On Location: My mate Jimmy
Columnist of the Year 2015, Mark Steel, is Commentator and stand-up comedian who has presented several radio and television programmes, and appeared on Have I Got News for You and Never Mind the Buzzcocks. In 2006 he published 'Vive La Revolution: A Stand-up History of the French Revolution', and in 2000 stood as a candidate in the London Assembly elections.
Friday 12 March 1999
But nothing compares to being on Radio 4's Any Questions, live from Sandwich. As I sat among the commuters on the train through Kent, I vacillated between two thoughts: "Wahey, I'm on Any Questions!", and "Aaaagh. I can't argue with cabinet ministers on the radio - I got kicked out of a Comprehensive school and still eat chips in the road."
At the station, I was met by Gerald Kaufman and Jonathan Dimbleby, and transported a hundred yards by leather-upholstered Jag to a hotel. There, as we entered, were tables laden with immaculately prepared fish, salads, meats, trifles, and cheeses, which were clearly for show. I nibbled a salmon, and listened to Gerald Kaufman tell a story about going to Nicaragua with Harold. Not "my mate Harold", or "this bloke called Harold", but "Harold", as in Harold Wilson. Again the instincts had to be quelled. For normally, hearing someone say this, I'd say "Oh right. You went to Nicaragua with Harold Wilson, did you? Well, I went to Guatemala with Benjamin Disraeli".
This was worrying. Here was a leading government politician, and he was genuinely fascinating and honestly charming. What if during the programme he said something outrageous? I'd go to deliver a fuming tirade, and then think, "But he's ever so pleasant. And he passed the pate without me asking".
This is a process which dampens all journalists and politicians. Formally, they might stay as radical as when their career began, but over time their speeches lose their edge and evolve into playful banter. Kenneth Clarke is probably charming. And Peter Mandelson, and Ann Widdecombe. I bet there were journalists in Cambodia who said "But when you get to know him, Pol does tell amusing anecdotes".
As it transpired, it was the novelist Frederick Forsyth who was the potty one on the programme. Responding to the Macpherson Report, he launched into tub-thumping praise of police activities. This won initial support from the audience, most of whom were members of an organisation called something like The Order of the Sandwich and District Society of Aldermen, Anglican Parishioners, Yeomanry, Scones, and Home-Made Marmalade.
The men wore Kent County Cricket Club ties, and the women had silk scarves and pearls. This is the land of Daily Telegraph readers and gravelly drives. Yet Forsyth's outstanding achievement was to be so rude that he turned this audience into supporters of the ranting Trot - he began one outburst against me with "I've FORGOTTEN more about history than you ever knew - boy".
"I must say, young man", said a chap in a blazer at the reception afterwards, "I don't know how you restrained yourself from clocking him one".
"You're making me feel I was soft on him," I replied. He then leaned into my ear and said in a marvellously clipped RAF accent, "I rather think you were".
Then someone clapped their hands and said they'd like to thank everyone who'd worked so jolly hard to make the evening such a success, and "Last but by no means least, may I thank Mrs Whittaker, who's surpassed herself again with her sausage rolls".
Their enthusiasm made it impossible not to feel affection for the burghers of Sandwich. It would be easy to write off these people as irredeemable Thatcherites. But most of them are still subject to the fallout of government and economic turbulence. Their local transport has been dismantled, their hospital is under threat, and a local headmaster lamented the damage done to education in the area by selective schooling.
Equally, it would be fascinating to get to know leading politicians personally, to enjoy their company, and chortle at their whimsical tales of sharing a hotel room with Harold Macmillan. But how easy it must be to slip, without realising it, comfortably into their world, so that the next time someone screamed about tuition fees or attacks on single parents, you thought "Oh, but Jack and David and Robin are lovely people really".
I know. Because I recently overheard someone slagging off Jimmy Hill. And I only just stopped myself from saying "Oi mate, don't be like that. 'Cos once you get to know him he's a really nice bloke". And he is. Honestly.
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