The fan - Hunter Davies has lunch with Melvyn Bragg

Even girls who've never been to a match can spot a footballer three blocks away

I was having lunch with Melvyn Bragg at a restaurant in Hampstead village, the Villa Bianca. We go back a long way, me and Melv, more than 40 years, both coming from Cumbria around the same time, then having the same agent, same accountant. My wife and I were with him the night that Kennedy died, having dinner, which has turned out pretty handy, whenever people ask where were you when JFK was shot.

They say blokes don't retain their friends as they go through life, which is roughly true, compared with women, who keep up the girly stuff all their lives, with letters, regular phone calls, coffees and such. But I have six chaps from my life I have lunch with once a year to catch up on vital things, like last night's football, children, those bastards at VAT.

It was quite busy, mainly with women who lunch, and I could sense them giving little nudges, don't look now, I'm sure that's Melv, what lovely hair. Melvyn was taking no notice, as if unaware, but then he's used to it. This is not always the case with famous people. Some do play to the gallery. In my long-legged experience of being out and about with famous faces, I always thought Paul McCartney enjoyed it. Gazza doesn't mind it either, as long as he's not down, depressed. And he'll sign autographs for ages.

Into the restaurant came a little group of fairly scruffy young people in jeans. There were three in their twenties, one a woman with a baby in a pushchair, plus an older man who might have been the father of the woman. There was a little bit of waiter fussing, but not much, arranging the table, making enough room for the pushchair.

The newcomers had been given the table next to us, so I wasn't best pleased when I noticed that one of them was smoking. Should I call a waiter, object, say it could bring on my asthma? Then I realised they were all speaking French. Huh, frogs, what do you expect, they smoke everywhere. Then I recognised one of them.

"Don't look now," I said to Melvyn, who had his back to their table, "but Robert Pires has arrived . . ."

Melvyn did, of course, after only a very slight pause, pretending to turn to look at something else.

"I think I'll go and tell him he played well last night," said Melvyn.

We had both been at the Arsenal game the night before, and it was true - Pires had done well. Melvyn is a real Arsenal fan, unlike me, and he does speak good French.

One of the four, the youngest, had his back to me, so I couldn't quite see his face, but it struck me he looked very like Gael Clichy, Arsenal's young full-back, who is often in the first team. I would like, for academic reasons, to know how he himself pronounces his surname. Can it really be like "cliche", a French word we have pinched?

Melvyn's interest was interesting. One forgets that famous people can be fans, just like the rest of us, unable to resist gaping. I exclude my wife from this wild generalisation. Her first instinct is to cross the road, should she spot a Face. But then she's not normal. I remember being struck by John Lennon telling me how thrilled he was to have got Little Richard's autograph.

Footballers today are probably our most famous famous people, more quickly recognised than royalty, pop stars, politicians. In the old days, they remained on the back pages, and only real diehard fans, who went to every home game, or collected cigarette cards, could spot them in mufti in the street. Now, top Premiership stars are on all pages and constantly on TV, in close-up for 90 minutes, so that every mannerism, every haircut, gets known to millions. Dopey girls in clubs, who have never been to a game, can spot them three blokes, I mean three blocks, away. Then they pounce.

In the end, Melvyn didn't talk to Pires, deciding to leave him in peace. Very wise. But I would like to have known how to pronounce Clichy . . .