When it comes to having had personal acquaintance with the world’s Great and Good my historical record is relatively modest.
Those that judge these things may hold that there are several degrees of qualifying ‘acquaintance’ but today I am concentrating upon just two – on the one hand, those ‘random’ encounters (e.g. on the street, or in a shop or a restaurant when one’s good-self was departing as – for instance – some A-list movie star was arriving, or vice versa) and – on the other – those situations when, either by design or chance, one happened to come across a powerful or well-known individual, usually then in some form of ‘private’ capacity, and could claim to have passed the time of day with them ‘as a fellow human being’ rather than as e.g. the politician, showbiz entertainer, elite sportsperson or military brass-hat that the general public might generally know them as.
Long-time Rusters who are still yet to succumb to the grip of full-blown dementia may recall my previous mentions of encounters with the musician/crooner Van Morrison and the model/sometime motor racing driver Jody Kidd.
In about 1979, when I lived close to Portobello Road, my pals and I ate more often that I’d care to count at a local tiny but upmarket burger bar.
One evening, having arrived there to collect a ‘takeaway’, standing at the counter waiting to pay, my companion and I noticed Van Morrison sitting in the far corner at a table for two by the street window with a black (presumably) fellow musician.
For a couple of minutes we weighed up and debated the plusses and minuses of respectfully going over to introduce ourselves – “Hey, sorry to intrude Mr Morrison, but we just wanted to say how much pleasure your music has given us over the years …”(?): these varied in our minds from being summarily told to get lost, or perhaps (ideally?) being invited to draw up a couple of chairs and join the pair of them for the evening.
Dear reader, in the end we ‘bottled it’.
For good or ill, Van The Man has a lifelong reputation for being a curmudgeonly old bugger with a short fuse and I guess we figured, on the percentages, that we’d get given the bum’s rush. This is a decision I have regretted ever since – innumerable times over the years I have rued the day that I denied myself the chance to be able to dine out on my tale of “The Time That Van Morrison Told Me To Fuck Off …”
Several decades later I was walking my dogs beside a stretch of water on the south coast of England early one morning.
On the outward bound part of the expedition, I had noticed a smallish camera crew ‘setting up’ on the shore and exchanged pleasantries with them.
An hour or so later, on our return journey, I was standing near a boatyard waiting for the slower of my two dogs to catch up when a Jack Russell-type dog came jogging over to make acquaintance with them. Also coming towards us, about thirty yards behind him or her, was a willowy female figure in a longish coat – the said Jody Kidd.
As she approached she apologised if her dog was bothering mine, mentioning that it had ‘escaped’ its lead – to which I replied with some star-struck guff about this being no worry at all – by habit my dogs themselves, relatively obedient, were never on leads but always stayed close.
During our chat of (I should estimate) less than 90 seconds, the Great Lady revealed that she was engaged that day in making a programme in a series on “Great coastal walks”.
Even though I must have been in my late fifties when this encounter occurred, by the time I had returned home for breakfast and roused the household, my retelling of it had somehow expanded into a classic quasi-Brief Encounter (1945 movie featuring Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson) tale featuring intense feelings of unrequited love in which La Kidd, unable to restrain herself, had effectively ’threwn herself at me’ and yours truly had held himself back from reciprocating with quiet gentlemanly dignity.
[Needless to say, these days Her Indoors tends to re-heat and deploy the story (as a means of mocking me) rather more often than I do!].
All of the above brings me to give a small tip of my hat to Sir Harold Evans, the legendary sometimes editor of both The Sunday Times and then The Times – and much other fame else besides.
I shall leave those better qualified than me to assess his career and influence in the many obituaries that will be appearing in the media over the next few days.
My own single encounter with Evans came in the early 1970s when as the newly-appointed editor of a student paper, I “went for the main chance” by hatching the ruse of interviewing “Famous Editors”. Amongst those I thereby gained unlikely access to were the then editors of Time Out, Private Eye and Cosmopolitan.
And Harold Evans.
Just before going to my appointment with him I met a former school chum who had just finished his journalism training and was amazed that I had secured the gig. I only knew of Evans through his Thalidomide campaign on The Sunday Times, but to my chum he was “The God of national newspaper editorship and design”, someone whom it was his lifelong ambition to meet. ‘Envious’ as a description would barely scratch the surface of his reaction to my good fortune.
It’s a rule of life that often – contrary to instinctive expectation – some of the “greatest” of men and women are also the most human and interested in others.
Evans greeted and treated me in his office as if I was the only person he had wanted to meet that day. He gave me 90 minutes of his time rather than the 30 he had promised – and during our “interview” session he apologised in order to take two important calls from overseas correspondents and then postponed his next meeting altogether so that we could continue.
Sometimes you can tell those who are exceptional at what they do by the simple fact that they are only too happy to show and explain the nuts and bolts of their calling to anyone who is interested, expert or not.
This in contrast to the many less confident and secure who – almost as if they are afraid they’ll lose their job if anyone else should learn how to do it – keep all knowledge about their trade close to their chests.
As my time with Evans finally drew to a close and I thanked him profusely for his time, he said “If you have any more questions, send them to me and I’ll reply to them on a cassette tape”.
So I did … and then so did he.
Great man, that Harold Evans.