I can't believe I did that

We all make mistakes. If we are wise, we learn from them. Failing that, we can at least enjoy them - as the popularity of our 'My Greatest Mistake' columns proves. Today, in a celebration of human error, a cross-section of Britain's great and good identify defining moments in their lives when they totally fouled things up
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The Independent Online

DOM JOLY, COMEDIAN

I was an intern for the European Commission in Prague back in 1992, having blagged my way into the job from my previous one making sandwiches at MTV. I was understandably nervous. I was nominally put in charge of co-ordinating Group of Seven funding of the new Czech state. This meant chairing meetings with representatives of all seven embassies and discussing who was doing what. I had absolutely no clue as to what anyone should be doing, but this didn't seem to concern my German boss who, having taken me to one meeting, then decided to let me go on my own to the next one. Bravado took over. Rather than admitting my total ignorance of East European/EU financial aid grants and highlight my knowledge of the Madchester music scene, I agreed to do it.

Two hours later I was sat in an imposing room in my only suit, trying to look confident as various middle-aged diplomats quizzed me about whether they could finance this particular project, or was it the

domain of someone else. They wanted decisions. Being eager to please, I eventually gave them decisions; lots of them. I have no idea what I approved or refused. All I know is that three days later my German boss was sacked and I was never allowed out of the delegation building alone again.

FREDERICK FORSYTH, AUTHOR

I almost started World War Three. It was 24 April 1964, and I was coming home from a cabaret in East Berlin, where I was Reuters' chief of bureau, at around 2am. I found my way blocked by huge columns of the Soviet Army moving towards the Berlin Wall. So I went home and filed a report to London saying no more or less than what I had seen. I then went to bed and slept like a baby because I'd had a few jars. Meanwhile, the British Prime Minister, Alec Douglas-Home, and the American President, Lyndon B Johnson, were roused. Finally, the Americans got on the phone to the Russian Foreign Minister, Andrei Gromyko, who was eating his breakfast. He had no idea what they were talking about, so he phoned the Soviet ambassador to East Germany, who said: "Oh God, it's the rehearsal for the May Day parade next week."

PATRICK MOORE, ASTRONOMER

About 20 years ago, I invited a Russian scientist, Gregory Ruseki, to come on The Sky at Night to do a live interview about a Russian rocket that was on its way to the Moon at the time. Just before the interview, the floor manager told me that he didn't speak any English. So I asked my first question and he answered in Russian. I duly said in English what I hoped he was saying in Russian, and we did the entire interview like that. We didn't understand a word the other was saying. Afterwards we discovered that we both spoke French. And, apparently, I was right about his answers.

ALAIN DE BOTTON, AUTHOR

Most of my great mistakes (if only there were just one) have come from trying too hard to please other people. Fearing the loss of their love, I end up doing some rather counterproductive things. One of these was writing my second book the way I did. I was 24, I had written one book and I remember my editor taking me out for lunch to ask "what was going to happen next" in my writing career. I explained that I wanted to write a rather free-wheeling essay about modern city life and loneliness - something inspired by Baudelaire, Marx, the films of Eric Rohmer and the essays of Montaigne - and I remember my editor sighing deeply, looking out the window for a while and then saying: "I think that if you really want to succeed, you should try to write a novel."

I was deeply nervous about my whole future at that time. Most of my friends had gone off to do sensible things like becoming doctors and lawyers, and I was - crazily - trying to be an artist. Therefore, when my editor suggested a novel, I responded as I'd responded in the past to teachers and university lecturers; I followed the advice, I tried to please the teacher. The result was a mess.

SIR IAN McKELLEN, ACTOR

It wasn't exactly a mistake, but if there's anything I regret, it's probably having disguised my own native accent. Actors of my generation all tended to speak RP [received pronunciation]. Of course, it's all different now and drama students are encouraged to keep their regional accents and be able to do RP when required. Even at the BBC these days there's no standardised accent, and I rather think that's a good thing.

