I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now

Ted Heath 2MY first proper interview could not have been with a more eminent British statesman.

It is January 1977, I am 20 years old, and to my lasting embarrassment I am vice chairman of our university society: the Federation of Conservative students. I can only blame my position on political naivety and the right wing doctrines of my late father. Thankfully, my Tory years are brief!

Anyway I will cut to the chase…

The evening before this encounter I am part of a small group of third year students attending a new book signing function in Leeds. The guest of honour is the author and recently defeated Conservative Party leader and former Prime Minister, Edward Heath.

During the evening, two girls in our group share a drink, some jokes and a lengthy chat with Mr Heath’s personal assistant and his Special Branch bodyguard. Bearing in mind this is at the height of the troubles in Northern Ireland, Mr Heath’s protective partners are amazingly lax in attitude and seem almost too friendly.

But nothing can surpass the surprise as we leave when the Special Branch detective smiles and says: “See you tomorrow then.”

The 20 mile journey home on a number 75 bus answers the obvious question I need to ask.

Our two female companions had persuaded Mr Heath and his police protection to join us for drinks the following day at the university union!

And to top it all, we will get to interview him on his three favourite subjects: music, sailing and politics – in time to publish in the next edition of our society newsletter.

A heady mix of nerves and excitement mean I do not sleep much that night.

The next morning, I organise the logistics for the meeting with my Tory cohorts and officers from the student union.

We set up three students to ask questions and arrange with the Special Branch officer to sneak Mr Heath up a back staircase into the union president’s office and avoid any verbal flak from fellow undergrads.

I also arrange for a bottle of Mr Heath’s favourite malt whisky to be on hand to help lubricate the interview and settle our nerves.

At about 2pm, an ebullient former Prime Minister arrives accompanied by his Special Branch officer and the personal assistant from the previous evening.

Mr H has a quiet air of someone who has held the highest political office and is smartly groomed in his green and grey Saville Row wool worsted suit.

We gather together in the small but tidy office: Mr Heath, his PA and the Special Branch agent and four nervous students.

We take it in turns to socialise and ask questions and I pour Mr Heath his first whisky, which he drinks quite speedily.

Two minutes suddenly become 15 minutes and it is my turn to ask the political questions.

At this point, with my prepared question about the Warnock Report on education reform, at hand I notice the former PM’s glass is empty.

“Would you like another whisky?” I ask, stalling for time.

“That would be very good,” comes the reply.

I smile and reach for the bottle of malt.

But disaster strikes.

I try to juggle my still full glass of whisky (a double measure), a notebook and pen, while taking Mr Heath’s glass from him.

It all goes horribly wrong.

I drop the notebook, struggle to catch the empty glass from Mr Heath’s hand while pouring the entire contents of my glass down his Saville Row suit.

There is a sharp intake of breath from all corners of the room.

I can feel my face reddening as I stutter an apology.

Mr Heath reaches for a white handkerchief and attempts to mop up the spilt whisky and dry his jacket.

One of our party offers some paper tissues,

I apologise once again, still shaking.

But a smile greets me… “It doesn’t matter… it was an accident,” he says.

The rest of the interview remains a blur, except for the fact I did manage to ask my Warnock Report question, but I can’t remember the reply!

I wait another eight years before daring to try and be a journalist again.

 

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There’s no exit in any direction… except the one that you can’t see with your eyes

plague doctor

TOMORROW is the day I die.

Please don’t freak out at those words… this is not some pathetic cry for help or a bit of middle-age attention seeking!

For as long as I can remember I have had a premonition that I would die on the 22nd of October, aged 57 years. So that time to die is tomorrow. I have been trying to get my head around this for a long time.

I know I have always considered 22 to be my unlucky number:

22 July 1984                         The most shocking day of my life – to be told in another blog

22 September 1987            I was diagnosed with cancer

22 April 1988                       I was told my cancer had spread to my right lung

22 May 1990                        My best friend Andrea died

22 Feb 1992                         My father-in-law committed suicide

22 August 2003                   The last time I saw my two middle daughters

22 Oct 2005                         I found out my wife was cheating on me with another man

Coincidence? Possibly…

I am an atheist, but also believe there is something unexplained and spiritual in our world which we simply do not yet understand. There is a personal juxtaposition of finding faith in something supremely powerful, which I did way back in my early 30s when I was battling cancer, to reasoning that same faith away with the science of reason.

Let me go back over half a century and tell of two personal paranormal experiences.

The first occurred when I was about two years old. I was playing in my bedroom when I suddenly heard a noise outside. As any inquisitive child might do, I looked out of my first floor window. I glanced right to see the unfamiliar hairy arms of someone emptying a large wooden pot of faeces out of a neighbouring window. The vision was scary. I cried and called for my mum to tell her what I had seen. I can still remember her chastising me for climbing on a chair to look out of my window and ordering me never to do it again as it was dangerous and I might fall.

