Mike Rowbottom: Williams' untypical misery provides me with nugget of enduring joy

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The Independent Online

Wandering through Newcastle Airport at 5.30am last Monday - as you do when you have an early morning flight from Newcastle Airport - I noticed a man I always think of as laughing, looking very glum. The person in question was Bernard Williams, who, when he is not running extremely fast - he won this year's US Championships 100 metres - is habitually in a good humour.

At a recent press conference, the flights of fancy of this part-time stand-up comedian, whose role model is more Bill Cosby than Carl Lewis, left hardened members of the press enthusing like groupies.

But here he was, eyes masked by sunglasses, waiting in a long queue at the check-in desk and looking very far from sunny. Perhaps he was still reflecting upon the race he had run in vain the previous evening, when he had completed 100 metres of the Gateshead track before realising that the recall gun had gone and he needed to do the whole thing over again. Which he did, seven minutes later, only far less quickly.

Anyway, it seemed like the imperfect end of an imperfect weekend for Williams, and I would like to say that I felt for him at that moment.

I would like to say that, but it wouldn't be true, because I found the spectacle amusing.

In terms of interest, air travel broadly resembles Polyfilla. But every now and again it does afford little nuggets of enduring joy.

It's six years now since I found myself in a plane standing on the runway at Munich Airport, vainly pleading the case of a passenger seated behind me to an agitated cabin steward. The passenger in question was Prodigy front man Keith Flint - or "Wildman" Keith Flint as he seems to be known in the tabloids. Admittedly, the little chap had behaved quirkily after boarding with fellow group members. The previous night they had played in support at a David Bowie gig, and Flint felt it appropriate to offer his fellow travellers a vocal tribute, repeatedly singing a Bowie lyric - "he gave me a dangerous smile" - in a quavering voice that put one in mind of Ophelia during her Blue period.

It didn't bother me. But the cabin crew clearly held strongly differing views and soon had Ophelia removed by four policeman wearing combat fatigues and carrying what looked like Heckler and Koch machine guns.

Distressing at the time, to be sure. But, in retrospect, ha-ha-ha.

One of the oddest things I've seen on my air travels was Ronnie O'Sullivan's snooker cue - the one he had won the world title with - circulating forlornly on a baggage carousel at Stansted Airport. Eventually, "The Rocket" sauntered over and collected it. Hard to believe there wasn't an airline version of recorded delivery he could have employed to safeguard such a vital item.

It was at Stansted, too, that I encountered another oddity - a sweaty delay that turned into a story. Having booked an afternoon flight to Newcastle in order to cover an evening athletics meeting at Gateshead, I found myself growing increasingly anxious over a wait that was stretching from minutes into hours. It was due, we were told, to "operational reasons". That is, there was no plane on the runway, and none expected until much, much later... First edition deadline approached, and I was several hundred miles from where I needed to be - until I saw Matthew Yates. At the time, Yates, a bronze medallist at the 1990 Commonwealth Games 800m, was hoping to produce a sufficiently good showing to make the team for the World Championship. After some inconsistent performances he had some ground to make up, and performing well at Gateshead was an urgent necessity for him.

With the best will in the world, the Essex boy was not likely to impress the selectors from Gate 82. Thank you very much, and put me on to copy... In all my airline to-ings and fro-ings, however, I haven't been able to match the experience of one of my esteemed colleagues during a flight to cover an athletics meeting in Prague.

Finding himself, by some happy misunderstanding, booked into Club Class, he settled into his unfamiliar surroundings and began making polite conversation with an elderly gentleman sitting next to him.

Soon he was talking about his job as an athletics writer - all the interesting places to which it had taken him and all the fascinating characters with whom it had brought him into contact.

Eventually my friend asked what it was his new companion did for a living. "I am an actor," the man replied. "Oh really?" said my friend. "Have you been in anything I might have seen?" The man paused momentarily, then replied: "I am Sir Alec Guinness."