STELIOS HAJI-IOANNOU, CHAIRMAN OF EASYGROUP

My biggest mistake to date, and I hope of all time, was the early version of my chain of internet cafés, called easyInternetCafe. This started life as easyEverything in 1999 and was a real child of the dot.com bubble. Internet businesses could do no wrong and I was buoyed up by vendor financing ("pay tomorrow") and bankers, who at that time could float unprofitable companies on the stock markets, provided they just had online customers.

I was new to retailing and happily went off round the world, buying up the most expensive city-centre real estate in which we put not only internet access, but webcams, internet telephony, sophisticated software and other bells and whistles, all of which were meant to earn more money. In reality, we had created financial black holes that were largely unwanted by consumers, but into which we poured money.

WILL SELF, NOVELIST

My biggest professional mistake as a novelist is an ongoing one, and that's reading criticism of my work. I have - I'm happy to say - never committed the dreadful solecism of responding in print or public to any of my critics, no matter how ad hominem their remarks. However, in my younger - and still more foolish - days, I did on a couple of occasions aggressively beard those who I thought had judged my work unfairly, usually on the basis of what they thought they knew about me as a person, rather than the books themselves.

A more insidious mistake has been the reading of any reviews at all, whether negative or positive. I can safely say that in a career that has seen the publication of nine works of fiction in several countries, not one of the myriad reviews I've read has influenced my subsequent literary efforts in any way whatsoever. I've resolved several times not to read reviews at all, and this does get easier, but I still have the occasional relapse, which, like a relapse on anything, leaves me feeling guilty and tarnished.

Will Self's 'Dr Mukti and other Tales of Woe' will be published by Bloomsbury in January 2004

GAVIN TURK, SCULPTOR

My career started with me failing my degree at the Royal College of Art in 1991, so I suppose my career started with a big mistake. I often wonder if I'm still best known for that. I did recently have a project going in my studio where I was making a waxwork sculpture of me as a breakdancer. It was a motorised form wearing a tracksuit and baseball cap and spinning on the ground. In a gallery you were supposed to just come across this breakdancer on the floor. But unlike real ones, this just went around and around at a constant speed. I came to my senses when I walked into the studio one day and thought: "What the hell am I doing? This is awful." Fortunately I didn't show it. Instead I made a standing waxwork sculpture of me as a dead Che Guevara. It was scary, but it was thankfully a success.

TOBY YOUNG, AUTHOR AND JOURNALIST

When I was 16, I went out on a date with this 17-year-old girl called Nicole. I'd had a crush on her for three years. At the end of the evening she invited me into her parents' house and up to her bedroom, and we started snogging. We stripped down to our knickers and I realised that I was being given a green light; if I wanted to I could go all the way. But in my 16-year-old wisdom, I thought that if I took advantage of this opportunity Nicole would think that all I was really interested in her for was sex, and if I didn't she'd think I respected her and she'd realise I wanted to go out with her.

I said: "Listen, I think we'd better stop." She looked at me with utter astonishment and said: "Why?" I said: "I respect you too much to have sex with you on the first date, I think we should wait." She said: "Please yourself," and put her clothes back on. Ten minutes later I was on my bicycle congratulating myself on having been so incredibly clever.

The next day at school she completely blanked me, a week later she was going out with my best friend and they had hot monkey sex for the next year and she wouldn't even talk to me. And I regret that more than anything else in my life.

ROY HATTERSLEY, WRITER AND POLITICIAN

I have three - not resigning over the Commonwealth Immigration Act of 1968, not starting serious writing until I was 40, and spending 20 years without a dog.

TONY HAWKS, COMEDIAN AND AUTHOR

When I left university, I tried to make it as a musician, songwriter and performer and signed a record deal with a small label called Hobo Records. I then thought that was it, I didn't need to worry about anything. And instead of getting on with loads of other things and doing what I now know you should - you need to have about six projects on the go - I just relied on that and probably had the least happy 18 months of my life hanging on for people who were promising things, and them not happening. Being reliant on other people for your wellbeing or happiness is a frustrating state that I would advise anybody against getting into.