The second experience was about three years later. I was five years old and was off school with a high fever and tonsillitis. I was sick and sweating, waiting for the doctor to arrive. I remember staring out of my ground floor front bedroom window to see a man walking across the street wearing a long brown leather coat and dark Donald Duck type mask. He was carrying a large bag. It was daylight and the vision was real and it has stayed with me ever since.

Only when I went to high school some seven years later did I learn that before proper sanitation in the 16th and 17th centuries, people would throw their waste excrement into the street, often from upstairs windows. I also learned that physicians or ‘quacks’ wore long leather coats and duck-like masks during outbreaks of plague. The beak was filled with pot-pourri to cover the stench of the dead.

Had these been visions from a previous life? Or were they memories locked in inherited DNA from my ancestors? I do not know.

There have been other unexplained events during my life for which there is no obvious scientific rationale. Three diverse and even perverse ones come immediately to mind.

My youngest daughter often enjoyed flights of uncanny luck. One Saturday, when she was only about three years old I took her and her older sister to a summer fete in our town. Both girls pestered me to have a go on the Tombola stand. For £1, the younger daughter chose three tickets. We opened her first ticket to find she had won a Barbie Doll. The second ticket, amazingly, was also a winner. It was another toy, which she gave to her sister. Then she turned and looked up at me and said: “I am going to win something for you, daddy.” She did… the top prize of a bottle of Bollinger Champagne! The woman running the stall looked dumbstruck as we walked away with our prizes.

On another occasion this same daughter chose four National Lottery numbers (my partner and I chose the other two). Needless to say when the Lottery was drawn later that evening, the first four numbers were those chosen by my daughter… the other two did not come up! We won £60. To this day I wonder if I had let my daughter choose all six numbers whether we would have become millionaires!

A few years later when my second daughter was rushed to hospital following a serious accident, my youngest daughter appeared to me in a dream calling the name of her sister and pleading for me to help. It was only later that I learned of my daughter’s accident.

The second family related experience involves my late father and my youngest sister.

My dad always had so-called healing hands. He was well known among friends and family for being able to ease arthritis and muscle pain by the heat which emanated from his hands. He also had second sight. One of his premonitions came when his twin brother died suddenly in 1978, aged just 48.

And it didn’t end there.

Some 23 years later, while I was staying with my parents awaiting the imminent birth of my youngest son, my dad’s twin brother returned. At breakfast on Christmas Eve 2001, my mother told me she had dreamed of my father’s twin brother… for the first time in over 20 years. One hour later the telephone rang. It was my wife ringing to tell me she would be undergoing an emergency Caesarean section delivery in a few hours time.

We gave our child a second middle name Geoffrey in recognition of my mother’s dream and my dead uncle.

It seems my sister inherited some of my dad’s powers.

When my dear father died five years ago, we were with him till the end. It was an agony of bereavement shared. But the moment I remember occurred about three minutes after his death, when my sister told us she could see his spirit leaving his body.

The unexplained took a further twist earlier this year.

My wife Gill and I spontaneously bought a copy of the DVD of The Exorcism of Emily Rose – starring Laura Linney and Jennifer Carpenter. It was a warm June evening as we sat down to watch the movie for the first time. It was dark and the film was gripping.  Two thirds through the movie a priest, played by Tom Wilkinson, begins reciting an exorcism in Latin.

Then it happened… the DVD froze for 10 seconds and both Gill and I smelled the distinctive scent of fresh roses. There were no flowers in our house and neither of us were wearing perfume or after-shave.

It was bizarre.

But the following day, ‘bizarre’ became frightening, as we discovered three things:

1   The scent of roses often accompanies the passing of a spirit into the other world.

2   Our house was built on the foundations of a Victorian nursery.

3   The words recited in the movie were read from a true Latin script on exorcism.

Four days later, I had my nervous breakdown!

There is so much we don’t know about our world and ourselves. Our final frontier lies a lot closer than we think.

Somewhere I read that an average 14 year-old child today learns more in one month than an average person would learn in a whole lifetime in the 18th century.

A recent scientific paper reported: “It has been predicted that more advanced neurological studies may someday discover how to allow people to tap into the incredible latent powers of their own mind, and thereby unleashing some of the “superhuman” potential in all of us.”

So I am left torn between the lines: “Just because I believe, doesn’t mean I don’t think as well” to a more pragmatic view of: “One day science will understand and explain everything”.

I return to the beginning… I have every intention of NOT dying tomorrow and blogging again on Wednesday.

