Brief Encounter #3

Mel SmithMel Smith

MY encounter with the portly and incredibly funny Mel Smith was brief and eternally memorable.

For those who don’t know me, one of my lifelong passions – indeed an obsession – is the music of a certain Robert Allen Zimmerman, known to the world as Bob Dylan.

I have followed Mr Dylan to gigs across the UK and Europe, and as age catches up with me and my hearing fades I truly believe the voice of the legend just gets better and better.

Anyway I digress.

It is February 1990 and I have tickets for three successive nights of a six night Bob Dylan residency at the Hammersmith Apollo in London.

On the first night at the Apollo I manage to brush shoulders with former England fast bowler Bob Willis and the late and great Dylanologist John Bauldie in the theatre bar. I also manage to get my car locked in a multi-storey car park and have to pay the attendant £10 to free it for me.

So when the second night arrives – and to save any repetition of the car park fiasco of the previous evening – I decide to beat the rush and leave during Bob’s second encore. On this evening that song is a delightful solo of Dark is a Dungeon.

I catch just the first two verses on the alleyway to the stairs before leaving quietly and quickly.

I arrive at the swing doors of the Apollo in an empty foyer and am set to leave into the cold winter night. I fumble in my leather jacket pocket for my car keys when suddenly I am almost knocked over by a bustling and puffing man also making a fast exit from the gig.

I look up to see the smiling and slightly red face of Mr Smith.

“Oops, sorry mate,” he says as he pushes through the doors.

He turns briefly and adds: “Sorry I am in a rush”, before disappearing into the night.

I guess there were two concert goers that night who missed the full beauty of Bob’s Dark is a Dungeon… Mel and me!

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Saving Grace

stand up to cancer

“By this time I thought I would be sleeping in a pine box for all eternity, My faith keeps me alive and I know I’m only living By the saving grace that’s over me.”

(Bob Dylan 1980).

“Tell me how it feels?”

It was my mother’s voice; there was no mistaking that. I struggled to say something but a dryness in my throat allowed only a smile.

She clenched my left hand.

Beyond her the ward clock reported 9.30. I drifted back to sleep.

Sometime later I again opened my eyes.

Mother’s own eyes brightened and, as if from her mouth, I heard my father ask: “How is it son?”

I was surprised. I managed to reply: “Fine, but I can’t move.” The ward clock betrayed 10.10.

“Is that all it is?” I asked looking up at the wall, knowing that I had been led to the operating table at 8.30am.

“It’s 10pm,” my father replied.

I gagged for some reason… why had I been out for more than 13 hours?

Over the next three days my parents, surgeons and nursing staff gradually outlined to me the most telling day of my life: a day when surgeons worked tirelessly to remove two thirds of my right lung and repair a damaged aortic artery.

It was an operation plagued with difficulty and twice they thought they had lost me. But working straight through, they never gave up and used finely honed skills to take away the cancer and repair my body.

It was the final stage of a rebirth of life and spirit.

Some eight months earlier, I had been diagnosed with a malignant histio-cytoma of the right shoulder.

The diagnosis followed a year of failing health, tiredness and a strange and growing lump on my shoulder blade that would not go away.

Eventually, after claims of a sebaceous cyst and a muscular haematoma, I was told the truth.

“I dinna ken what it is,” said the plastic surgeon, betraying his Glaswegian roots. “But it looks malignant and we had better have a closer look.”

It was like being knocked down by a bus: cancer only happened to other people. It was a disease, which was difficult to talk about and even more difficult to contemplate.

Now I struggled to take in what I had been told.

A simple biopsy of the lump, as we all learned to call it, confirmed the surgeon’s suspicions. I was quickly booked into a local hospital for immediate and radical surgery.

Whether in shock, or just out of single-mindedness, the diagnosis passed me by.

I responded by reading every piece of medical literature I could find. Somehow I had to cope and knowledge is a weapon.

My sister-in-law was a cancer research specialist at Leeds University Hospital and furnished me with reams of reports about this rare and seemingly deadly cancer.