SIR RANULPH FIENNES, EXPLORER

My greatest regret came at the end of the 1990s during a solo expedition to cross the Antarctic. A Norwegian polar traveller, Borge Ousland, and a Pole called Marek Kaminiski were both trying to cross solo at the same time. I thought I would be fastest until I learnt that they would be using kites to pull themselves along. They could cover more than 100 miles a day, burning only 2,000 calories, whereas I could do just 16 miles, using 8,000 calories. The months I had spent at home training with heavy weights were a waste of time. I should have been training with kites.

Marek had an accident and dropped out of the race, but Borge was well ahead of me. I thought I might still catch him, so I conserved fuel by drinking less water. This was my second mistake; I developed a kidney stone, which meant I had to give up, while Borge went on to cross the Antarctic solo.

MARTHA KEARNEY, BROADCASTER

When I was in my twenties, I worked for LBC just off Fleet Street in London. For a while I had a killer of a job; five days a week I had to be in at 5am to produce bulletins of London news for the AM programme. It meant creating several five-minute bulletins from scratch, as rarely was anything left for me overnight. Not to put too fine a point on it, I used to arrive, drink vast quantities of coffee and panic.

I had my own personal Drop the Dead Donkey moment one morning when news was very scarce. A colleague called across the newsroom to say that there'd been a house fire in Ealing with suspected deaths. "Yes!" I shouted: "Result!" Even the hardened hacks on the national bulletins across the aisle looked at me with distaste.

One day the editor of AM called me into his office. There'd been complaints. My news was just too violent. I vowed to do better and listeners were treated to stories about city farms in Hackney. One morning I rang the Scotland Yard press office as part of my round of calls. The tape message ran: "Human remains have been found in a drain in Muswell Hill." Hmmm, I though smugly too myself, far too unpleasant for London News Lite. I won't run that.

Half an hour later I heard huge excitement over on the national desk. They'd followed the news up. It wasn't that great a story. I mean, a mass murderer who kidnapped and mutilated his victims - who'd pay any attention to Dennis Nilsen?

JILLY COOPER, NOVELIST

It was the first time I went on Late Night Line Up in about 1970. Charlotte Bingham, a very articulate Italian and I had to comment on an Italian film. Sheridan Morley was the interviewer. Charlotte and the Italian were wonderful, but no sound came out of me. I opened my mouth like a goldfish and nothing came out. I was so frightened. Can you imagine the embarrassment? Sheridan tried three times to ask me a question, bless him, but to no avail. The only good thing that came out the experience was that, afterwards, the novelist John Braine wrote me a fan letter. He said he'd so much enjoyed seeing me on television because I was such a nice quiet girl.

ALAN BLEASDALE, PLAYWRIGHT

I rejected Phil Redmond's first attempt at playwriting when I was resident playwright at the Liverpool Playhouse in 1976, although I do remember commenting on his remarkable energy, desire and determination. But I think my biggest shame - which still haunts me - happened in 1967 when I was still a schoolteacher on Merseyside. I remember going into the staff room and loudly sneering at the sound quality of the first cassette player I ever heard. It had been brought in by the PE mistress, Mrs King, and was playing Simon and Garfunkel. I said with utter confidence: "It will never replace reel to reel." I don't know why, but it still makes me wince.

STEPHEN BAYLEY, DESIGN EXPERT

Henry Ford once said that making stupid mistakes is simply an opportunity to start again more intelligently, an attitude I greatly respect and one which has saved me from spending too long under a reign of error. I have, however, made several utterly dire mistakes, which make me squirm on recollection. I did once own a brown Prince of Wales check suit, which I wore with a purple shirt (but this was, in mitigation, the Seventies). I also bought a pair of cowboy boots, seduced by the siren call of South-west Americana while in El Paso one day. Later my wife arranged to have my car broken into and the boots stolen.

But the worst mistake I made was while fundraising for the Design Museum. It was at dinner in Downing Street, and I was trying desperately hard to impress a lot of industrial moneybags with my enthusiastic pitch. The prime minister du jour, bored by my lofty idealism, interrupted. I started: "But, Prime Minister..." Mrs Thatcher gave me a gorgon stare and said: "Don't 'but' me, young man." We did not raise a single pound that evening.

ROSE GRAY, RIVER CAFE CHEF AND CO-FOUNDER

Both Ruth [Ruth Rogers, joint founder] and I feel that our biggest mistake was not doing it all earlier. We met in 1970, and it wasn't until 1987 that we had enough courage to open the River Cafe. And even though we've been doing it for 16 years, we still feel that we're quite new to the restaurant trade and that we still have a lot to do. For those 16 years we were both working in our first careers as graphic designers; as chefs, we're completely untrained. But after a while you just think; I love food, and I love cooking, and that's really how I want to earn my living. But we should definitely have done it sooner, instead of slogging it out as graphic designer for so many years.'

JOHN O'FARRELL, NOVELIST

My biggest mistake was thinking that the secret to being a brilliant stand-up comic was to do an entirely new and untested act in front of the biggest audience I had ever faced. I was 23, and had just won a talent competition at Jongleurs in Battersea, south London, but instead of sticking with what worked I thought I would go out there in my Oxfam suit and tell a load of jokes that I had written the week before. Like the bombing of Pearl Harbor, it seemed a good idea at the time. I opened with my very best line and it fell into a silent vacuum. It was like the heart monitor flatlining during a critical operation. The panic I felt up on that stage, while trying to appear confident and whimsical, must have created a facial expression that I could never recreate even if I wanted to. Soon they were slow clapping, booing and shouting insults. I felt that the Christians in the Colosseum actually had it quite easy. I gave up a lifelong ambition to be a comic and concentrated on being a comedy writer.

LIONEL BLUE, RABBI AND BROADCASTER

It's an odd choice, but it kept coming back to me. I'm a gay person, but I think my greatest mistake was not marrying a girl who loved me. I was beginning to love her but I didn't honestly know what would happen; possibly my sexuality could have changed - though what we knew about sex we could have written on a postage stamp. But you're in love with a person, not a gender. It could have worked out, and I regret that I passed up the opportunity to be with the greatest person I ever knew: she had integrity, honesty and was completely without prejudice. I just didn't know whether I could be faithful in a hetero relationship. It is a regret I have.

STIRLING MOSS, RETIRED RACING DRIVER

My greatest mistake was going to Goodwood on Easter Monday in 1962. It was the scene of my last race, as I had a crash that ended my professional career. It was my greatest mistake, as not only was it the end of my professional time, but I lost my hobby too. I can't remember the crash; I was unconscious for two weeks afterwards.

PETER TATCHELL, GAY-RIGHTS ACTIVIST

I knew when Outrage outed 10 Anglican bishops in 1994 it was going to be controversial, but I totally underestimated the way it would be misrepresented. Most of the media portrayed outing as a vindictive and cruel exposure of innocent, harmless churchmen. The truth was that we outed the bishops because they were publicly condemning homosexuals and opposing gay human rights while privately having gay affairs. They were outed because they were hypocrites and homophobes. The bishops' two-faced double standards were never reported, let alone criticised. Instead, we were denounced as "homosexual terrorists". My miscalculation derailed what was a very important and still relevant campaign against Anglican homophobia.

DENIS MacSHANE, MINISTER FOR EUROPE

In 1970, I was working as a football reporter for BBC Radio. That meant I got up late on Saturday, went to see a first-division match from the directors' box, had free drinks at half-time, met the greatest footballers in Europe - which British players were in those days - and afterwards had drinks with the players and managers. Then I went home to watch it all on Match of the Day. I got to travel all over Europe following European competitions. I spent each Monday on politics, which was my private passion. But this soon led to a parting of the ways with the BBC.

I have had a wonderful personal and professional life since, and still keep pinching myself that I am Minister for Europe in a pro-European government, my dream job in politics. But I gave up what potentially would have been the greatest career chance of my life for trade-union and political activity. I still wonder whether a life as a football reporter, and being paid to do it, and with all the time off that football reporters get, wouldn't have been more fun.

