My friend Geoff says I should write an article on Greg Dyke, comparing him to Aristotle

I looked around the other day and realised that encouragement had gone. Remember encouragement? You'd do something, however trivial, and there'd always be someone near at hand to mark your achievement: a word from teacher about how your essay on the adventures of a penny had been your best work so far; a whispered acknowledgement from a new girlfriend that you were an altogether better kisser than Denis Roberts.

Later on in life, at Littlewoods Mail Order Stores, there was the foreman who told the entire canteen that no one would ever beat my record of processing 50 ironing boards in under 60 minutes, the sales manager at British Enka who reckoned my meticulous stock-book management marked me out as a person who could go places in rayon, and the chief librarian who gave me an afternoon off because of the enthusiasm I brought to my morning task of running a heavy black-inked roller over the racing results in the daily papers.

During undergraduate days at Birkbeck, there was the scribbled comment on my feudalism essay from Ronald Fletcher ("shows a genuine sociological imagination"), and throughout my years as a lecturer at York, all those regular handwritten notes from the vice-chancellor, Lord James: "Dear Laurie, Congratulations on the publication of Deviance and Society. I look forward to reading this in the near future." And when my sociological imagination faded in the early eighties - and I realised I could make more money popping up on television than writing turquoise tombstones for Routledge - there was that letter from my Granada producer, Jeremy Fox, which talked of "natural televisual talent".

In Games People Play, Eric Berne argued that we all require a certain number of reassuring strokes. Some, like research scientists, can manage with a stroke every three years; others, like actors, want dozens every night. But he had nothing to say about the way such strokes are chronologically distributed, about how there comes a point in life, somewhere after 50, when you are not only expected to survive without a single pat of recognition but are positively enjoined to become a full-time stroker of other people's egos.

Much of my life is now taken up with that activity. In the past week alone, I've marvelled at my youngest grandchild's ability to kick a football in a relatively straight line, endlessly enthused about my BBC researcher's talent for finding the capital of the Cayman Islands on the Internet and gone into rhapsodies over my former partner's exhibition of dreary watercolours in the concourse of City University. This, I now realise, will be the pattern for the future. Even as I'm dying from cancer of the everything, I will have to retain enough energy to stroke my solicitous hospital visitors, heartily congratulate them on finding the right ward and relentlessly marvel at their ability to find fat grapes in late November.

Geoff was sympathetic when I explained the problem to him in the Hope. "It's a question of balance," he told me. "As you get older, you must make a habit of over-praising others. Write an article about Greg Dyke comparing him to Aristotle, drop a note to Peter Wilby at the NS saying that he's now assumed the mantle of Kingsley Martin, send flowers to Janet Street-Porter congratulating her on turning the Independent on Sunday into a newspaper of record."

But would that ensure a little reciprocity? "Not immediately," he said. "But you never know. It might just ensure an obituary that didn't rely too heavily upon the phrase, 'constantly whingeing'."

This article first appeared in My night with Mad Frankie Fraser

1999-12-06