Brief Encounters : how should ageing reflect on human exceptionalism (3)?
It would not be an exaggeration to say that Eric Gairy once considered himself the king of Grenada. He had been a noisy big dog in the island’s politics for so long that he did, it was well known, have difficulty in relinquishing his powers or acting, let us say, ordinary.
With two colleagues, I met him in his island home. Our taxi driver was called Felix and, such was his contempt, he refused to take us the whole way or indeed park outside Eric Gairy’s house. It was early afternoon and we were ushered into a living room, whereupon offered drinks and coffee by someone who was, so it well seemed, a butler. The man himself was sitting in a raised chair, regal rather than conventionally polite in his manner. As an election was imminent, we asked him for his forecast of how his own party – rather confusingly called Labour – was going to perform. He told us that he was on course for winning 14 out of the total of 15 seats. When asked why/how only one seat would be lost he, without a bead of irony, replied : “Well, there always has to be an Opposition”. Of course, his party won no seats at all.
The British ambassador had told us that Mr Gairy had been expecting us to call, given that he was actually a Privy Councillor and someone who would therefore expect to hold court for visiting dignitaries. But the former PM soon moved off the political situation to talk about, of all things, his sex life. It was then and there that I first heard the phrase: “my body is a temple”. And no, contrary to the rumour, he did not keep voodoo bones in his bedroom. My two distinguished colleagues had both had Scottish presbyterian upbringings and I can still hear the thud as cups and glasses were abruptly returned to the coffee table. As if in a perfectly rehearsed comedy-sketch, at the utterance of the words “my body…sex”, the two men stood up, gestured to me and in unison declaimed: “Well, Eric, this has been absolutely marvellous. Thank you for your hospitality. Goodbye!”.
Minutes later, after we found the taxi down the hill, Felix was told to drive away as fast as he possibly could.
I had known Rosina for as long as I could remember. She lived in a council scheme close to my home and her parents were friends with my Uncle Tom and Aunt Nancy who also lived in Bonnyton. Her dad was a big fan of Flanagan & Allen and would give you, without too much of a prompt, his own acapella version of “Underneath The Arches”. Funny how inconsequential facts can cling to the decades.
To our tale.
In adult life, Rosina became a town councillor and inter alia used to manage the Women’s Refuge – a converted bakery – in St. Marnock Street. Occasionally, while my Mum was in M&S, I would visit the Refuge in search of a cup of tea. Obviously, I had no business being there. Indeed I should not have been inside at all.
Early one afternoon, as I was facing the door, a party entered : two women and four kids (all under 12). They stood side by side, as if posing for an invisible photographer.
Rosina chatted. The party was headed for the cinema in Titchfield Street. Imagining that I might be someone important, the six of them briefly looked at me. The sadness in their eyes was unmissable.
Rosina was busy making a calculation. Tickets for two adults and four kids would mean they would need….. £x at the box office. She got out a money box, counted the required notes and coins out onto the table and handed them over to the nearer woman.
But nobody moved. And nobody spoke.
The six looked straight ahead. At nothing.
There was something wrong. You could hear the Big Bang itself faintly falling through the universe.
Rosina suddenly took a grip.
“You know what? Silly me. Brain like a sieve!”, she said. “You canny go to the pictures and not have sweeties and a choc ice when the tray comes round”.
Suddenly a five-pound note appeared and was pressed into the first woman’s hand. I saw the relief spread over those grey, vacant faces. And in a splice they turned and wordlessly were gone.
I looked at Rosina, as the smile, like in Billy’s song, ran away from her face.
And I have never admired any living soul more than I did in that moment in old Kilmarnock town.
Once upon a time at a Conference, Denis was running late. Well, it was really his lunch that was running late. He was due to respond to a debate on the prevailing situation in Central America and I kept frantic notes so that I could be of assistance to him on the platform, should he ever get up there on time. With barely minutes to spare, he appeared in the wings and shuffled forward to his seat in front of the microphone. Edging alongside, I whispered that if he needed any help, he had not to worry, I was just behind, with my notes…. The man, the Major Healey who had taken the troops ashore at Anzio in WW2, looked at the noddingly conspiratorial me, smiled and said something like : “Why don’t you sit down, son?”. Better than actually getting kicked off the platform, I suppose. It is almost unnecessary to add that his speech was fantastic, not a note in sight, not a foot put wrong, not a goal unscored.
Sometime later, a certain ambassador invited Denis to lunch, again a proper lunch with tablecloths and wine and bay windows. I was told to go along. At the end of the meal, the kind that used to be called “slap-up”, the Nicaraguan leader, thanking him for all he had done, presented Denis with a gift. Standing up to receive, Denis unwittingly but also without caring let his capacious belly scatter glasses, cutlery, plates across the table. Tearing away the wrapping, he held up a beautiful box of cigars, with a red designer portrait on each; it all looked like so much riviera dynamite and it must have cost that government a bomb.
The leader, who did not speak English, was keen to know if Denis liked the gift.
Denis made a short speech. The cigars represented, he said, the one vice he did not have. But if he were to start that vice at any time, he would have to hand the ideal introduction. I must have attempted to translate this and strangely the whole party seemed happy. They all embraced like happy lovers before Denis, for some reason long since lost, started speaking in Italian. Nobody seemed to notice or care; there was to be no rain on this parade.
Another day, I was told to join him in his office in the House of Commons. The purpose was to deliver a briefing on the UN’s Law of the Sea, imminently to be debated in the chamber. I stood silently while the big man read my paper.
“What’s this?”, he suddenly said. And I knew that he had found my “joke” : a chapter heading entitled “A nodule is as good as a winkle”. (It meant something at the time!).
