It’s been a funny old week, but in a good way.
Lady Barton St Mary summed it up best, as she so often does.
“It’s obviously your week for meeting famous people,” she said.
We are fortunate enough to live quite near to Cheltenham, which, for those of you that don’t know it, is a town full of Georgian houses, swanky hotels, restaurants and antique shops. If you were to visit The Promenade on any given day, you would notice that the populace tend to be elegant ladies and gentleman dressed in fine clothes and having a certain sophisticated poise. You feel like you’ve been transported to a specially built compound for food critics, antiques dealers and retired jewellers and bankers, spending their days promenading like peacocks, drinking fine wines and giving it large on blog sites dedicated to eating, drinking and generally laying about.
Which is in total contrast to its near neighbour, Gloucester. Now, Gloucester is a city. It doesn’t have a promenade. It has some shops, but most of them seem to be boarded up these days. There’s a lot of cash converter and pound shops. The local populace tend to prefer a slightly less formal style of trouser, namely the lounge pant or track suit bottom. A large number of the folk wearing ‘running suits’ as my mum used to call them, are either on walking sticks or mowing people down on electric shopmobility wheelchair/buggies. These suits are made from that particular brand of man made fibre that makes me fear that the wearer may self combust at any moment due to a build up of static electricity. This apparel also comes in a dazzling array of colours. I only ever thought I’d see a full orange tracksuit on a Dutch athlete. Somebody in Gloucester proved me wrong. Although he did stop outside the Tesco store, take out his handkerchief, place it on the floor and give an original rendition of ‘Get Lucky’ by Daft Punk. So, clearly mentally ill and a nail on certainty to be next year’s X Factor finalist.
But I digress. You get the idea. Gloucester. Frontier town. Cheltenham. Posh and slightly up itself.
And that’s why it’s Cheltenham that holds the Literary Festival, or is it the Literacy Festival? I’m not sure. I alternate when showing off to colleagues or friends or if I’m writing a smug post on Faceache.
Lady BSM had decided this was the year we were really going to make the effort to book tickets to see some people. We sat down and picked something called ‘Live Aid’; then Sebastian Faulks talking about Birdsong (his book, not aviary boot camp); followed by Johnny Vegas, completing the set with Ian Botham.
I knew the live aid talk involved Midge Ure, who’s always a good interviewee. What I didn’t realise, although Lady BSM tells me she knew, was that Brian May would also be on stage. An interesting talk it was, too. Midge is now completely bald, wearing a sober suit and tie. Brian is turning into the new Patrick Moore, getting more boffin like as he ages somewhat inappropriately. During the question and answer session I was willing somebody to ask Brian why he doesn’t get his haircut.
Sebastian was just as interesting. I could feel my brain start to ache, but felt very sophisticated and intellectual, like a very poor man’s Melvyn Bragg. The Sebmeister was a big hit with the ladies. As the microphone was passed from woman to woman during the Q&A, all of them started their question with a breathy “Hello Sebastian”. This was generally said through puckered lips, making them all appear to be extras in a Carry On film. Mr Faulks took it well, sitting in his chair looking like a very contented lion. He was a bit disorientated when asked by one particular siren whether he could help her sixth form daughter with her homework, but I feel this was just a daring ruse on her part to get him back to her house to handcuff him to the bed in the spare room. However, it was great to hear how a successful writer actually gets the job done, but not so great to realise I am light years away from being able to do what he does.
So, Johnny Vegas. But he’s not Johnny Vegas. He’s Michael Pennington now. A diminutive figure dressed in dark clothes wearing a baseball cap nervously shuffled onto stage to explain that Johnny was in charge when he did stand up, Johnny was his friend but took over his life, but Johnny was damaging and he had to send him away. To all intents and purposes, Johnny I mean Michael sounded like a schizophrenic. Fascinating.
So fascinating that I bought the book after the interview and queued up to meet him. There was a fairly small queue, but it took an hour to see him.
“You’ll see why,” the lady organising the line told me. It turned out he liked to have a five minute chat. I don’t know about you, but chatting to somebody who’s famous is always a bit of a strange experience. A bit like making small talk with a very senior manager at work or the head teacher at school. For me, it’s similar to having a debate or argument with somebody and afterwards thinking of all the things you should have said. I tried my best to be relaxed and not try any gags. Again, like the professional writer thing, making gags in front of a professional comedian is not a good idea.
Johnny wrote his real name in my copy of the book, drew a line through it and put Johnny Vegas’ bold signature underneath. He then proceeded to draw a self portrait on the opposite page, all the time still chatting about his various projects involving directing radio plays.
“Can I have a photo with you please?” I asked. I’d seen people snapping him sitting at the table as he’d signed their books, but thought it best to be polite and ask.
“Sure”, he said, then stood up and walked around the table, putting his hand on my shoulder and posing. I don’t think anybody else had directly asked the question, so I felt like I had special treatment. Yeah. Me and my mate Johnny. I mean Michael. I think the modern term for how I felt was ‘made up’.
That was Monday. On Thursday, thanks to my manager, Ms Karen from upstairs at (almost) voluntary work, I found myself rubbing shoulders with some Gloucester Rugby players at a business event. When I say shoulders, I suppose I mean my shoulder rubbing their hip. Having met Johnny/Michael and being a massive Gloucester Rugby fan, I was in my element. Professional sportsmen tend to be pretty shy and modest, so requesting photos with them is fairly easy. I managed to keep my adoration checked and never spoke to them in breathy tones through puckered lips. Not for most of the evening, anyway.
Tonight, I am going to see Public Image Ltd with Miss Katherine. John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten, another hero in the flesh. Tomorrow, Ian Botham.
In a couple of weeks, The Boomtown Rats, with an outside chance of a guest ticket and a chance to meet Sir Bob Geldof. I can see me now:
“Yes Bob, as I was saying to Midge and Brian the other week, what a lovely chap that Johnny Vegas is; Seb seemed a bit reserved though when I phoned him. Mumbled something about being tied up with work on his A level essay…”