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He played the clown but there was method to his madness

WE grew up with Colonel Gaddafi, a constant face on the television screens of our childhood, and thought there were no surprises left.

Like the pyramids, there was surely nothing else to see.

But when he was actually standing next to me last March, I still felt a shock, the astonishment of the real.

One minute the press corps were basking in Tripoli's March sunshine, wondering whether he really was going to grace us with his extraordinary presence, as we had been promised several hours before. The next, he was in our midst, driving a golf buggy of all things, at the head of a frantic convoy of officials and police.

When he stepped down, nonchalantly, but with a touch of triumph as if he had won an international golf buggy race, I was so close I could have hugged him.

Or killed him, if I'd had a knife available, and had wished to bring the nonsense of his rule to a swift end.

Needless to say, I did neither, gawping instead into his black eyes, empty holes in his laughing visage, in slight embarrassment.

This was his modus operandi, the method in his madness. Keep people laughing, and they are too busy gawping to do anything about what remains constant in your rule: its brutality, its unbending belief in the ruler's destiny, its clarity that in the end, survival is worth any number of deaths.

As he said himself, anyone who did not love him was a rat, and deserved to die.

The comedy was a ploy that worked for world leaders like Tony Blair, Nicolas Sarkozy and Silvio Berlusconi, for a while at least.

He won more years for himself just by seeming to play straight.

That, of course, was an act too, revealed for what it was as the uprising began, just over a week before the day of the golf buggy, when he addressed his people in the voice that was the nearest we ever came to the true Gaddafi.