Brief Encounter #15

Annie Lennox and Terry Butcher

 annie

These two brief encounters are linked by geography and unique car registration plates!

The first occurred in October 1990, while I was driving north on the M6 and M74 to Scotland begin a new job and a new life at The Oban Times. I had passed Penrith and was motoring along quite happily in my sporty Fiat Uno Turbo when suddenly I was overtaken at speed by a gold coloured BMW 6 series. The rogue car must have been travelling at about 90mph, and two things struck me: the driver was steering one handed while using his brick of a mobile phone, and the car registration was a striking TB1. I continued on my way and thought no more of my over-taker. But about 30 miles further on in my journey on the M74, I came across the same car near Ecclefechan in the Scottish Borders. This time the driver was travelling at a more sedate 50mph in the slow lane. I noticed he was still deep in conversation on his mobile phone. As I overtook the BMW, I glanced and immediately recognised the driver’s face… it was Terry Butcher, the former England and Rangers football captain – hence TB1. Five miles further on, TB overtook me again!

Two days later the national media announced that Terry had quit Rangers to become player/manager of First Division Coventry City FC. I guess the guy had some negotiating to do the day our paths crossed.

The brief encounter with rock diva Annie Lennox was equally surprising, a little more tactile and occurred where the northbound M6 and M74 meet.

It was a couple of days prior to New Year 1991/92 and my partner and I decided to stop at Todhills services for a welcome break and a cup of coffee. As I pulled into the car-park I noticed a Rolls Royce Silver Cloud parked up, with the unique registration ANNIE 1. Who could own this car?

We wandered into the restaurant to be greeted by a cacophony of noise and laughter. We looked to our left to find that a third of the eating area had been taken over by some arty/muso types and at their heart was the instantly recognisable Annie Lennox. We stayed for half an hour, drank our coffees and caught snatches of their conversations. It was clear, that like many exile Scots they were travelling north for Hogmanay. Sweet dreams are made of this!

  • A short post script: some seven years later, at exactly the same service station, I physically bumped into Scotland football manager Craig Brown, while paying for my petrol. Sorry, Craig, you don’t quite have the same oomph credits as Annie Lennox, but you did have the grace to apologise and say “excuse me”!
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Brief Encounter #14

Ken Dodd
ken-dodd
ONE of my most pleasant brief encounters tickled my emotions in a way that was totally unexpected.
Exactly 24 years ago, while working as a news reporter for a weekly newspaper in North Wales, I was asked to attend the opening of a new charity shop in Llandudno.
It was also a labour of love because I had been working as a media advisor for the charity concerned: the St David’s Hospice Appeal.
The new shop was being opened by the king of Notty Ash, veteran comedian, singer and entertainer Ken Dodd.
Until that day I never had much time for the buck toothed comic.
The year previously he had been charged with Tax evasion. The subsequent trial revealed that he had very little money in his bank account, having £336,000 in cash stashed in suitcases in his attic. When asked by the judge, “What does a hundred thousand pounds in a suitcase feel like?”, Ken Dodd made his now famous reply: “The notes are very light, M’Lord.”
Dodd was represented by the top QC George Carmen, who in court famously quipped: “Some accountants are comedians, but comedians are never accountants.” The trial lasted three weeks and Ken Dodd was acquitted.
So when he opened the charity shop in North Wales he was rebuilding his reputation at the age of 62.
He had made his career on quick one liners and his bizarre appearance. By 1990 his 1960s stage act was already dated and his humour appeared constantly childish.
So I puzzled why he had been chosen to open the shop. I then discovered that he had recently lost his long-time partner to cancer. He had personally nursed her until the end.
So larger than life, the tatty haired comic appeared. The shop was mobbed by charity workers, fans and local shoppers.
Ken Dodd was impressive. Talking without any notes he held the audience spellbound with quips about his court case and a secret suitcase he has stashed at the back of the shop. Soon ripples of giggles turned to belly laughter before he moved on to the seriousness of the occasion: the need for a dedicated hospice for the terminally ill and dying in North Wales. His demeanour changed as he talked about love and loss and the initial task of raising £300,000.
At the end of his 15 minute talk I found myself applauding with the rest.
Next I asked for a five minute interview for my paper. With a faint smile he agreed immediately and we moved to the back of the shop to talk.
He was modest, gentle and deadly serious as he answered my questions, maintaining eye contact throughout. At the end of the interview he shook my hand warmly and gave me a personally signed copy of his single Footprints in the Sand.
It remains with me today as a memory of thoroughly nice man.

