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We Can Meet Heroes

Simon Warner

Hero worship and chance encounters can pay dividends... but you'd best know the Clash from the Pistols.

"If everybody was satisfied with himself, there would be no heroes." — Mark Twain
t face="Verdana,Geneva,Arial,Helvetica,sans-serif" size=1>"I don't believe in that phoney hero stuff." — Steve McQueen

Election night fever kept British brows furrowed and over-heated on 5 May as Tony Blair battled to claim an unprecedented third term for his Labour administration. And, if I say that the premier faced accusations of jive talkin' and, ultimately found that in the face of a fierce opposition barrage, his hard-fought campaign was essentially about stayin' alive — as a politician, that is — then I really need to explain the extended Bee Gees metaphor.

Bizarrely, when I joined a rally in the north of England a night or two before the key vote, not only did the Prime Minister emerge from his battle-copter to deliver a morale-boosting speech to a loyal audience, but also arriving from the skies was Robin Gibb, multi-millionaire Miami-ite but once of Manchester and now, we discovered, another weapon in the Blair armoury. Such US-style celebrity touting is actually quite rare, so his presence came as quite a surprise.

Gibb kept it brief, declared his own allegiance to Labour, then stood aside for Blair, struggling somewhat to maintain the momentum of his political push in the wake of widespread criticism over the Iraq War and his closeness to George Bush, to show that he still exuded the oratorial qualities that had helped him seize the top job in 1997 and retain it in 2001. Later that week, as the polls revealed their verdict, we were able to dip into the Brothers Gibb catalogue once more, to announce: "You win again".

On the evening of the rally, I'm pleased to say that I was able to shake the hands of both Gibb and Blair; a rare treat as Robin is one of the few Brits in recent decades to buck the trend and sustain an Anglo pop presence on the American scene. But to meet the premier was a bigger thrill because, despite the attacks he has sustained in recent times with regard to foreign adventures, there is little doubt that his domestic and economic policies have finally shaken off the remnants of the extended Thatcherite project and created a nation that now has a progressive approach to education, health, welfare and Europe.

Setting out to meet heroes may be a slightly misguided life strategy — at best you may make the connection and maybe end up disappointed, at worst you might find the description "stalker" added to your court record — and it's one I have never become obsessed about. Yet, in the course of the last 20 years, there have been a few personal favourites I've had the good fortune to encounter.

If you know anything about soccer, then a club called Manchester United and a player called Bobby Charlton are likely to be familiar. Charlton was a powerhouse of inspiration in a team that personified the best in British football during the 1960s. Alongside a firecracker striker named Denis Law and one of the greatest wingers to lace up his boots, George Best, the United side became synonymous with thrilling, attacking and winning football. Many afternoons I stood on the Old Trafford terraces, on tiny tiptoes, swooning at their sporting audacity.

Around 10 years after he retired, Charlton turned up in the city of Chester where I was now a young reporter. Having marvelled at the man's style for both his club and his country — he'd been central to England's World Cup win in 1966 — I was thrilled when a new schoolboy soccer initiative was to come to our area and the one-time football giant was arriving in person to unveil it. Rather overawed by the occasion, I found my meeting with him quite unrewarding, a letdown, in fact. His charismatic jinx with a ball was never echoed by his personality off the field, and his dour and serious exterior remained during our short conversation.

I had much more luck with one of the most popular film comedians Britain has produced. As a small child the post-Chaplin antics of a clown called Norman Wisdom had me and my grandma utterly hooked. Known little beyond our borders (though his antics made him a star in Albania) Wisdom hit his 90th birthday in 2005. When we met after a show in Yorkshire during the 1980s, he was the most generous interviewee, delighted to bring his sense of fun from the stage to the dressing room and only too happy to play up to my childhood vision of the kind-hearted joker.

Monty Python's Michael Palin was a rather later addition to my roster of comic geniuses. Yet, when I spent an hour and a half at a reception to launch one of his movies (a quaint rural drama entitled A Private Function) my partner monopolised so much of his time that I never got a look in. I had to rely on her confirmation that he was as pleasant away from the set as he appeared on screen, so the Palin hook-up will have to wait.

When it comes to rock'n'roll, I've chatted with quite a few stars who meant something to me, Ray Davies of the Kinks, Paul Rodgers of Free, Michael Franti of Spearhead, Dave Allen of Gang of Four, and been stood up by others who meant not that much. Mick Fleetwood left me hanging on a transatlantic line for 15 minutes before a wife or an aide summoned up the manners to let me know he wouldn't be available to talk to me after all. But that was just the professional carousel, accidental link ups are considerably more fun.

Back in 1976, I missed out meeting a couple of musical maestros whose careers I had followed quite avidly up till then. I was a petrol pump attendant, during a long student summer vacation, at a suburban garage with a showroom filled with smart cars. The owner had known the Hollies 10 years before and had stayed in touch with their most famous ex-member who'd left to make a career in the US. He was back in Britain on tour (I even had a ticket for the local show) but on my day off that week who should turn up but the man himself, Graham Nash, with David Crosby in tow to check out the Porsches and Ferraris. Now that was unlucky.

Months later, I had what I thought was a memorable encounter with Johnny Rotten in a Sheffield bar, only to discover days later that I'd really been having a pint with Joe Strummer of the Clash. Both were in town as part of the Anarchy in the UK tour and, as the local authority had banned the gig, the little-known but soon-to-be-famous punks were checking out the local pubs. I should have guessed from Strummer's polite responses that Rotten had headed off somewhere else.

So, life as usual is a string of wins and losses, lucky breaks and near misses. And sometimes someone you'd really like to say hello to turns up right out of the blue. On a recent trip to Seattle, I felt hunger pangs late one evening as I headed back to my hotel. My long-standing vegetarianism left me disinclined to make McDonald's my first choice for a snack, but their chips (okay, their fries) are edible and it was the only place around still lit up.

I sat down in a virtually deserted restaurant, a handful of stay-out kids buying ice creams on a rather chilly night. Then a familiar face drifted in, said hello, and sat on the next table. When he confirmed he was Lenny Kaye of the Patti Smith Group, not only guitarist supreme in one of the greatest of rock acts but also a legendary journalist and a catalyst of the whole punk eruption, my decision to drop in on that fast food mecca had not in the end, been so misguided. And for the record, Lenny wasn't there for the burgers either: he was awaiting a ride from a friend and had just dropped in at an arranged rendezvous.

Heroes, schmeroes, stars in bars, even singers in showrooms . . . they can, you know, turn up in the most unlikely places.

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.


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