Brief Encounter #6

ernie wiseErnie Wise

WHEN I talk about brief encounters, my brush with the one with the short fat hairy legs was indeed brief… barely time to even cough.

It was 19 September 1981 (I can be precise about the date, because of the dedication of football statisticians) and I had caught a train from my home in Barnsley to Leeds. The object of the trip was to indulge in a spot of music and clothes shopping.

I stood outside Leeds City Station, adjacent to the Leeds Hilton Hotel, momentarily deciding whether to stop for a coffee or attack the Briggate shops.

The area outside the station concourse was particularly busy, even for a Saturday, and uniformed police officers appeared everywhere.

Football fans daubed with red and white scarves milled around us.

It quickly dawned on me that this was the day of one of the First Division’s grudge fixtures at Elland Road… Leeds United versus Arsenal.

I therefore decided to avoid the crush and catch a coffee when suddenly a shining black limousine pulled up alongside me.

From behind me a hotel doorman politely said: “excuse me”. But before I could move aside the rear driver’s side door of the limo’ opened and a smiling grey haired man alighted.

It was Little Ern.

He was recognised instantly by a few Arsenal supporters to my right.

One shouted: “Are you going to the match Ernie?”

I stood frozen to the spot as the comic replied: “Of course!”

Then spontaneously I coughed: “Arsenal!”

I could feel my face reddening, as Ernie turned with a huge grin and winked at me, before disappearing into the hotel lobby.

My one brief moment of comic fame was gone in a cough.

I guess it could all have been a moment from a Morecambe and Wise sketch, with Ernie coughing and Eric shouting Arsenal!

 

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.