Brief Encounter #13

Queen Joan Approximately
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AS regular readers will know, I have enjoyed a life-long obsession with my musical idol Bob Dylan.
Above all else he has given me the words and music to live by.
I met him briefly once (saving that for another blog) but what follows is the next closest thing and something I will always treasure… and not just for the obvious Dylan link!
It was the early spring of 2007 and as editor of the Denbighshire Free Press – a county newspaper in North Wales – I had been emailed the line-up for that summer’s International Musical Eisteddfod in Llangollen. Topping the bill on the Saturday of the festival was folk/protest legend and former partner of Bob Dylan; the wonderful Joan Baez.
At the time Joan was 66 years old, but still an amazing singer and guitarist and an icon to many.
I gulped when the festival promoter, the late Joe O’Neil, suddenly offered me the chance of an exclusive interview with Joan. My reply of “Yes, please” was instant.
And so the following Saturday I sat by my telephone and at the appointed hour it rang.
Joan was ringing me back stage from a gig in Germany. Like the line from her wonderful song to Bob Dylan, Diamonds and Dust: “And here I sit hand on the telephone hearing a voice I’d known a couple of light years ago” that moment will forever stay with me.
The phone call lasted about 15 minutes as Joan waxed eloquently about her work and looking forward to her first visit to the Eisteddfod. She also listened intently as I told her about a young band I was doing PR for. She wished them luck in a business still dominated by men. She answered concisely every question I put – including one about the ongoing poignancy of her Dylan love song – before she asked me whether I preferred Carrickfergus or the Water is Wide.
Joan finished by saying I should look her up backstage after the gig in Llangollen if I had any more questions or wanted a photo opportunity.
Joan was just the most wonderful interviewee I could have asked for.
The backstage meeting with her never came about – due to security issues – but that phone call was one magical brief encounter.

Brief Encounter #12

Christine Hamilton
Christine Hamilton and Boris Becker
THIS brief encounter is a tale of two blondes and a missing book token!

It is April 2005 and I am a guest of Radio Five Live at the BBC Television Centre. I have been invited down to London for the day after being voted Five Live’s Football Fan of the Year for 2004 (a story for another blog maybe!).
It is late morning and I am due to appear for a five minute slot at the end of Victoria Derbyshire’s radio show – Victoria and her producer Ian Shoesmith had organised the Football Fan of the Year poll three months earlier.
Ian has briefed me about my short interview on the show – about the costs of inland rail and air travel – and I am waiting outside the recording studio for my turn.
The studio door opens and a tall and very familiar blonde man brushes past me, says ‘excuse me’ and smiles. It is three times Wimbledon champion and TV commentator Boris Becker. He is smartly dressed in a sharp suit and, having completed his piece for Victoria’s show is rushing off to his next appointment.
Behind Boris an equally familiar blonde-haired figure has entered the studio to be interviewed by Victoria. She is instantly recognisable as Christine Hamilton, the wife of former disgraced ‘cash for questions’ Tory MP Neil Hamilton. By 2005, Christine had reinvented herself as a TV personality in her own right. In 2002 she appeared in series one of the gross reality TV show I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here! and in 2004 as a panelist on Loose Women.
In real life she has the same air and swagger of arrogance so often captured in her TV moments on Have I Got News for You.
Her slot on Victoria’s show lasts about eight minutes. Leaving, she brushes past me without any acknowledgement before her PA leads her away.
I am on next… I am quietly ushered into the studio and sit diagonally opposite Ms Derbyshire.
The interview is brief and our exchange is light and full of good humour.
Before we close, Victoria asks me live on air whether I have enjoyed my visit to Television Centre and whether I received the £50 book token as part of my prize for being Football Fan of the Year.
I tell her I have had a fabulous time and without a second thought add: “I think Christine Hamilton has left the book token in a brown envelope outside the studio”. There is a muffled guffaw as the show closes.
NOTE: Nine years on and the book token has still not arrived. Neil and Christine Hamilton are both now prominent members of UKIP.

