Peter Tatchell, improviser

Peter Tatchell was standing on a street in central London, pretending to do some window shopping while he waited for Robert Mugabe to come out of a hotel. Then Tatchell would pounce – performing a citizen’s arrest on the Zimbabwean president on charges relating to torture.

At least, that was the plan.

Tatchell told the story of this attempted arrest at The School of Life, recently, as the first in a series of interactive talks by “World Changers” that I’m very proud to have co-curated. I was very excited to meet the man whose dramatic interventions have made such a difference to the lives of so many people around the world. And I was grateful to be reminded how a man who is deeply analytical about the assorted issues that matter to him is also terrifically creative in the way he promotes and tackles them.

Zimbabwean friends had asked Tatchell to help draw the world’s attention to the use of torture under Mugabe. He didn’t take the request lightly. He looked into it, found evidence that a) torture was happening and b) Mugabe had approved it. Then he’d pursued all the usual channels – ie, spoken to politicians – to get something done. But to no avail. That’s when he hit on the idea of a citizen’s arrest, to be carried out with a small number of friends – and invited journalists to watch.

The School of Life event was sold out, and everybody in the crowded basement listened intently as Tatchell described the plan – and how it started to go wrong.

Despite pretending to be occupied with window-shopping and making phone calls, Tatchell and his friends started to attract the suspicion of the hotel doorman, who went to have a word with somebody. And a short time afterwards a group of African men came out of the hotel.

“They were obviously Mugabe’s security men. I thought, ‘Is that it? Has the plan failed?’”

Having little alternative, he improvised. The man who has been vilified for years by tabloid newspapers walked across the street towards the security men and told them he was a reporter on The News Of The World. He said conspiratorially that he was sure “Elton John and his gay partner” were staying in the hotel, and needed to know which room they were in. He would give them £50, he said, if they helped him find out.

The men started talking in an African dialect. Tatchell offered them £75. Then, improvising again, he said he recognised one of them from an Elton John concert. “You’re Elton’s security, aren’t you…?! Come on guys, tell us which room he’s in.”

The men fell about laughing, and went back into the hotel convinced he was harmless. Job done.

And not long afterwards Mugabe came out of the hotel. Tatchell’s friends surrounded the limo, and Tatchell opened the back door. “I laid one hand on Mugabe’s arm, and said, ‘President Mugabe, you are under arrest for torture. Torture is a crime under international law.’

“Mugabe is a very dark skinned man,” Tatchell told us, “but he looked ashen. I think he thought he was going to be killed. So, for a moment, he knew what his victims feel like.”

Mercifully, the security man in the car was just as astonished as Mugabe, and sat motionless. (“I don’t suppose he works for Mugabe any more.”)

When the police arrived, Tatchell explained that he had performed a citizen’s arrest, and showed them the evidence. “But they threw it on the floor, arrested us, and gave Mugabe an escort to go shopping in Harrods. So it was not a total success.”

All the same, news of what Tatchell and his friends had done spread quickly around the world. Thousands of people in Zimbabwe got in touch to thank him.

I was impressed by Tatchell’s storytelling, which managed somehow to put across extraordinary achievements – in that campaign and others – without seeming at all self-aggrandising.

In the second half, in keeping with the interactive style of sessions at The School of Life, Tatchell asked us to get into pairs and gave us exercises from his activist’s toolkit. I found myself dreaming up a scheme to get every adult to take up some kind of art, while my neighbour Susie made it her mission to get office-workers to enjoy proper lunches, with full enjoyment of food and human companionship.

These seemed like modest goals, compared with what Tatchell had described. But as I’m he would have agreed, if it was necessary to be Peter Tatchell in order to change things, the world would be in bigger trouble than it is.

Before we left, one of the other participants, Jude Habib, did a short interview with Peter. And after that, I did an interview with Jude.

The next World Changer at The School of Life will be Rob Hopkins, co-founder of The Transition Movement

POSTSCRIPT After the event, my neighbour Susie sent me some thoughts about what had happened:

I made a commitment this evening: create some art every day. Was this what I had expected to take from a discussion on world changers? Definitely not, but this simple idea might change my world, and in my opinion, to change even one person’s world should be held in high regard.

It was incredibly inspiring to hear Peter Tatchell describe his experiences of raising awareness and changing perceptions on such a grand scale, and I was fascinated to hear other members of the audience talk about their aspirations, some of which were of a similar magnitude.

For my part, I realised that my desire to effect change exists at a much more intimate level. If I can improve the worlds of just a handful of people, then when the time comes for me to drop off this mortal coil I will do so feeling satisfied. Pledging to do some ‘art’ each day – which for me includes writing – might just give me the clarity I need to define how I am going change other people’s worlds.