Oh, and I intend to blog from my study here in Shropshire and not from some ghostly alternate plane!

Brief Encounter #5

Cyril Smith MP

Cyril SmithMY meeting with the obese child abusing MP for Rochdale was thankfully very brief.

It was the late summer of 1980 and I was standing outside Euston Station following an enjoyable day out in London.

Suddenly I heard a kerfuffle at the nearby taxi rank.

I apologise to anyone who may find the following offensive but it really was bizarre in the extreme.

I turned to witness the gargantuan Cyril Smith trying and failing to get into the back of a black cab.

The moment of dark humour was complete when a man – I presume to be his secretary or parliamentary aide – pushed him with both hands into the taxi.

Suddenly he was in!

It was like a dry cork popping from an over-full wine bottle. The aide looked exhausted!

I never did find out how Mr Smith exited the taxi or whether this was a daily exercise in fat cabs.

Cyril Smith died in 2010 aged 82.

In 2012, following allegations of child abuse, the Crown Prosecution Service formally admitted Smith should have been charged with the sexual abuse of boys during his lifetime.

Greater Manchester Police said the boys “were victims of physical and sexual abuse” by Smith.

In November 2012, GMP Assistant Chief Constable Steve Heywood said there was “overwhelming evidence” that young boys were sexually and physically abused by Smith.

Pardon Monsieur… Am I hearing You Right #3

Jackie StewartTHERE are few interviews I have ever conducted in my journalistic career quite as bizarre as the one with former Formula 1 World Champion Jackie Stewart.

The story may lose something in translation into print, but it has to be told.

It was sometime in 1996 and I had been running a short campaign at The Scotsman to support female race ace Sarah Kavanagh’s breakthrough into Formula 1.

I had already spoken at length with Sarah, her manager and her sponsors; and the day before had managed to tie down F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone for a few words.

Meanwhile, I had made a few bids for a telephone interview with Jackie Stewart or his son Paul.

Then the call came.

“Hello, is that Mr Oooterside?” said the voice at the end of the phone.

Before I could answer, I was deafened by a “Whooooorrrrr roooooshh errrrrrrrrr.” The unmistakeable noise of a Formula 1 racing engine.

“Sorry, we are on practice,” said the voice again.

Then another: Whooooorrrrr roooooshh errrrrrrrrr.

“Hello, Mr Stewart, it is Nic Outterside. I would like to ask you about Sarah Kavanagh,” I replied.

Whooooorrrrr roooooshh errrrrrrrrr.

“It’s not a good line,” said Jackie Stewart.

Whooooorrrrr roooooshh errrrrrrrrr.

“Sarah who?” he added.

Whooooorrrrr roooooshh errrrrrrrrr.

“Sarah Kavanagh,” I almost shouted back.

Whooooorrrrr roooooshh errrrrrrrrr.

“We are in Spain testing a new engine,” replied Jackie.

Whooooorrrrr roooooshh errrrrrrrrr.

“Well, do you think Sarah is good enough to make it in Formula 1?” I asked.

Whooooorrrrr roooooshh errrrrrrrrr.

“Yes, but I think you ought to speak to Paul,” came the answer.

Whooooorrrrr roooooshh errrrrrrrrr.

“He’ll be here in a while.”

Whooooorrrrr roooooshh errrrrrrrrr.

“What’s the weather like back home?”

Whooooorrrrr roooooshh errrrrrrrrr.

You will get the drift by now.

I interviewed Jackie Stewart for a full 15 minutes and his son Paul for a further five minutes.

When the phone call was over, I looked at my shorthand notebook.

Deafened by the interruptions of “Whooooorrrrr roooooshh errrrrrrrrr”, the only things I had established were that Jackie Stewart was testing a new F1 engine with his son Paul, somewhere in Spain; they had both heard of Sarah Kavanagh; the weather was warmer in Spain than in Scotland and they were travelling onto France later in the week… the rest of the interview was lost somewhere in translation.

 

Brief Encounter #4

john cleggJohn Clegg

SO there I am sitting in a forward facing seat on the 3.15pm train for Brighton waiting patiently at Victoria Station. I guess the year is 1979 or something close, but it is definitely summer and the warm air breezes gently through the open windows.

Just as the train is set to leave, the door next to me rattles open and a balding middle-aged man hops in and sits directly opposite me.

I look up, a spark flashes across my brain and a silent voice tells me: “I know him”.

He smiles at me, says “hello” and opens a newspaper. He spends the rest of his journey reading or glancing out of the window.

Our eyes do not meet again, but the longer the journey progresses the more convinced I am that I know this man. And I know him well…

Was I at University with him? Is he a neighbour of my parents? Is he the father of a friend? Where do I know him from?