Brief Encounter #11

Ovett
Steve Ovett and Sebastian Coe’s granny
AS supreme middle distance runners in the late 1970s and early 1980s Steve Ovett and Seb Coe were inseparable.

Now, as subjects for this Brief Encounter, I have brought the duo together again… the encounters were separated by 15 years and in Coe’s case, his granny will have to suffice.
A bit of a tentative link, but journalists are always looking for an angle to a story!
The first part of this story lies on an Inter City train journey from Leeds to London.
It was the spring of 1977 and I was travelling home from university to see mum and dad, who lived on the south coast near the seaside town of Worthing. It was a hot day; thankfully the train carriage was only half full and I had a front facing seat to myself. But as the express pulled into Doncaster station, it started to fill up with others heading south. I glanced up to see a smart but elderly lady take the seat opposite me. She was struggling with her suitcase, so I jumped up and helped her store the case in the luggage area behind her.
As the train pulled out on its continued journey to London, I relaxed back into my seat to continue reading the paperback novel I had bought at the WH Smith store on Leeds station concourse. The lady opposite was glancing at a broadsheet newspaper and looking wistfully out the window at the passing countryside.
About 20 minutes passed before she suddenly asked where I was from and where I was going. I explained that I was a student going home for a weekend with my family. The lady asked about my university course and said she too was going home after visiting her son in Sheffield. We struck up a conversation, which lasted almost an hour and helped the journey pass more quickly. The lady told me she had been recently widowed and lived for visits to see her son and grandchildren. She said her grandson was at university at Loughborough and she saw less of him now he was away from home. She said he did a lot of running and was becoming quite good at it.
Before long the train had pulled into Kings Cross station. I lifted my rucksack onto my back and offered to carry the old lady’s suitcase along the platform. She thanked me warmly. As we said goodbye on the station concourse I glanced down at the luggage tag on her suitcase… it said simply: Violet Coe.
In 1977 Sebastian Coe was already becoming a top British 800 metre runner. Three years later he won 1500m gold at the Moscow Olympics… a feat he repeated at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.
I had spent a memorable two hours with his proud granny.
My liaison with his rival Steve Ovett was much more straightforward.
Steve and I are the same age. We both grew up in the environs of Brighton and Hove, on the Sussex coast. In 1967 at age 11 we both began at high school. I went to the old fashioned – almost Victorian – Hove County Grammar School for Boys, whereas Steve started at the more modern and trendy Varndean School. My only brush with Steve at this time was in an inter-schools cross country race where I finished 37th and Steve probably won or came second!
Years later he became one of my two lifetime sporting idols – the other was former Brighton footballer Kit Napier – as he scorched the track to become (in my eyes at least) our greatest ever 1500 metre runner.
As the track rivalry between him and Sebastian Coe developed in the late 1970s and 1980s, my support was always 100% for Ovett. Not only was he a Brighton lad, but his anti-establishment air was the perfect rebuff to Coe’s smug arrogance, both on the track and in post-race TV interviews.
I leapt off the sofa, punching the air when Ovett won the 800 metre gold medal at the 1980 Olympics and sulked when he only took bronze at his favourite distance, the 1500 metres, a few days later.
When he retired from international athletics after his 5,000 metre gold at the 1986 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh, he was firmly established as a personal hero.
So when I was given the chance to interview him in 1992, it was an opportunity I would not miss.
At the time I was living and working in Mid Argyll on the west coast of Scotland and Steve had been invited by John Holt, the retired general secretary of the International Amateur Athletics Federation, to start a half marathon to help raise £500,000 to build a local swimming pool.
After the race, I joined Steve and John in the bar of a hotel in Lochgilphead for a pint and an interview.
Apart from a few smile lines and his rapidly disappearing hair, Steve hadn’t changed much in appearance since his glory years. He talked in detail how following his 1980 Olympic triumph, his 1982 season was wrecked by injury. When out training on the streets of Brighton in late 1981, he glanced across the road and ran into some railings at St John the Baptist Church on New Church Road and badly twisted his knee. It was a road and location we both knew well. He also talked about how bronchitis ruined his chances of any success in the 1984 Olympics.
But he was glad he had achieved so much in sport and when I asked him if he had any political ambitions like Sebastian Coe, he laughed out loud and said: “What do you think?”
He showed me his bandaged left thumb. “I did that last weekend with a bloody hammer, while renovating a cottage at our home,” he said, “That’s the limit of my ambitions! Although I am doing some TV punditry for Sky TV at the moment,” he added with a grin.
The formal interview lasted about 15 minutes before I mentioned to Steve where I grew up. We then spent another 45 minutes chatting about Brighton and Hove and mutual friends from our years as kids.
Steve was effusive and told me to pop by for a cup of tea, if ever I was passing his home near Annan, in south west Scotland.
As we shook hands to say goodbye I told him he was my hero. He almost blushed as he looked me in the eyes and said: “Thank you… but what a load of rubbish. I was born with an ability to run, that’s all, I am not different from you or anyone else in this pub.”

