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Book Review: Make Believe by Diana Athill

Updated: Sep 24, 2021

The brutal murder in 1972 of Gail Benson was wicked beyond belief. It happened in January of 1972 in Trinidad where Miss Benson was living in a commune led by a Black Nationalist civil rights leader styling himself Michael X. On the morning of 2 January, Michael X and a group of associates lured the pretty 27-year-old to a freshly dug grave somewhere out on the commune. Here, they attacked the unfortunate woman with cutlasses. Benson fell into the grave. Seriously wounded and struggling for life, her killers proceeded to bury the poor girl alive . . .

Model and socialite, Gail Benson had briefly been married to the film director Jonathan Benson whose work includes Tommy, Chariots of Fire, Women in Love and A Fish Called Wanda to name but a few. A cruel and unimaginable death thousands of miles from home at the hands of demons, this idealistic and vulnerable young woman’s life could and should have played out entirely differently. One make's one's bed.

Make Believe is an account of how well-to-do London publisher and editor, Diana Athill came to move in the same, precarious circle as the doomed Miss Benson. It all began one day when a black power activist calling himself Hakim Jamal turned up in the offices of her publishing company with his idea for a book. A former lover of the film star Jean Seberg, Jamal was a man who apparently oozed charisma. (The Seberg family had been strict church-going Lutherans and Seberg had likely been rebelling against the strictness of her upbringing). By all accounts the man was a force of nature.

Like many women of her class, including Benson – Athill was instantly smitten. As she readily confesses, she had rarely met a black American and this brooding, indignant specimen standing before her, she found intriguing. Amused at what she took to be Jamal’s shyness, Athill tells the reader she would have gone to bed with him in a trice. He’d only had to ask. Athill, it transpires, has a penchant for shocking.

Jamal, whose real name was Allen Donaldson, was a 1960s radical. Not only that, he was a man with a criminal past – a seemingly irresistible combination for a certain type of upper middle-class woman. The daughter of a Conservative MP, Gail Benson had met the black power firebrand at a dinner part given by the actress Vanessa Redgrave where it seems Jamal, foreign, exotic and radical, had been the main attraction for these impressionable and naïve women.

Benson became not only Jamal’s lover but a devoted servant. For as Athill tells the reader, bizarre as it sounds, Hakim Jamal was convinced that he was God – at least that’s what Miss Benson appeared to believe. Soon, Jamal is living with Athill as her guest and occasional lover. He might be God, but he is constantly broke, constantly relying on favours from female patrons like Athill.

Reading how Athill and her circle became smitten with this bum is both funny and chilling. Clearly, Jamal had a chip on his shoulder bigger than Greenland. Yet the more he preached an anti-white message, the more these upper crust (white) women flocked to his side.

As an analysis of the psychology of a certain type of female, Make Believe is utterly fascinating. Jamal has multiple lovers all of whom compete to massage his monster ego. No doubt privileged women such as Redgrave, Benson and Athill were expressing some form of latent rebelliousness against their class, their upbringing etc. Following the swaggering Jamal must have thrilled these thoroughly respectable women and I suppose made a statement of sorts.

In need of funds as usual, Jamal and Benson next (known as Hale Kimga) rock up at the author's Chelsea pad and basically take over the place. The couple have been living in Morocco and Paris. There’s never a dull moment with God . . . Throughout it all, Athill records the chaotic life of this pair of strange bedfellows. It’s potent stuff.

As the book progresses it becomes clear that Athill, though not Benson, is tiring of her Svengali. ‘She was a crazy woman in love with a crazy man,’ concludes the author at one point. Indeed, Jamal’s delusions become ever greater. His novelty having worn off, Athill starts to have second thoughts: how does she rid herself of this schizophrenic and his neurotic follower? Subtitled ‘a true story’ this extraordinary tale becomes ever more compelling.

The story of Athill’s involvement with this pair comes to a head when £200 (£2,000 in today’s money) is stolen from her bedroom. It was supposed to be yet another loan to the ever impecunious couple. The author strongly suspected that Benson had helped herself, probably with Jamal’s blessing – some kind of test that ‘God’ had planned for the author.

And so eventually, Benson and her master remove themselves to Trinidad much to Athill’s relief. Jamal has decided to hook up with Michael X who, with his involvement in prostitution and drug trafficking, has wisely decided to flee London. At the time he was wanted for extortion. Nice chap, then. John Lennon and Yoko Ono apparently thought so.

If there is a moral to this sordid, but always compelling story it must surely be this: play with fire and you’ll likely get burnt – the fate which befell one young, utterly naïve English socialite. Just what is it with these upper middle-class women one wonders? Gail Ann Benson was mesmerised, literally. Bereft of self-respect she allowed herself to become a play-thing for an unsavoury circle of thugs and fantasists.

Athill then goes onto rather matter-of-factly chronicle Benson’s callous murder, the subsequent execution of Michael X for that crime and the death by gunfire of her one-time lover and erstwhile literary prophet, Hakim Jamal aka God. There’s neither regret nor bitterness. Athill has seemingly moved on from those frenetic years in the early 1970s when an otherwise respectable, women of middle years went for a walk on the wild side. Judged by the detached tone of her memoir, it’s a sortie from which she appears to have returned from relatively unscathed. Others were not so lucky.

The only complaint I have with Make Believe is that it’s far too slim. It can be read in a day. A song of innocence and experience, unputdownable is a word to be used sparingly, but with this little volume it really is the most appropriate epitaph that springs to mind.