The likely options tumble into my head.

Should I say hello? Should I ask if he knows me too? Should I make a move to even talk to him?

Then almost as soon as I gain the courage to open my mouth to speak, the train stops at Preston Park, the last stop before Brighton Central. The man opposite stands, opens the door and exits the train without passing me a glance.

Then the penny drops… yes, of course I know him: it is La-di-da Gunner Graham (actor John Clegg) from the hit TV sit-com It Ain’t Half Hot Mum.

I had watched and laughed at him countless times on TV… but had never met him in my life before that train journey!

Love minus zero / No Limit

FriendsSOME of my blog postings are off-the-cuff and I guess this is the first of such posts.

The replies, text messages, emails and phone call responses to my recent post When You Gonna Wake Up and Strengthen the Things that Remain made me lose two nights’ sleep. The insomnia was not for any negative reasons, but rather a warm feeling of love and friendship.

You see, it is easy to know who you love and who loves you… my wife, my children and my mother come instantly to mind. But it is less easy to appreciate who are true friends.

I guess that due to my inherent OCD nature I have always demanded loyalty from friends and in return given my entire loyalty to them, through good times and bad. Some, who I regarded as true close friends have let me down and so were jettisoned from my world, something I now regret, because we are all human and all make mistakes – me more than most!

Google the word ‘friendship’ and a myriad of advice is offered from all corners of the world:

Friendship is a type of relationship between two people who care about each other. But such a dry definition doesn’t do the concept of friendship justice. Consider these examples: A friend is the first person you want to call when you hear good news. A friend remembers that you don’t like pickles on your sandwich. A friend will accompany you on the most boring of errands and make them seem fun.

In other words, friendship is wonderful. But that’s not to say friendship is easy, though. It demands time and effort, and it requires that people put someone other than themselves first sometimes. But in exchange for that work, a friend can provide an immense amount of support and comfort in good times and in bad.

Many qualities are necessary for a good friendship, including honesty, trustworthiness, loyalty and unconditional acceptance. A friendship should make both people in the relationship happy; both people should have fun when they spend time together. To be perfectly frank, that’s a tall order. Human beings can clash very easily, which is why it’s hard for some people to maintain many friendships. It’s possible that friendship can exist between two people at one stage of life, but life changes and personal growth may make friendship impossible at another stage.

Very true.

So my best friend is also the woman I love, my wife Gill.

For longevity I also count at least two friends from school, Alex (who has known me since I was 12) and Graham, who has been a best mate since we were in sixth form together, and with whom I share many life similarities.

Then I am blessed to count upon two more friends from my university days, Jo and Judith. In Jo’s case I feel a close affinity even though we have not seen each other in 35 years. So Facebook has been our saviour! Judith and I have remained friends even after both were battered blue by life experiences, but have been there for each other.

Next are the friends I picked up along the way at work and at home and who are still there even after 15, 20 or 30 years: a former student Andy, ex work colleagues Jane, Karen, Debs, Stephen and Peter. My son’s child-minder and her husband Catheryn and Colin; friends through thick and thin Judith and Lawson; and Sue who was one of my first visitors when I had cancer even though she was phobic about hospitals!

And finally there are those I should classify as new friends – people who have only been in my life a few years, but mean so much: the wonderful Angela and Alex, the rock solid and caring Caryn and her son Sam (by chance my son’s best friend), my best friend at work Craig, my almost surrogate daughter Helen, who was my witness at my wedding to Gill; the amazing and lovely reporting duo Adele and Natalie; my former boss who is still there to offer advice Graham; the lovely Hannah and Karen, whose words in the past few days have had me in tears; the gorgeous Sue, two friends and among the best journalists I have worked with Sophie and Rachel and the pug loving Yvonne, again whose words have given me great comfort.

A man is known by his friends and not his enemies and I am a very lucky man.

All of the above have been there when my life was at the bottom and to them I can only give my love and thanks and the knowledge that I will never forget any of you.

Thank you.

Pardon Monsieur… Am I Hearing you Right? #2

antanddecIT is January 1998 and I am sitting eating my lunch at my desk at the Sunday Sun newspaper just off Newcastle’s Groat Market.

The winter sun is whispering through the window over my shoulder and the office is almost deserted.

Suddenly a phone rings on the desk next to me. Following office protocol I answer the vacant desk phone.

“Is that Mike?” a broad Geordie voice asks.

I politely explain that he is out to lunch.

“Dinna worry,” is the reply. “Can you just let him know that Anton Deck rang.”

The caller hung up.

I left a suitable note on Mike’s desk which read: “Anton Deck rang at 12.45pm.”

The guffaws of laughter after Mike read my note still stay with me.