Brief Encounter #10

diana
Princess Diana
IT was a wet February in 1997 and I was ensconced in a four star hotel in Islington, tasked with bringing home what could be the biggest newspaper story of the decade.

My task as Chief Investigative Reporter for the Scottish national daily The Scotsman was to gather information from Harrods owner, Mohamed Al Fayed, about an alleged conspiracy involving his business rival Tiny Rowland and a senior Conservative government minister.
It was an enjoyable and wholly productive three days of interviews with the gregarious and at times incomprehensible Mr Al Fayed, his PA Michael Cole and head of security John MacNamara.
The daily routine was purposeful: breakfast at my hotel, a taxi ride across London to Knightsbridge, an escalator to Mr Al Fayed’s office on the fifth floor of the Harrods department store, a coffee and croissant with Michael Cole and up to three hours of talking, questioning and sifting through reams of documents and photographs.
On Wednesday 12 February, I arrived as usual at 10am in the reception area outside the office and boardroom. I was greeted cheerily as usual by Mr Cole. But on this morning he asked me if I minded waiting in an ante-room for half an hour as his boss was expecting a personal visit from Princess Diana.
I was shown into the room and given the usual coffee and croissant plus copies of the day’s national newspapers to browse at my leisure.
After 10 minutes waiting, I suddenly needed a quick loo break so quietly made my way to the now familiar private washroom. Upon my return to my isolated coffee and partly eaten croissant, I stopped suddenly as the most recognisable woman in the world walked by, accompanied by Mr Cole and an as yet unknown young Middle Eastern man. Diana turned briefly and smiled at me.
It was a memorable brief encounter.
But a tragic event some six and a half months later undoubtedly made it ‘the most memorable’ of all these encounters.
Later that day, I caught my return train to Edinburgh and The Scotsman offices at North Bridge.
Upon my arrival I was introduced to our new editor Martin Clarke, who had taken up his position while I was away in London.
My first meeting with him was also memorable, but for very different reasons.
I was brusquely told that our investigation into the conspiracy surrounding Tiny Rowland had been spiked for ‘political reasons’. I was also told I was ‘wasting my and the newspaper’s time’, not to ask any more questions and to ‘get on with some proper reporting’.
The months passed and on 31 August 1997, two events coincided: it was my final day working for The Scotsman and ironically Princess Diana, 36, her lover (Mohamed Al Fayed’s son) Dodi Fayed, 42, and driver Henri Paul were killed in a horror car crash in the Pont de l’Alma road tunnel in Paris.
My reaction to the deaths at the time was the same as it is now: they were murdered.
But it was only 10 years later at a judicial inquest, following a three year inquiry into their deaths and possible murder, that my own brief encounter came back to haunt me.
The inquest, under Lord Justice Scott Baker, heard on at least six occasions that at the time of his romance with Diana in the summer of 1997, Dodi Fayed was engaged to an American model, Kelly Fisher. Dodi had bought a house in Malibu for Fisher and himself with money from his father.
The inquest dismissed reports that Dodi and Diana were in a relationship prior to that summer and therefore any talk of an impending engagement in August 1997 – and possible motive for their murder – were subsequently rubbished.
But I am still left with the haunting question: if that was the case, what were Diana and Dodi doing making a personal visit to Mohamed Al Fayed on 12 February 1997?