FERGAL KEANE, BBC REPORTER

I had just started as the office junior at the Limerick Leader, and in the autumn of 1979 I was sent to the annual Limerick agricultural show to collect the results of various competitions. You went from tent to tent and asked the competition secretary for a handwritten sheet of results. Alas, the Limerick show also offered unlimited opportunities for imbibing free alcohol. To a young man earning £40 a week, this was too tempting by far.

When the results appeared in a special supplement the following weekend, all hell broke loose. I had demoted several winners to second and third places, promoting their deadly rivals to first. On Monday morning the front office was shaken by the loud hectoring of a County Limerick grandmother who had been - in her own words - "humiliated" by being demoted to third prize in the competition for best blackberry jam. I was sent down to face her and explain myself. "You are on your own, you big ape," was the kind comment of my news editor. As I reached the front office, the hectoring diminished in volume. A stout woman in her sixties loomed into view. "So there he is," she said. "God help us. That explains it. Never send a boy to do a man's job." With that she turned and left.

ANGUS FRASER, FORMER ENGLAND CRICKETER

My greatest mistake rather ties in with what's happening with the England footballers just now. It was in 1994, before the Cricket World Cup, and there was a players' dispute with the ECB, the English governing body. It never reached the stage when we were going to strike, but some players had inflated opinions of what they could do or achieve, and I thought: "Well, I'm going to get involved because I'm stuffed if someone else is speaking on my behalf."

Anyway, it soured the preparations for the World Cup. I'd like to say that it didn't affect our performances, but it probably did: we were bloody awful. I regret giving people a chance to question how much we wanted to play for England. These things can often look quite pathetic, as if you're squabbling over a couple of hundred quid, and you're never going to come out of it smelling of roses.

CHRISTIAN O'CONNELL, XFM DJ

I suppose my biggest mistake was probably when I first started in radio about six years ago, working at a local station in Bournemouth. It was around Christmastime, and I was asked to switch on the lights in the town centre. In Bournemouth, there's a particularly rough area called Boscombe. When it came to the big countdown to the lights, I was so nervous that I'd had about six or seven pints and really just wanted to get the whole thing over with. But when the switch was flicked, we were plunged into complete darkness. The lights had failed to come on. I, unfortunately, was on the microphone, and before I'd had a chance to think I blurted out: "Some bloody gyppo from Boscombe must have nicked the lights." There were complaints flooding into the local paper and the radio station for weeks afterwards.

JENNIE BOND, FORMER BBC ROYAL CORRESPONDENT

Years ago I did a degree in French and European literature at Warwick University. As part of my course I was sent to a grammar school in France to teach English, and naturally I thought it would be a doddle. I was 20 at the time and the pupils were all quite old, sort of 18 and 19, and without a doubt the biggest mistake that I made upon entering the classroom for the first time was that I said to them: "Don't call me Mademoiselle Bond, just call me Jennie."

And, of course, from that time onwards I had not one single jot of discipline. But I really did want to encourage them to speak English, and so I had to try to speak about things that they found interesting. And at the time Jimi Hendrix had just died, essentially from choking on his own vomit through a drug overdose. So the kids would get me to talk about London and the drug scene and such things, which they found interesting and did actually speak English for. So in that respect I was successful. But I think that something must have got lost in the translation between school and home, as I found myself hauled up in front of the head teacher one day because so many parents had complained that I was teaching the children about drugs and how to use them, which of course I wasn't. I was instructed to keep my lessons strictly to talk about rabbits and the countryside.

CHRIS EUBANK, FORMER BOXER

The greatest mistake of my television career was doing the Gladiator show for Zig Zag television company. I was told that we would go to Rome and for five days we would learn how to use a sword, shield and a mace, and then on the sixth day have a contest. The sword was rubber and the mace was rubber-topped, but the wood was mahogany. I forfeited the grappling because it was too undignified.

It was a tough, brutal, degrading and potentially embarrassing six days of looking the devil in the eye. I went for a game, but it turned out to be a punishing test of strength, speed and concentration. If I'd known it was going to be so tough I wouldn't have done it. Having said that, it made very good TV because it was so full on.

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