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5 June 2023updated 12 Oct 2023 10:58am

On a trip to Poland, I am reminded that my heyday has been and very much gone

A friendly man about a year older than me, turned and said: “You were an icon of the Nineties.” A what? Someone could have effing told me.

By Nicholas Lezard

Last week was rather glamorous, but also exhausting, and, in the end, profoundly troubling. Let me explain.

It all began a week earlier when my editor at the Jewish Chronicle asked if I wanted to go on a press trip to the mountains of south-west Poland to meet some of the cast and crew of The Partisan, a film about the wartime exploits of the Special Operations Executive agent Krystyna Skarbek. (Look her up – her story is fascinating and moving.) We would be staying at a spa hotel near the town of Bystrzyca Kłodzka, which I had never heard of. (Pronounced “bistritsa kwodzhka”. One of our group kept pronouncing “Wrocław” as “rocklaw” and a little bit of me died whenever I heard him do it. Try “vrotswav” instead, should you ever need directions.)

As I can sometimes feel too lazy to go out and buy wine when I have run out, the idea of so much travel didn’t at first appeal, but then I had a closer look at the press release and saw that one of the film’s stars was Malcolm McDowell. Malcolm McDowell! Star of A Clockwork Orange! If…! That terrible Star Trek film! So I said yes and packed my toothbrush and a book I was reviewing and set off on my odyssey to Bystrzyca Kłodzka, via Luton Airport.

I hadn’t been on a press freebie for years. These are always intense. The last time I went on one, to Latvia, I fell in love twice and ended up in a relationship with a third woman. That was five years ago. So there is always the faint hope that in the superheated environment of British hacks being let loose in a foreign land, I might cop off. Also, I am particularly fond of Poland and the Poles, as my maternal grandparents were from there (although the town they were from is now Ukrainian and called Lviv). I gather I am eligible for a Polish passport.

Sadly, McDowell’s scenes had all been shot in Warsaw, 370km away, so he wasn’t there, but I did get an interview with the star, Morgane Polanski (yes, daughter of that Polanski), and a few good chats with Frederick Schmidt, who played a minor baddie in the last Mission: Impossible film and will be a more prominent baddie in the next two. Despite his surname, when Schmidt opens his mouth what comes out is pure Camden Town. And he’s a good sport. I got someone to take a photo of us. “Look at me as if you want to kill me,” I said, and he dug deep into his craft and managed it.

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But that wasn’t the profoundly troubling thing. That happened at the end of the trip: just before the security gates at Wrocław airport. Now, there had been no surnames or name-tags during the trip, so my fellow hacks only knew me as “Nick”. And one of them, a friendly man about a year older than me, turned to me and said: “I think I’ve worked out your byline. You’re Nicholas Lezard, aren’t you?”

I admitted as much. And then he said the thing that has been troubling me for some days now. “You were an icon of the Nineties.” A what?

All I could do at the time was laugh. But I have been brooding on his remark and the first, immediate thought that occurred to me was: someone could have effing told me. Because I certainly didn’t feel like one at the time. And to learn that one’s heyday even existed in the first place, and then to realise it was three decades ago, leaves one feeling both overvalued and undervalued at the same time. Did commissioning editors in the Nineties look me up under “I” for Icons in their Filofaxes before calling me up? The mind boggles. “O wad some Power the giftie gie us/To see oursels as ithers see us!”

I mentioned this to one of my children and he replied, “Which Nineties?” Oh, ha ha. He then said, with some shrewdness, “I wonder what happened towards the end of the Nineties that stopped you from becoming famous.” (The answer, in case you haven’t worked it out: I had three children. And I think of my mother, who let a very promising career on Broadway slide away in order to bring up her own.)

Anyway, back to Wrocław Airport. My mind reeled for a while with sarcastic replies: “Oh yes, happy days. All those appearances on Shooting Stars, all the paparazzi camped outside the front door. Kate Moss and Damon Albarn ringing me up at all hours asking me to hang out with them. In the end I just got sick of it. And look at me now: I haven’t even copped off with anyone on this whole trip.” Still, I thought: look at Malcolm McDowell. His heyday was more than 50 years ago, and he’s still going strong.

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This article appears in the 07 Jun 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Reeves Doctrine