As I prepared for the surgery, I asked questions of doctors, cracked jokes with my parents and worried for my ability to cope. I saw fear in the eyes of those I loved and suddenly felt alone.

Eventually I cracked… and phoned the Samaritans.

It was probably the most important call I have ever made. I hurriedly explained to the female voice at the other end of the phone that I was not suicidal, but terrified of dying. I detected an intake of breath at the other end of the line. There was a rustling sound as she rummaged through her files and with an uplift in her voice she gave me the number of the organiser of a local cancer support group.

I tucked the number away.

A few evenings later, when the depression hit me again I picked up the phone. Diana was her name. At 38, she was a few years older than me and had recently been given remission from breast cancer. Diana was ebullient, encouraging and above all told me that whether I lived or died was up to me.

“You must visualise this thing that has invaded your body and fight it,” she said.

“Only you can beat it… with perhaps a little help from the surgeons and God.”

That was the key.

Diana and I were to begin an enduring friendship. I was able to reciprocate her help, I hope, when her cancer came back to taunt her three years later. I began to learn the value of friendship.

But what about God?

I had always believed in the saving grace of a higher spirit, but my church-going days had lapsed many years earlier and to be frank I was an atheist.

Somehow I had to find my own strength and faith to deal with this cancer.

The next morning, calmed by a warm early autumn sunshine I walked to my nearest church. After all, if there was a God, this was where he was supposed to dwell.

Gothic, cold and empty, the church provided space to think and pray to whatever was out there.

I made a few more visits to the empty church over the next couple of days before I was taken back into hospital for the surgery.

The operation to remove the cancer and replace my shoulder and back with re-constructive surgery was awkward, at times bloody painful and most of all seemingly endless.

Many days and nights of lying cramped on my left side as the skin grafts and flaps healed. Days and nights to think and determine whether I would recover.

I didn’t fear death… but I did fear pain.

I lay there warmed by the gospel lyrics of my musical hero, Bob Dylan. I still find it difficult to call it God, but a gentle spirit always seemed to be there and never again did I become frightened of this cancer or its likely consequences.

Three months of radiotherapy followed at Cardiff’s Velindre Hospital. Three months of finding more about myself and more about my fellow human beings.

Housed in a small hostel within the hospital grounds, up to 50 patients of all ages and with all forms of cancer worked within and without to tackle their own disease.

There was Coral-Ann, who denied her own malignancy. “It’s just a small tumour and is what you say: benign,” she lied. There was Maureen, colostomy bag in hand, who sipped morphine as she told tales of her childhood in Rhymney.

There was my roommate David, whose pituitary cancer had given him a grossly large head, hands and feet and made him appear like a freak at his job in the local tax inspectors’ office.

“Well boyo, this thing won’t beat me,” he cracked. And it didn’t.

And then there was Andrea.

At 21, she was the sweetest and most beautiful girl I had ever met and we quickly became inseparable soul mates.

Racked in pain, with Ewing’s Sarcoma, a bone cancer, she knew her chances of survival were slim.

“But I’m going to fight it,” she urged, willing me to do the same. “I haven’t yet got my degree, I haven’t learned to drive… and I’m still a virgin.

“I want to live a bit before I die.” She did.

But that did not dull the agony when three years later David and I stood together and shared tears at her funeral.

There is no reasoning in this.

My memories of Andrea remain. Her smile and her laughter as she beat me in a physiotherapy game of football, where she was only allowed to use her right leg and I only my arm. At the end of the game we collapsed side by side on the gym floor guffawing at how silly all this was.

And then there was the rainy December day when she returned from a Christmas shopping trip in Cardiff City centre laden down with presents and a £300 hole in her Visa card.

Her pleasure was manifest and her laugh stays with me.

A year before her death I visited Andrea again in a hospital in Birmingham, where she had undergone a hip replacement operation in a last attempt by surgeons to remove the seat of her cancer.

I sat and clenched her right hand and looked into her sparkling eyes.

I giggled. “Hey, you’ve got freckles and hair,” I exclaimed.

