I wanted to interview him at the Paris Air Show he flew me there in his private DC9 airliner with a double bedroom, bathroom and luxurious sitting room."

This autobiography is full of such stories, all of which show Sampson getting red carpet treatment, privileged access, and consorting with Arabian princes, American senators and tycoons, French énarques and, inevitably, Henry Kissinger - who said on introduction: "Not the Anthony Sampson." All this is wryly and deprecatingly described, but what surprises and rather disappoints is that Sampson never seems to realise that his form of "anatomising", so suave, subtle and sophisticated, gave more pleasure than pain; did more to massage egos than chasten souls.

No, the finest parts of this beautifully written and readable book are those where the author anatomises himself, revealing the thoughts, hopes, fears that lay behind his enigmatic face. These are truly moving - particularly the love expressed for his wife and family - and show this remarkable and high-minded man as he really was. The last time Tony and I met, not long before his death, was at the Beefsteak Club, an archetypal Establishment social haunt, where over lunch I urged him to do a final anatomising job on Britain's hateful new meritocracy, which he did so much to put in place. He winced and almost apologetically said, very quietly, as was his way: "No Perry, I'll leave that to you."

This article first appeared in the 10 November 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Change has come

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How will future videogame makers design a grand strategy game about the 21st century?

With the diminishing power of nation states, and the lack of conventional warfare, what would a 21st-century grand strategy game look like?

In the world of historical strategy games, it always seems clear how to win. Paint the map your colour. Raise your flag over the capitals of your rivals. Pave the streets of your cities with gold. Games based around statecraft in olden times will tend to have diverse objectives, they usually focus on the greatness of a nation in the traditional senses of the word: military might, technological advancement, religious and cultural hegemony. These same priorities hold up from the times of the Roman Republic to the Cold War.

Yet if games designers in the future were to look at the world of today, how would they interpret the actions of modern governments? Do the same goals as before apply or have we moved on? Are the objectives of contemporary societies different, and if so, just what would a player in a game of 21st-century grand strategy be trying to achieve?

One thing is for sure, the conventional measures of success in historical grand strategy games don’t stack up so easily in a modern setting.

War, for instance, has always been a staple part of historical games and it remains a preoccupation of contemporary society too. In the 15 years of the 21st century, Britain has invaded two countries, conducted armed interventions in three more and is even now lining up the procurement of new fighter jets, new aircraft carriers and new nuclear weapons at incredible expense. So we can safely say we do not live in a peaceful age.

But despite having all this firepower and the political will to bring it to bear at the drop of a dossier, war doesn’t seem to serve Her Majesty’s Government in the way it does in either the history books or the strategy games. There is no territory to be won and no rival great powers being thwarted – only air strikes, occupations and teetering puppet governments.

Indeed the only country whose military adventures bear any resemblance to the old-timey way of doing things is Russia, with Putin perhaps the last of the breed of world leaders who still thinks swapping out the flags on municipal buildings constitutes a legitimate redrawing of national boundaries. Given his famous distrust for technology it seems quite likely he didn’t get the tersely worded Tweet from Obama about how that kind of thing isn’t supposed to work anymore.

On the economic side of things the approaches opted for by governments today don’t fit with the historical mind set either. Nations are no longer trying to get rich for their own sake. Privatisation relinquishes the assets of the state in return for a temporary financial gain and long term loss of revenue. Deregulation and poor tax enforcement bleeds capital overseas. It is here we see perhaps the key difference between games where you play as The State itself and real countries, countries run by people who have bank balances of their own and competing party financiers to appease.

The idea of running a country for the purpose of making that country wealthier and then reinvesting that wealth back into the country by developing assets and infrastructure has gone out of the window. Simultaneously both the leftwing model of a state run for the benefit of its citizens and the rightwing ideal of a country mastering its economy to become a more powerful force on the world stage have been quietly phased out. Outsourcing and tax havens suggest that there is no longer room for patriotism in economic policy – unless you’re China, of course, but it wouldn’t be much of a game with only one nation playing it.

On a technological front there was the space race, and there have even been games built around it. But in the 21st century, the urgency and the sense of competition has been lost. Rovers on Mars, probes on comets and space stations tend to be viewed in a spirit of collective human achievement, partly because of the collaborative nature of modern space exploration, and also, I suspect, because lots of people in those fields are Star Trek fans.

The idea of going to Mars so you can stand on the surface of another planet and tell the Communists to stuff it no longer appeals as much as that whole "pushing back the scientific boundaries for the benefit of all life of Earth" deal. It is laudable, but not ideal for games built around competing with other countries.

In the 21st century grand strategy game, we wouldn’t be looking to conquer the world, we wouldn’t be looking to buy it and we wouldn’t be looking to leave it in our technological wake either. So what does that leave? What would 21st-century grand strategy look like?

It could be argued that we’ve moved beyond the era of nation states as the bodies driving world affairs, and such a game might reflect that. Maybe something more akin to a Crusader Kings game would be the way to go, with the player taking the role of an individual – a connected political blueblood, perhaps, like an oligarch, a CEO, an activist turned politician, a drugs baron or a terrorist leader. Or maybe we would play not as an individual, but as an organisation, for example the CIA, ExxonMobil, Isis, Amnesty International or the Solntsevskaya Bratva.

It may be that we never see the present day immortalised in a strategy game, at least outside of that passing phase in Civilization where everything is either settled down or exploding in nuclear fire. Perhaps we’re destined to nestle into a historically obscure crack between the tumult of the 20th century and something spectacular or horrible yet to come. It is nice to think, however, that the times we live in are at least interesting and that maybe we’ll get to see it all laid out in a game one day, if only to find out what winning the 21st century would look like.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture