Ignore the people who say to never meet your heroes: I ended up booking a canal boat holiday with mine

Harold Pinter probably never thinks about the night we met – but I do, often.

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Combining suburban dinner party, social awkwardness and simmering resentment, it was all rather more Ayckbourn than Pinter. I was at a small dinner given to celebrate one of the early birthdays of BBC4. It was held at a discreet private dining club in the West End and the social mix of diners was diverting: a couple of modish artists, the newscaster George Alagiah, Damon Albarn and Melvyn Bragg, if memory serves. It wasn’t quite as heady as the time after the British Comedy Awards when I danced on a podium with the Chuckle Brothers and Sophie Dahl. But it was certainly a happening crowd.

I’m afraid I paid scant attention to any small talk from George regarding Angela Merkel, or to the beef bavette in a rosemary jus, because a hero of mine was sitting some three places down, toying with a Hasselback potato. I’m not sure why Harold Pinter was there, but no matter. I spent the meal fantasising about Ben and Gus in The Dumb Waiter – holed up in an upstairs room, desperately julienning our carrots – and planning my conversational gambits for when, later, I ensnared the Nobel Laureate in witty, thought-provoking chit-chat.

I got the chance to do just that. I told him I had recently watched a repeat of the Sixties Granada TV version of his play The Lover. “All live, of course; we got one chance,” he said. I remarked on the excellent cast – which was rather tactless, as the female lead was his first wife, Vivien Merchant. He made the segue elegantly: “Have you met Antonia?” he said, indicating his now wife, Lady Antonia Fraser. I hadn’t, but no matter; we would get to know each other famously on the canal boat holiday I would be booking for us soon.

Then, in a bumptious manner that would have embarrassed the infamous “Person from Porlock” who interrupted Coleridge mid-”Kubla Khan”, a minor BBC exec with a nerdy, middle-aged obsession with pop ephemera came over, ignored Harold and Antonia, and tried to engage me in conversation about an old Bogshed John Peel session.

H&A waited patiently – keen, I felt, to resume our conversation, a little pained. I practically shouted: “EXCUSE ME, I AM TALKING TO A LITERARY GIANT!!!”

Soon after that, the couple made a silent, Pinteresque departure. How different, I later thought, from the first dinner party they’d attended together, when they were near strangers. Before leaving, Fraser said to Pinter that she liked The Birthday Party. He replied, “Must you go?” and though both were married to other people, with seven children between them, she didn’t.

Their relationship lasted 33 years. They probably never thought about that winter’s evening again, but I do, often. Ignore those churls who say never meet your heroes.

Next week: Lynne Truss

Stuart Maconie is a radio DJ, television presenter, writer and critic working in the field of pop music and culture. His best-selling books include Cider with Roadies and Adventures on the High Teas; he currently hosts the afternoon show on BBC 6Music with Mark Radcliffe.

This article appears in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war

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