Now he’s dead, nobody can really know the truth of that infamous aphorism ascribed to Gore Vidal, “every time a friend succeeds, a little bit of me dies”. Studies tell us that much of our self-esteem derives from our sense of how well we are getting on compared with our contemporaries, lending some empirical weight to Vidal’s catty inverted schadenfreude.

That said, I feel nothing but joy for my good friend Tim Marshall who has made it as a writer of serious books. His latest, Worth Dying For: the Power and Politics of Flags, was given a lukewarm review in The Spectator by Daniel Hannan. But the mere fact that someone with the wit of Hannan has deigned to give Tim a gentle kicking must mark another milestone along the road marked “public intellectual”.

Tim and I grew up about five miles from one another in West Yorkshire, two working-class boys with a shared interest in Leeds United. Later, we wound up at Sky TV, Tim carving out a niche as a foreign affairs analyst with a gift for explaining complex international relations in a way that was never pretentious or banal. I fell out of love with football. Tim took it with him around the world.

In 2001 our paths crossed in Tajikistan, then the only way into Afghanistan. I was heading there to report on the battle for Kunduz, the last stronghold of the Afghan Taliban. Tim was on his way home, having told the story of the liberation of Kabul by the Northern Alliance. His lucid coverage of the story had won many compliments. But, when I met him at a crumbling Soviet-era hotel in the Tajik capital Dushanbe, the only thing he wanted to talk about was the picture he had of him wearing a Leeds United football shirt – inside Afghanistan. It was from the Kabul Branch of the Leeds United Supporters Club, explained Tim.

He left the security of a regular television job three or four years ago to write full time. Six months into his new life I took him for lunch. He had an idea for a book looking at how place shapes politics. It became Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Explain Everything About the World. Not since the days of Stephen Hawking and Bill Bryson has a book spent so long on the non-fiction bestseller lists.

I am not a light sleeper, but unusual noises tend to wake me. So when I turned to my electronic bedside clock and saw it reading 03.33, I was dimly aware that my ears had registered a sound in the hallway. Dozily, I went to investigate. Lying on the floor was the source of the disturbance. It was a wooden icon of Christ the Pantocrator; small but heavy. It had been hanging by a leather hook from a nail next to my bedroom door.

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