Harry’s Ramblings Fleeting Celebrities
by Harry Pope
Mary Berry smiled at me. Just the once, mind you, but it was memorable. At the time I had no idea who she was, it was on Eastbourne’s seafront some years ago, and I was just strolling along when she walked in the other direction. We just smiled, like people who know each other and meet occasionally, we said ‘hello’, both very polite, it wasn’t until she was a few yards away that I realised I didn’t really know her, but it was the tv cookery expert and judge. She was only small, but the smile more than compensated. Two second meeting and a lasting impression of a lovely lady.
Meeting famous people started when I was ten, in 1957 when we went to France for the first time as a family. We went to Paris on the train for five days, and on the same cross channel ferry was the pop star Wee Willie Harris. He really was famous in those days, he was 24, and known as the wild man of rock. I seem to recall that he was with someone, probably his manager, and on the windy deck I recognised him immediately. I was too shy to walk on over, but my dad did, and had quite a long chat with the pop star. Can’t remember what dad said, but I remember the encounter. Mr. Harris is now 87, very likely no longer a wild man.
July 1963 found me as a 15 year old at the Eel Pie Island Hotel in Twickenham. It was a wooden building, used for impromptu gigs, and dad was a lecturer at the local technical college. His students had organised a local band, my sister and I went along with dad. The low ceiling, music so loud you had to shout, fog of smoke, pot and otherwise, all created an insistent atmosphere that was magic to my immature senses.
Then the crowd started chanting ‘Come On, Come On, Come On,’ louder and louder until the band played their only record. This was the third time I had heard this chant, I was in the middle of the crowd on the floor in front of the band, ingesting the rhythm, just for a moment it all seemed to slow down, I shouted at the youth standing next to me who the band was. He looked at me with undisguised contempt. ‘The Stones.’ They have gained more fame and fortune than this writer, but are they as happy?
I never met Charlie Kray, but I saw him twice. Each occasion was a funeral, he was there without his famous younger twin brothers, he was a mourner for a deceased gangster. His reputation was notorious, the menace around him was like an aura, he was looking around him all the time, looking for threat, eyes menacing here and there, I couldn’t help but glance over, he was about twenty yards away, he saw me looking, eyes narrowed a little, I quickly looked away. There was no way I wanted to attract his attention.
A few years later when owning a south London limousine company I chauffeured a lovely man called Toby von Judge. He was on the periphery of crime, no idea and care less if he was ever convicted of anything, but he took to my firm, wanting me to be his driver. He would attend funerals, I took him at least half a dozen times, and then back to the wake, where dark suits, white shirts, polished shoes, black ties, were de rigour.
When I was chauffeuring, myself and another driver were standing at the bottom of the elevator at the old Heathrow terminal one, waiting for our passengers. There is a lovely UK comedian called Tom O’Connor, he started as a teacher before achieving fame, he walked down the stairs alongside, saw us chatting, smiled and winked as he said ‘all right lads.’ As a famous person it would have very easy for him to walk past with a customary scowl as other celebrities might have done, but not Tom, he was very pleasant. Not like the 1960s comedian Arthur Haynes. In the early 1970s I was driving along a main road close to Ealing in west London, stuck in heavy traffic, not moving, when he appeared at the kerbside, alone, wanting to cross. I grinned, spread my right arm wide in a gesture of ‘okay to cross,’ all the miserable devil could manage was a fixed grimace, annoyed that I had dared to be pleasant to him.
I almost met Princess Diana. I have been involved in the funeral profession most of my adult life, and was at the back of the crematorium in the rear of the hearse, waiting for everyone to stop chatting and examining the flowers. It’s easy to close eyes when you are bored, nothing to do, then she appeared, talking to a group of people. The Princess had her back to us, knew of course that everyone would be looking at her, then she turned her head, looked over her shoulder, and smiled at the occupants of the hearse. The three of us said nothing, I suppose we didn’t want to break the spell of that magic moment when three ugly men were glanced at by a princess, maybe we might have good luck for the rest of our lives. She turned away, the sun went in.
Now that I am a cruise ship lecturer, when people come up to me for a chat after my talk I always make a point of smiling, being pleasant, never rushing away. If they want to pose with me for a photo, then that’s great, always remember that they will talk about you as a new best friend. Otherwise, their memory will be like mine of a scowling Arthur Haynes. 50 years ago and I can still see old Mr. Misery.