“Yes,” she answered, “I have been off chemotherapy for three months now to build up my strength for the op.”

I had only known Andrea as a tall, underweight, pale-faced girl under an horrendous NHS wig, which at times made her look like an extra in the Addams Family.

But now, holding her hand, this was how I was going to remember her.

I had found God in my fellow human beings and in the karma of knowing that far from myself being the key in this battle, the door was unlocked from without.

When the cancer returned to my right lung some months later I knew I had the strength to face it down.

My life was saved by the dedication and skill of the surgeons. But my spirit had already been saved.

At the time I was told I had less than a one in 10 chance of surviving beyond a year. But I was also told: “Doctors are seldom right when they predict the end.”

Now 26 years later, to the very month of the diagnosis and first operation,  the cancer is gone for good and I know my life is still in its springtime.

And Andrea never leaves me.

Brief Encounter #2

SallyGeesonSally Geeson

IT seems so long ago now, but there again it might as well have been yesterday.

I was just turned 17 and working my Saturday job at Boots the Chemist in my local town of Worthing. It was like any other Saturday. The store was, as usual, busy and I was getting quite used to occasionally serving half famous actors lodging in the town while performing at our local rep theatre.

But, I was not expecting the next customer.

It was my heartthrob and object of most of my teenage fantasies: actress Sally Geeson from the popular TV sitcom Bless this House. Ms Geeson played Sid James’ teenage daughter, also called Sally, in the hit series.

I stood there dumbstruck and quietly uttered; “Can I help you?”

Her big eyes seduced me from across the counter as she asked for some item of ladies’ toiletries. I think I probably dribbled, broke into a cold sweat or stuttered… or most likely did all three, before directing her down the counter aisle to the appropriate female assistant.

I stood open mouthed gazing after her.

This was my Brief Encounter.

I later found out that Ms Geeson is just six years older than me and went on to marry TV quiz presenter William G Stewart.

Lucky William!

 

The Shadowy One Who Fires the Gun

Daily Mail

THERE are only a few things in life I really hate, and one of them is the Daily Mail.

It is a poisonous rag which cloaks itself in the clothes of middle class decency while demeaning everything which is good.

And, as a journalist, I find its pretense at factual reporting frightening. Its so-called news reeks of innuendo and loaded propaganda.

And its agenda is unwavering: preserve Conservative Britain from the rabid threat of Marxism, the Labour Party, trade unions and working people.

So the savaging of Daily Mail deputy editor Jon Steafel by Alistair Campbell on BBC 2’s Newsnight over the paper’s scurrilous article about Ed Miliband’s late father Ralph, was an unexpected delight.

Particularly pleasing was the bright light Mr Campbell shone on the paper’s shadowy editor Paul Dacre.

My own dealings with the Mail as a journalist were rather more obscure.

I would like to take you back to 1997.

I was at the pinnacle of my career working as the Chief Investigative Reporter for the Scotsman.

A whole world away from the Daily Mail.

In three years, I had broken a series of major exclusive investigations. Among the highlights were the dumping of millions of tons of munitions in the Irish Sea, the deadly legacy of the Dounreay experimental nuclear plant in Northern Scotland and a probable link between pesticides and BSE.

I had also been honoured with two back-to-back awards as Scottish Journalist of the Year and was in line for a third.

I loved my job and the collegiate atmosphere I worked in. I honestly believed I would spend the rest of my working life at North Bridge, with no aspirations other than to continue in my role.

But all that changed when in December 1996, our newspaper was surprisingly bought out by property billionaires, the Barclay Brothers.

With the new owners came a new Editor in Chief, the infamous Andrew Neil.

There was a corporate intake of breath as we all wondered for the future.

That intake turned into something approaching choking when our much loved editor, Jim Seaton, was placed on ‘gardening leave’ awaiting early retirement and a new editor Martin Clarke was announced.

We all winced… Clarke had trained under Paul Dacre and he was well known as a Rottweiler in the newsroom.