Further interesting reading may be found here:
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/7026611.stm
http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/al-fayed-and-the-cia-conman-1161637.html
http://www.public-interest.co.uk/diana/dianawhydie.htm
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/7337789.stm

Brief Encounter #9

Brighton badgeBrighton and Hove Albion

THERE is nothing quite like having a pee with your heroes!

And it was so unexpected.

I have been an avid fan of my home town football team Brighton and Hove Albion since I was a small child… 46 years to be precise. I have watched their victories and defeats over those years and the club’s near extinction in 1997.

My baptism as an 11-year-old was standing in the North Stand at the much missed Goldstone Ground on a sunny Saturday 2nd September 1967 to see this team in blue and white beat Bury 1-0.

The chanting, bustle and atmosphere immersed me. I was hooked and had my first childhood heroes: the effervescent Kit Napier and the midfield maestro Charlie Livesey.

I can still smell the Bovril and cigarette soaked air of my first evening game one year later and the pride and disappointment of the 1983 FA Cup Final.

So I cheered on my heroes from the legendary Peter Ward to icons such as Brian Horton, Steve Foster, Bobby Zamora and Jimmy Case.

Yes, Brighton and Hove Albion are an integral part of my life.

But nothing prepared me for that moment on Friday 28th March 2008.

My dear Aunt Val had passed away and I had driven down to her home in North London to sort out arrangements for her funeral. Her death was unexpected and I guess my mind was focussed on getting everything right for her.

So after dealing with formalities with her solicitor and the funeral celebrant I hopped in my car to make the long journey back home – then in North Wales – via the M1 motorway.

I stopped at Toddington Services, just north of Luton, for petrol, a coffee and a toilet break.

I was vaguely aware of a smart coach pulling in next to me in the car park.

The loo called first, so I made my way to the gents. I stood by the urinal trough and was just about to relieve myself when more than a dozen guys in dark blue tracksuits walked in. They assembled in various positions to answer the call of nature. As I started to pee I looked up at the guy next to me. He had a Brighton and Hove Albion badge on his tracksuit top. I silently gasped and looked along at the rest of the guys… it was the entire Brighton first team squad.

That was the OMG moment and I got instant water retention. I was peeing with my heroes… or in my case not. I had to stop looking or they might get the wrong impression!

As I exited the service station toilets I turned to the player next to me – our full back Andrew Whing – and politely asked: “What are you guys doing in Luton?”

“We are on our way to Leeds, we play them tomorrow,” was the reply.

“Do we?” I answered stupidly, still desperate for a wee!