“That’s nothing,” someone else said. “I queued next to John Simpson in Lakeland Plastics in York. He was on crutches through being injured in Bosnia.”
“Well we spotted Ed Miliband in the buffet at Sheffield station,” said a third, “and then Nick Clegg came in as well. They were joshing each other.”
Why do we have such a need to tell everyone about our encounters with famous people? There’s a pattern: someone you know has seen someone you’ve vaguely heard of in some kind of situation at a particular location. You could probably write a computer program to generate them, although it would never replicate the vicarious celebrity of talking and hearing about it.
We all do it. It’s like an addiction. I can’t even resist talking about other people who have encountered someone famous, such as the bloke at work whose cousin was the actor Bernard Hepton, or my landlady who lived in the next street to the parents of the actress Diana Rigg. It’s great to feel the warmth of the spotlight of third-hand idolatry.
Some tales can be conspicuously revealing. Another landlord often told me how, when he worked the night shift in the ticket office at Leeds Central Station, “that great puff” Jimmy Savile would arrive in the middle of the night after the dance halls had closed. He would walk through the station concourse in his long bleached hair and flamboyant clothes noisily drawing attention to himself. “Here he comes again,” they used to say, “that big pansy, looking for somebody to talk to and hoping to cadge a cup of tea.” We now know he was probably looking for something else too, but I thought my landlord’s views a little outdated at the time. In any case, he always used to break the spell by adding that his daughter had been at school with Philip Stone – an actor with a head shaped like a light bulb who was in every other television series you saw.
The same kind of gossip even goes on within the fame business itself. In my first job we used to audit a studio where they made television adverts, where the staff thought it important that you knew they had B.B.C. Look North presenters in to record voiceovers, and that they once filmed with Benny Hill. “He went off on his own. No one knew where he’d gone. We thought we’d lost him. Turned out he’d gone to the pictures.”
Celebrity didn’t impress my uncle. He met lots of well-known people through his job but never mentioned it. He was in Health and Safety at the Greater London Council just when lasers were beginning to be used in visual effects at concerts. He was pretty annoyed about having to work one evening to evaluate the potential dangers. “It’s been a bad week,” he complained to his trendy young secretary, “just about everything that can go wrong has gone wrong. And to top it all I’ve got to observe some noisy pop concert tonight ... Tom Bowie? ... John Bowie? ... something like that.” His secretary wasn’t very sympathetic. My uncle was subsequently quoted in the press as saying that some young girl will end up with her eyes burned out before people realise how dangerous lasers can be.
Well, let me tell you, I’ve had my own encounters with famous people too. There was the occasion with my mum on the promenade at Great Yarmouth when she suddenly said “That was Des O’Connor”, referring to a slim young man in sunglasses carrying a light coloured jacket over his shoulder, who had just sauntered past in the opposite direction. “Who?” I asked, and remained little the wiser because his show was the one we didn’t bother to see.
But my greatest claim to fame is that I once stood on Philip Larkin’s foot. I was killing time in the university library to avoid having to bike home without a coat in the rain, when I came across an exhibition of original poetry manuscripts. There were some by Stevie Smith, and one in Andrew Motion’s tiny hand about an aeroplane appearing over the brow of a hill. No one had heard of Andrew Motion then. I only knew him through being in one of his tutorial groups.
Other manuscripts were by the great man Philip Larkin himself, the Hull University librarian. That’s what I’d been peering at when, in the limbo-esque silence, I stepped back to move from one display case to the next and trod heavily on something lumpy, which turned out to be Philip Larkin’s foot. His gloomy, bespectacled hulk had been attempting to creep past unheard. I got the full-on, forehead-focused, withering laser-glare, directed through industrial strength frames and lenses. Bits of my brain were crisped and frizzled as any hopes I had of becoming a proper writer were clinically extirpated. Lucky I didn’t get my eyes burned out. He skulked off without a word.
I fear even this story is pretty feeble. The poet Roger McGough tells a much better one about his friend Neville waiting for a bus in the soaking rain when up walks Larkin protected by “the black dome of a capacious umbrella”. Neville eventually plucks up the courage to speak, “I did enjoy The North Ship [a collection of Larkin’s early poems],” at which Larkin glares back and says, “If you think you can begin a conversation with me in order to share my umbrella you’ve got another think coming.”
My day will come! Imagine them all, burning in some blazing afterlife inferno, enduring eternal damnation for their vanity.
O’Connor: “Tasker Dunham? His mother smiled at me at Great Yarmouth. Wonderful people! They loved my show there.”
Rigg: “Oh I know him so well. I adored him. He lodged near my parents.”
Stone: “How coincidental! He lodged with one of my school friend’s parents too. Marvellous sense of humour.”
Savile: “Now then now then! That was my great friend, Mr. Night Time Ticket Office Man. How’s about that then?”
Hepton: “Was he the clever chap who worked with my cousin?”
Hill: “Yes of course, where I filmed an ad. I wish I'd asked him to write a script for me.”
Motion: “Well I had the deep privilege of actually teaching him. Very bright – profound postmodern-romantic sensibility.”
Larkin: “Oh that b******! There he was, hatless in his cycle clips, perusing my verse in awkward reverence, when he stamped on my foot. Deliberately. Said he did not mean to but he did. As if he’d stepped off a coastal shelf. They f***ed him up his mum and dad. Filled him with all the faults. What misery! Glad I had no kids myself. I was only going to suggest he write one of those blog things to develop his style.”
Philip Larkin’s image above is from the cover of his book ‘All What Jazz’. Philip Larkin (1922-1985) was a leading English poet, novelist and jazz critic, who from 1955 was also the University Librarian at Hull. My last paragraph plagiarises two of his best known poems, ‘This Be The Verse’ (which he reads below) and ‘Church Going’.
Other characters mentioned:
- Dora Bryan (1923-2014) was an English actress and comedienne. One of her last television roles was in the comedy series ‘Last of the Summer Wine’ filmed in Holmfirth, West Yorkshire.
- John Simpson (born 1944) is a B.B.C. foreign correspondent.
- Ed Miliband (born 1969) and Nick Clegg (born 1967) are prominent British politicians who led the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties. Both resigned from their leaderships immediately after the 2015 General Election.
- Bernard Hepton (born 1925) and Philip Stone (1924-2003) were actors from Bradford and Leeds who appeared in numerous British film and television productions during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.
- Diana Rigg (born 1938) is an acclaimed English actress known for her major television, film and theatre roles, but perhaps most famous for her roles in the television series ‘The Avengers’ (1965-68) and more recently ‘Game of Thrones’ (2013-).
- Jimmy Savile (1926-2011) was a well known television personality and charity fundraiser who originated from Leeds. After his death it emerged he had been a highly prolific predatory paedophile and sex offender of gargantuan proportions.
- Benny Hill (1924-1992) was an English comedian and actor. He was widely popular in his day but subsequently fell out of favour because many considered his humour to be sexist.
- David Bowie (1947-2016) was an English singer and songwriter considered innovative by some.
- Des O’Connor (born 1932) is an English comedian, singer and television presenter.
- Andrew Motion (born 1952) is an English poet, novelist and biographer who lectured at Hull University from 1976 to 1980 and served the country as Poet Laureate from 1999 to 2009.
- Roger McGough (born 1937) is an English poet and author who was a student at Hull University from 1955, arriving during the same year as Philip Larkin.