Clarke’s editorial demeanour attracted a range of tributes from former colleagues: “vile”, “offensive”, “appalling”, “obsessive”, “childlike” and “foul-mouthed” being among the less flattering.

Like Dacre, whose briefings were called “the vagina monologues” for their reliance on one particular expletive, Clarke went one better.

“He would start by saying, ‘You’re all a fucking disgrace and one of you is going to be fucking sacked this week,” and the terrible thing was, one of us usually was,” said Alexandra Blair, The Times educational correspondent, who worked for him for a year and a half at The Scotsman.

Another reporter who worked under Clarke said: “He once said to me: ‘You’ve got to go and shout at the bastards or they won’t respect you.'”

My stay under Clarke’s editorship was brief… just six months.

I moved on after being told to follow his own loaded agenda, which included one weird instruction to prove that wild deer being pursued by hounds are “no more stressed than a cow in a slaughterhouse”!

The final straw came in a bleak week, which began by Clarke blanking me at a press awards lunch after I had been highly commended as reporter of the year and finished by him standing over me at 10pm on a fourth rewrite of a story, berating my journalism as “fucking bollocks”.

I introduce a clipping of a piece written by Rob Brown in June 1997.

“Senior writers and sub-editors now find themselves being showered with expletives by their new editor Martin Clarke, whose lexicon of abuse is fairly extensive.

“Several executives have resigned in disgust. They included the picture editor Paul Dodds, who quit after being ordered to get better pictures from his “f***in’ monkeys”.

“Also out is associate editor Lesley Riddoch, who suddenly found her articles being repeatedly spiked.

“One of the journalists who has quit in disgust said: “I have worked for some brutal editors in my time, but Martin Clarke behaves like a feudal squire and treats his staff like serfs. Change was certainly needed at The Scotsman, but not this. He is running amok, creating a totally demoralised and demotivated staff.”

“But, put it to Clarke that he is pursuing a monstrous form of macho management and he professes his innocence with almost schoolboyish sense of hurt.

“Clarke, 32, says the complaints are emanating from only a couple of “malcontents”. Some people, he says, are driven by “personal pique because they never got a job they wanted”. Nic Outterside, head of the paper’s investigative unit, left last week. Clarke says the unit was disbanded because it was “a crock of shit”.

“Others, according to Clarke, have become “malcontents” simply because they cannot stand the new pace in the newsroom.

“I demand a greater level of working than perhaps some people are used to here and I can be robust at times, like all editors,” he says.

“Clarke confirms that he drew up a five-and-a-half page document a few weeks after he took charge recommending that a number of senior Scotsman staffers should be removed from their posts. This “operation review” leaked from the editor’s office into the newsroom, where it was seen as a sinister hit list. Clarke admits to some regrets about that.

“Of course it was bloody unfortunate, but you don’t expect to work in a place where such illegal activities take place. It was stolen from my computer. I’ve worked in some pretty rough newspapers, but nowhere where people are that underhand.”

At the time of writing this blog, Clarke and Steafel are both tipped to succeed Paul Dacre as the next editor of the Daily Mail.

The art of being underhand is surely what the Mail is all about.

Brief Encounter #1

Leo Sayer

THIS was my first encounter with anyone recognised as widely famous.

I was brought up in the Sussex coastal towns of Shoreham by Sea and Hove. They were years of endless summers and wide-eyed innocence.

At the time of meeting the as-yet undiscovered talent of Leo Sayer I was in sixth form in nearby Lancing and occasionally (and illegally) attended music nights at the Swiss Cottage public house in Shoreham. Often on stage for a few songs was the talented Mr Sayer – long curly hair above a T shirt and blue denim jeans and except for his unique voice unrecognisable from the Leo everyone later came to know.

The following summer I worked the vacation before going up to university at our local general infirmary: Southlands Hospital. It was hard graft but an enjoyable student job, full of lasting memories.

No memory is sharper than in the week I started, when walking past me in a corridor outside Ward E and pushing a patient in a wheelchair was Mr Sayer!

On returning to the ward, and full of curiosity, I immediately asked after him. After all, what was a pub singer doing working in my local hospital?

