Meeting people with no interest in meeting you

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The Independent Online
MEETING PEOPLE, as every schoolboy knows, is what journalists do.

"Why do you want to become a journalist?"

"Because I like travelling and meeting people."

That's the way the conversation goes in the careers offices around the country. Which I have always found, incidentally, to be very depressing places.

Towards the end of my time at university, when large numbers of my acquaintances were casting aside bohemian trappings and revealing their true identities as stockbrokers and merchant bankers-in-waiting, I spent forlorn days considering my own options.

The end result was as useful as my initial foray into a freshers' fair three years beforehand, when, after considering the full range of potential undergraduate activity, I departed with entry forms for the tenpin bowling and birth control societies. Neither of which I completed.

Rifling through the filing cabinets, I came to the following conclusions. If I had managed a first-class honours degree, I could have done postgraduate research at an exciting American university. But I hadn't. If I had gone along to the appropriate open days, a career in stockbroking might have beckoned. But I hadn't. If I had done student journalism of any kind, I might have been able to send examples of my work to local newspapers to show what I was made of. But I hadn't.

By the time I decided to try and join a paper anyway, I had gleaned sufficient information to know that when I was asked why I wanted to become a journalist, the reason I should not on any account offer was: "Because I like travelling and meeting people." Even though it was the reason.

What I didn't know about the job then, but do now, is that travelling to meet people entails no guarantee that people want to meet you.

There have been numerous times in recent years when I have been made to feel about as welcome as a pocketful of loose change in a washing machine. I have tried not to take this personally, even though my personality has no doubt been a deciding factor in many cases.

As I write this, I am picturing a face with an expression I have since come to know all too well through my daughters - a bored, sulky face, a face belonging in this instance to the young gymnast Anneka Reeder, whom I interviewed, if that is the appropriate term, shortly before the last Olympics.

Having spoken at some length to Reeder's coach, a most polite and helpful man, I was hopeful of raising numerous interesting topics with the blonde Essex schoolgirl herself. But the way she looked at me when I began asking her questions told me everything I needed to know about the non- conversation we were about to have. She looked at me as if had told her to go and tidy her room.

In contrast, Martina Navratilova managed to be positively charming in telling me to take a hike when I tried to talk to her at the Eastbourne tournament as she was emerging from a marquee. Her main emotion appeared to be amusement at the idea that any reporter could be so naive as to think things were that simple. She did it so nicely that I felt honoured by her non- co-operation.

The same could not be said of my experience with Linford Christie at the 1990 European Championships in Split. Discounting the rumour that the British captain was unwilling to speak to members of the British press corps because of an article which had appeared implying that he was acting in an arrogant fashion, I pressed on with my task of getting some Christie quotes after he had run one of the qualifying rounds of the 100metres.

Conveniently, I discovered Christie addressing a large group of foreign journalists as he unlaced his shoes. Peering round the doorway, I began to note everything he said until the discourse suddenly halted and I found myself confronted by a very angry sprinter.

"Get lost!" said Christie, his nose virtually pressed against my own. He repeated the request more loudly when I failed to carry it out. Then I carried it out.

Looking on the bright side, though, it's not often you come face to face with a sporting legend. It happened to me again a few years ago when I stepped into a lift at the Lausanne Palace Hotel and found I was standing next to Olympic champion, Michael Johnson.

"What floor?" I asked. "Two," he replied. I pressed the appropriate button and we moved upwards. "Good weather?" I asked - inexplicably. The double Olympic champion looked at me for a moment. Then the lift went "ping" and he stepped out.

Meeting people - it's what journalists do.