On Tuesday I was in Monte Carlo, interviewing Ken Bates, the 78-year-old chairman of Leeds United and erstwhile owner of Chelsea, over a long lunch. This isn't a boast about the glamorous side of my job, partly because I can count on the fingers of one finger the times I have been to Monte Carlo in the course of duty, and also because a long lunch with Bates, a famously pugnacious and profane individual even in the pugnacious, profane world of sport, wouldn't be everyone's idea of a good time. His fragrant wife Susannah, who was at his side, acts as a kind of restraining leash on him, but that doesn't stop him baring his fangs. At one point, when I asked what he considered to be an impertinent question, he threatened to throw my tape recorder into the nearby Mediterranean.
Anyway, it was a lively encounter, during which Bates repeatedly aired his opinions of certain members of the press, and if there had been any English-speaking stevedores within earshot, they would have blushed at the Anglo-Saxon ripeness of his language. After almost three hours of asking him questions, several of which plainly riled him, I didn't feel as though I had necessarily convinced him of the essential nobility of my profession.
So it was a surprise when, in a sudden change of tone, he invited me to play a parlour game. With which three people, he seemed to want very much to know, would I choose to share my last meal on earth, excluding family? At first I thought he was winding me up, or setting a verbal trap. But no, he just wanted to play a game. So I said I'd want three close friends from different periods in my life to reminisce with: a childhood friend, a university friend and a friend from adulthood. Bates looked unimpressed. He chose Winston Churchill, Garibaldi and, after some pondering, the writer Ayn Rand. Susannah Bates, no less enthusiastic, decided on Shakespeare and Thomas Hardy, but it was time to go before she could think of a third, and she refused Ken's suggestion of Dudley Moore.
Slightly taken aback by the old boy's metamorphosis into a cuddly great-uncle at the Christmas table, I hadn't quite understood the rules of engagement. I didn't know that I could enjoy my final supper with notable historical figures. But the more I think about it, the more I realise I got it right.
Put in my place by a perilous periwinkle
Since moving from the city to the country, I have become a gardener. I'm pretty keen, but not very good, because I don't take it seriously enough. My father-in-law Bob, on the other hand, is fantastic at gardening, because there's hardly anything he takes more seriously. The other day, having been to stay the previous weekend, he left a message on our answer phone asking my wife to call him as soon as possible. There was a note of almost tremulous urgency in his voice. She dialled. "Jane," he said, relieved. "There's a periwinkle in your font at eight o'clock. It's VERY, VERY invasive. It needs to come out."
We have an old stone font in our garden, with a circular flower-bed around it. This was what Bob was referring to, and by eight o'clock, of course, he meant its location. I was away at the time, but fortuitously our fortnightly gardener Alan was due the next day. Jane passed on the information. "There's a periwinkle in the font at eight o'clock, Alan," she said. "My dad says it has to come out." Alan nodded solemnly, realising the gravity of the situation, whereas I couldn't stop laughing when I heard, inventing a scenario in which a specialist conveys bad news. "I'm afraid your periwinkle is malignant, Mrs Viner. It needs operating on immediately." It also occurred to me that "there's a periwinkle in your font at eight o'clock" would have been a marvellous line for a Cold War spy, to be muttered sotto voce on a park bench in east Berlin, to establish contact with another spy further down the bench. But all this nonsense just means that I am doomed as a gardener, fatuously ho-ho-hoing when I should be vigorously hoeing.
The trouble with reading obituaries
Captain Micky Burn MC died last week, aged 94. The Independent carried his obituary on Tuesday, detailing the heroism with which he led the commando raid on St Nazaire, the fortified French port, in March 1942. Burn was wounded in the assault, captured and sent to Colditz, where he helped to operate a secret wireless, passing news of the Allied advances to his fellow prisoners, though also irritating them with his communist ideas. Before the war, however, he had briefly been an ardent supporter of National Socialism, and while staying with Unity Mitford in Berlin in 1935, had met Hitler and got him to sign a copy of Mein Kampf. Later, he was seduced by the future spy Guy Burgess.
Burn's other obituaries lacked some of this detail, but supplied further information about a remarkably eventful life. In 1945 Burn saved the life of Audrey Hepburn, the daughter of his friend Ella van Heemstra, by sending the family hundreds of cigarettes, which they were able to sell on the black market, thereby raising money for the treatment which the malnourished and critically ill Hepburn desperately needed. He later became a foreign correspondent, novelist and poet. Oh, and in the 1960s he lost his shirt on a mussel-farming co-operative in north Wales. There's nothing like reading the obituary pages to make you feel as though you lead a rather humdrum existence.