“Oh that will be Gerry,” the staff nurse Cherry volunteered with a dismissive shrug.

“He sings a bit and I hear he is quite good,” she added.

“I know,” I replied, “I’ve heard him!”

Back home, my mum, who was a nurse at the same hospital, confirmed that Gerry had worked alongside her as a porter for quite some time.

A few months later Leo (real name Gerard) Sayer premiered two of his songs on my favourite TV show The Old Grey Whistle Test and soon after enjoyed a huge chart hit with the single The Show Must Go On.

I and many other teenagers from our local town bought his first album Silverbird. The rest as they say is history… but I can genuinely say I knew someone BEFORE they were famous!

Darkness at the break of noon

WEDNESDAY, 13 March 1996 will stay etched in my memory for every day of my life.

But it started like any other day.

It was a typically dreich spring morning in Edinburgh as I settled down to a diary of interviews and enquiries in my job as an investigative reporter at The Scotsman – at the time Scotland’s most pre-eminent broadsheet newspaper.

Back home in Perth – some 33 miles north of my office – my partner was planning a shoe shopping expedition for our two young daughters. Over a rushed slice of toast a few hours earlier she said she planned to browse a couple of shops in our fair city and maybe venture out to Dunblane or Stirling later in the day.

Here in The Scotsman’s Victorian offices I looked out over the grey North Bridge towards Princes Street, checked my diary and clocked a quick coffee before waiting for a telephone interview with Scottish born actor Tom Conti.

Tom was a champion of the London based organisation Justice, which campaigned on behalf of those imprisoned as a result of miscarriages of justice by the Scottish and English courts.

At the time I was running a campaign on behalf of a young man named Craig MacKenzie who had – in my opinion and according to the facts I had obtained – been wrongly convicted of murder of a fellow Edinburgh teenager David Edwards. My campaign had been running over three months with little movement from the Scottish legal system to intervene. I saw the interview with Tom Conti as a key move to add weight to our demand for an appeal.

The newsroom was quiet and I sipped my coffee. The phone rang at the arranged time and the unmistakable burr of Mr Conti’s voice greeted me at the other end.

The star of Shirley Valentine and The Norman Conquests was relaxed as we shared notes on the weather in Edinburgh and London and the state of British politics. It was like meeting an old friend for a coffee in town as we progressed to discuss our work and recent challenges.

Eventually, after what seemed 20 minutes we began to discuss the Craig MacKenzie case. Tom was up to speed with the case and agreed with me that MacKenzie’s conviction was probably unsafe and we should press hard for an appeal.

We began to discuss the details in earnest when suddenly the Press Association (PA) updates on my monitor began to flicker an instantly disturbing piece of news: “Six children believed shot in Dunblane”.

I reported the news immediately to Tom, just as a clamour of noise erupted around me in the newsroom. And with it came a further update from the PA wires: “Ten children shot”. I quickly relayed the information again as a voice from the newsdesk was shouting in my direction.

Tom and I politely suggested to each other that we leave the interview for another day. He rushed to his TV, I glanced once more at my monitor to see the horror of Dunblane unfolding before my eyes. We put down the phone.

The news editor ordered my friend Stephen and fellow colleagues, Jenny and Lynn, to get to Dunblane as quickly as they could. “And be safe,” he added, as they scurried out of the newsroom, notebooks in hand. He turned and asked me to stay at my desk and collate information as it came in and try to make some sense of it all.

But my mind was in panic.

Which children had been killed and exactly where in Dunblane? And, selfishly, where was my partner and my two gorgeous daughters?

This was 1996 and very few people had the luxury of mobile phones, least of all newspaper journalists and their families.

I tried our home phone vainly for an answer.

Had she gone to Dunblane already?

My heart was racing.

Then PA reported the shooting was confined to the town’s primary school, but there was no word as to whether the gunman had gone on a rampage elsewhere.

Within an hour the death toll had risen again before my partner telephoned me to ask if I had heard the news about Dunblane.