“Denis”, I said, “if you want to use it in your speech, I am happy to waive copyright”.
Denis did not reply and did not look up. There was a sizzle in the air.
“Thank you, Kelly”, he said with a waving, you-must-leave-now gesture, “that will be all”.
I laughed all the way home.
Years later, his autobiography was just about the saddest book I have ever read.
It was hot and every wasp in Europe had come to town. Tried hard to find a place to sit but no shade to be found. When they got free from your hair, wasps dive-bombed your cola or ice-cream. To make something of the day, all you could do was walk. Stroll and hope literally to run into the distraction of a movie-star celebrity, the kind who would smile back as if you were somebody.
A tiny church on a hillside was bound to be cool and insect-free.
Just outside, there was a low wall, next to which someone had built a single, stone table with three mushroom-style stools, more comfortable than it all sounds now. It was a tiny space which had been colonised that day by a family: mum and dad and two small children. The mum was distributing orange juice in picnic cups. The dad was unravelling the sandwiches. The kids sat quietly, waiting for their lunch in the shady spot. They all seemed so happy.
The church interior was bald, the air a chill. The few pews were pure puritan, designed to make even tough bottoms suffer. And it was as empty as hell. But no wasps. No celebrities either.
Back outside, the family were munching and chatting. They looked at me and, I think, concluded that I been at the church for a non-frivolous purpose. Prayer perhaps or just checking the notice-board. On the pavement outside, families and couples were busy walking past, not noticing this little oasis on the hill.
I nodded at the couple as I left. As their clothes and styles indicated, they were Orthodox Jewish people. That, free from pestilences, they felt able to gather in the open and in a town where German was the only language…. made me smile inside back then and believe a little bit more in whatever tomorrow. It was easy for me, I guess.
Wrapped in themselves, the family gaily ignored me. To this day, decades later, I keep a special feeling for Gstaad, a real celebrity town in all my recall.
The BBC’s own by-election specialist broadcaster, he had great charm, great comedy and great bulk. In his upstairs office in Denmark Street, he had a button on his desk whereby he could summon a tray of Greek food from the restaurant next door. That he never seemed to be interested in a wine order saddened me somewhat. Cringe-city now, I used to go round after work with my “Notes” written over some of his documentary scripts. My efforts amused him a great deal and he always thanked my graciously. Of course, all the efforts were ignored. But at least there was always a big dinner to be had.
In a Blackpool restaurant one night, he started talking out loud about the integration of trade union finances in his beloved Northern Ireland. The people at the next table heard him – well, the whole place could – and started to insist that Vincent was, as it were, talking out of his bottom. I tried to get him to change venue and leave the argumentative Ulstermen behind. But he swept me aside and continued to volley facts and incidents at them. Nobody was allowed to shout down Vincent.
Though he was demoralised by them, nobody had more jokes and anecdotes about the Troubles. Some days, he would talk of nothing else but the latest news from Northern Ireland. He was, understandably, often obsessed.
When I think about him now, there is a certain sentiment which reverberates, truly a sense of growing old. Vincent was a star : a self-confidence that was pathological, such cool in front of camera. As millions must have noticed, he was very fluent at his job and comfortable in his talent. He used the telly like a prestidigitator would once use a glamorous assistant.
And yet those days have gone, long since. One has to wonder, paths of glory and all that, who would remember him now. Though once ubiquitous and in his own way oracular, his silly walls the winds are strewin’. I never thought that that would happen. Back in the day. Fool me.
But then I am still getting over the scene where Billy dies in Ally McBeal. Rich or ersatz, where does all that emotion go, while the decades mount?
I thought him, Lord Cockfield, quite deliberately disagreeable. We had a total of two conversations, both years apart, which might meet the standard of “friendly”. At the first, upon learning who I was, he asked if he could give me a piece of advice. So grim was his manner that I did expect a half-joke about to be detonated. Be sure you are wearing a fresh tux before the firemen rush into your burning drawing-room. Do not try to score three runs off a mis-field. People will think badly of you if you put salt on the kedgeree. That sort of thing.
But no. He almost winningly said : “Never believe a word that comes out of the Treasury”. This instinct, one was led to think, derived from his years as the boss of Boots – a job he had plainly loved.
At the second, he was moved to express sympathy for a colleague who had fallen over a metal box left in a dark corridor. Bless!
In the intervening, I thought that he was about as clubbable as a traffic warden. With never any small or even medium-sized talk to be had, one dreaded having anything to do with him, his voice as remorseless as oxyacetylene. Occasionally, on a kind of nocturnal rota/buggins’ turn, I had to compose the odd note for him; it was almost always sent back for correction. Famously, one such note was on the regulations covering the tyre-tread depths for lorries. He was, of course, a tame expert. Typical.
How often is it true that those you find the most unpleasant have good learnings to impart. He was, of course, a walking-talking repudiation of charm and this did his politics and his programmes – whatever their virtue – no good at all. For many would get ready to contest his views long before the occasion invited him to open his mouth. He was the captain they will not obey.
Never box-office. Never put bums on seats. Never tried.
In a way, one had to admire that bottomless self-esteem, that exceptional let-me-go-it-alone-if-I-have-to attitude. But, in the end, it costs, I think.
Arthur had some fans. But a vision usually needs a lot. I once tried to imagine him sockless at home, away from the office, putting Jerry Lee Lewis on the record player, turning the volume to full-blast and spraying his own wee casbah with duty-free bubbly.
Was he better-off without all this? I do not think so. But I am not sure that he was unhappy. Strange.