Today I am going to tell a story: the story about how I met the future King Charles, Stephen Fry, Michael Howard and John Major all on the same day. Actually, in the space of an hour.
Cast your mind back to the distant past – the year 2000. Britpop in the ascendant, Tony Blair in his pomp, Jack Straw as home secretary, being tough on the causes of crime etc. I, at the time, was the radio critic for the Independent on Sunday, and one day I received a stiff invitation in the post, about the size of a table mat in a posh home. And posh the invite was: to St James’s Palace, to celebrate, along with the heir to the throne, the 50th anniversary of The Archers. The lettering on the card was raised, and I ran my finger along it, wondering if people who could read Braille would also be able to read this.
I was no monarchist, but I did like The Archers, or rather was gripped by it, the way an addict is gripped, so I could hardly refuse. Also, there was going to be champagne. Again, hard to refuse.
A few seconds after arriving I began to wonder seriously if I should have come at all. In those days I was also a well-respected book reviewer, insofar as book reviewers can be well-respected, and whenever I went to a book launch there were usually at least a dozen people in the room I knew well enough to chat to. Here, I knew almost everyone – by sight; and by sight alone.
The only person I felt I could approach, I realised, was Stephen Fry. I had two reasons: the first being that we had a mutual friend in Will Self. The second, which I considered the clincher, was that I had recently read his latest autobiography and had been pleased to come across a passage about his inspirational English teacher, Rory Stewart. I cannot remember how the passage went, but this was the gist: “Come up to me at any time and tell me you too were taught by Rory Stewart, and I will drop what I am doing at once and swap anecdotes about him with you.”
Now, as it happened, I was also taught by Rory Stewart, at another school, and very fond of him I was too. Fry was speaking to someone else so I hovered at a slight distance, as one does, until there was a natural pause in their conversation, when, rather nervously, I introduced myself. I mentioned Will Self, and I added that I too had been taught by etc. At which he said, in a way that has burned itself into my memory for two decades and counting, “Oh really?”, turned his back to me emphatically and carried on speaking to whoever it was.
I mooched around the room, among the great and the good, feeling sorry for myself. After a few more glasses, I spotted a group of people standing together: John Major, Michael Howard, his wife, and I forget who else. Feeling I had nothing to lose, I attached myself to them. They were polite. At one point I said to Michael Howard: “What’s it like having a Labour home secretary who’s even more authoritarian than you were?” They went into a huddle as if to decide whether to laugh at this. They decided they would. Still anxious to cause something of a scene, I then asked John Major if it was true he regretted selling off school playing fields, and therefore cricket pitches. And he replied, earnestly, that it was, and then we talked cricket for a while.
During this chat there was a discreet tap on my shoulder: it was the official photographer, asking my name and alerting me that Prince Charles was about to shake my hand, as he had to shake everyone’s, and the moment was to be recorded. And so he did, and it was. The prince mumbled a few words of the how-do-you-do-nice-to-meet-you variety, and he moved on. Fair enough: there were a lot of people there.
A few days later I received a contact print of my meeting with the Prince of Wales. At the exact moment the photo was taken, someone had stepped in between me and the photographer, so what we had was a picture of the heir to the throne shaking a disembodied hand that could have belonged to anyone wearing a suit. The accompanying letter apologised, and said I could either have this image as a keepsake, or a signed photo of the prince alone. I thought about this for a very short time. I didn’t fancy the idea of having a signed photo of Prince Charles on display and having to explain why I had one every time someone saw it; and Will Self, even less of a royalist than I was, had already told me off for attending the bash in the first place. So I said no thank you.
After that, I decided to slip into obscurity. The high life was not for me; it was too fraught with potential embarrassment. But here are the things I took away from the occasion (I was too flustered even to steal an ashtray). John Major: thoroughly decent man without airs and graces; Michael Howard: nicer than you’d think; Charles: busy man doing a job; Stephen Fry: no comment.
This article appears in the 21 Sep 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Going for broke