I think my reply was something akin to: “Of course I feckin’ have, where the hell have you been?”

She calmly told me she had heard the news on a radio in a shoe shop in Perth!

Back in the fray by mid-afternoon it was clear the gunman was also dead.

The day had become a blur of adrenalin

By early evening, a couple of my colleagues had returned from Dunblane and I had pieced together information about the shootings from many different sources:

After gaining entry to Dunblane Primary School, 43-year-old former shopkeeper Thomas Hamilton made his way to the gymnasium and opened fire on a Primary One class of five and six-year-olds, killing or wounding all but one.Fifteen children died together with their class teacher, Gwen Mayor, who was killed trying to protect them.

Hamilton then left the gym through the emergency exit. In the playground outside, he began shooting into a mobile classroom. A teacher in a mobile classroom realised that something was seriously wrong and told the children to hide under the tables. Most of the bullets became embedded in books and equipment.He also fired at a group of children walking in a corridor, injuring one teacher.

It later transpired that Hamilton had returned to the gym and with one of his two revolvers fired one shot pointing upwards into his mouth, killing himself instantly.

A further eleven children and three adults were rushed to hospital as soon as the emergency services arrived. One further child was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital.

Along with my colleagues, I worked until 9pm that evening and turned in a 12 hour shift the following day, trying to keep a clear head and report calmly the events which had transpired on that fateful Wednesday.

Sleep on the Wednesday and Thursday nights was impossible as my mind ran overtime. It was like being on speed in something akin to the movie Jacob’s Ladder.

Friday morning dawned and I grabbed my toast, kissed my sleeping daughters goodbye and again drove the 33 miles to Edinburgh.

Ensconced at my desk, I managed to look and at marvel at the Thursday and Friday editions of our paper side-by-side. Those papers still fill me with pride at what my editor, news editor, page designers and reporting colleagues had achieved.

The front page sub-deck written by our columnist Ian Bell still rings true: “Call it madness or evil, sickness or sin: those are just the words we use to give a name to our incomprehension. Thomas Hamilton was one of us, part of the species. There is horror in the suffering he inflicted but a deeper horror, a terror, in the fact that we cannot explain how one of us became what Thomas Hamilton became.”

So while the families and friends of the bereaved were going through their own personal hell, the Friday at work was all about investigating what had gone on at Dunblane, how Hamilton had acquired such an arsenal of guns and, I suppose, who else was to blame.

We needed some clear lines of enquiry for our Saturday edition.

I had to keep my clear head fully engaged.

It worked and when the news editor said we could all go home at 5.30pm I felt I had at last finished the longest shift of my life shift.

I recall getting into my car and driving through the rush hour haze towards the Forth Road Bridge and the journey home.

The car radio was tuned to BBC Radio 4 and I was half listening to live feed from the House of Commons.

Suddenly the voice on air was instantly recognisable as the Ulster Unionist MP Ian Paisley. Politically, I detested the man, but his words at that moment rang clear and true: “And I say, suffer little children to come unto me, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”.

Just as I drove my car up to the toll booth at the southern end of the bridge I broke down. Tears flowed uncontrollably as I choked for breath and fumbled my change into the hand of the booth attendant.

To this day I still don’t remember the rest of the drive home, just a blur of trying to focus on the road until I pulled up outside our house.

That evening I sat with my young children and partner and drank too much red wine while talking incoherently about the events of those three days.

Early the next morning, we agreed to make the short drive to Dunblane and lay flowers at what was becoming an international shrine to those killed in the carnage.

The scene that greeted us is also still with me now as I write these words… flowers and cards lining the road up to the school for more than 200 yards, with red-eyed police officers standing sentry duty barely able to meet the eyes of the scores of mourners and parents surrounding them. Tears and choking grief like I had never felt or witnessed before or since. Incomprehension.

We held our children close that day and forever afterwards.

Note: I never did finish the interview with Tom Conti. Craig MacKenzie was eventually released from prison in 2005 after winning a partial appeal. He was sadly found murdered in his Edinburgh flat earlier this year aged just 40.