I arrived in Shepherd's Bush, dimly wondering what I would be thinking about if I were The Guardian's Emma Brockes or The Independent's Johann Hari. I should be thinking of trying to tease a quotable out of him, and perhaps peering around looking for incidental geographical or physical facts that could somehow be used to imply something about his character. Clothing, furniture, street names, anything that might be used to indicate the subject's guilt. I'm still thinking this when I enter the sitting room and scan the bookshelves and things, but my imagination fails me. Historical books. Novels. Languages. Nothing portentous here. The stock of literary cliches escapes me. And that, boys and girls, is why I run a blog, and Brockes gets paid by the Guardian Media Group. Anyway, after some banter - Murray has a diplomat's way of putting you at ease - I'm off with my questions, ones that I'm acutely aware must have been asked a few thousand times already. First of all, if you've read the accounts, you know that the Uzbek government stands accused of boiling dissidents to death, raping them with broken bottles, smashing their teeth in, pulling out their fingernails - one of the West's principal allies in the 'war on terror', which is often cast as one for liberal values, has been a dictatorship that, according to Murray, is every bit as bad as Saddam's was. This regime also happened to be one of the main suppliers of 'intelligence' to the West. I wonder was there any sense in which he expected to encounter this repression and terror when he decided to work in Uzbekistan?
"No," he replies, "I didn’t expect it to be as bad as it was. I had worked under dictatorships, for example in Nigeria and in Ghana under Rawlings. Rawlings wasn’t a nice man, he was a bastard, he killed people, but in the whole of his reign it was probably around a dozen people actually killed by him. Ibrahim Babingida in Nigeria was also a bastard, but his dictatorship was tempered by inefficiency. An effective totalitarian state was something I had never seen before, and unless you have seen one, it is very difficult to explain what it was like – the fear, no one trusts anyone, any form of social cohesion has been totally stripped away by the state. I wasn’t prepared for that."
He goes on with a slight smile: "In a way, of course, I didn’t have to be prepared because unless you lived down there in society, you wouldn’t really notice any of this. My predecessor, and I fear my successor, would spend time in the golf clubs and with businessmen and military attaches, and they would have no encounter with the terror..."