I was given a grilling once by Margaret Thatcher. It lasted the time it took to get from the ground floor in Selfridges to the 4th floor – say, 6 minutes, tops – but it was ample time to make me a) feel a bit stupid and b) re-evaluate what I was doing with my life.
I’ve got form when it comes to meeting prominent people in unlikely places. When my wife and I were newly married we spent a few months in Australia, trying to do all the things you are meant to do when you are there but the weather was problematic. We spent 2 weeks in Sydney. It was cold and drizzly. One week on the barrier reef. It 'cycloned' and all the beaches filled up with box jelly fish and people got stung. Then we went to the desert and it was literally pouring. I’ve never seen weather like it: not even in Scotland.
In desperation, we bought cheap ponchos one afternoon and set about walking around the circumference of Ayers Rock (Uluru). Unsurprisingly the place was deserted. There was just my wife, a park ranger, me, … and Bill Clinton. Coming around a fold in the volcanic rockface, we virtually fell into his arms. So we exchanged pleasantries, then parted, only to meet again about 5 minutes later. This time it called for a more personalised contact, so he asked where we were from and seemed pleased when I replied Henley-on-Thames: he told us he’d studied in Oxford and remembered the town, we chatted some more, he asked me where I got my hat and then we took different forks in the path.
Ten minutes later we bumped into him again. By now we’d had enough of Bill Clinton, and the park ranger was giving us suspicious looks, so we pretended not to see him.
And it goes on: I’ve been ticked off by the Queen Mother (for riding my bicycle on the Fair Mile), stood in companionable silence next to David Cameron whilst we watched our respective children on a merry-go-round very early one Sunday morning and I saw more of Boris Johnson, when he was our MP, than I see many members of my own family.
I’m thinking of this again this evening because I’ve just been speaking to my neighbour in France. Francis is probably the most contented person I know and, in many respects, he is the exact opposite of someone who has achieved prominence (or had it thrust upon them). He grew up in an orphanage and inherited a farm in our village from the kind lady who looked after him in the holidays. Francis has never been abroad, nor visited the major cities in his own country. Until he went to school, he didn’t even speak French, rather the local dialect, Bearnais. He has worked the same patch of around 150 acres for the last 50 years and looks like he is made entirely out of mahogany and bits of binder twine. I’ve spoken him most days over the last 3 years when I walk the dog. Francis is my friend.
Cue the point of this post:
On – admittedly – very, very brief aquaintance with these famous people, one thing I noticed is how alike Francis they all are. Most striking is how quick they are to get to the point: Thatcher asked me who I was, what I was doing in Selfridges and decided I was wasting my time; Bill could see he had just stepped into someone’s favourite dinner party anecdote and did his best to be the charming, urbane former-most-powerful-man-on-the-planet we expected; even Cameron correctly read in an instant that this wasn’t a moment between two adults but was much better spent politely ignoring one another as we waved to our children revolving in a miniature double decker bus.
What is interesting is Francis has that very same ability to break things down to extreme simplicity. He never makes small talk, always gets immediately to the important stuff and I feel better off for talking to him every day.
But not just that: Boris, on every occasion I have met him, exudes contentment and a palpable sense of quiet superiority, as did Bill. Thatcher thought nothing of opining she knew what was best for me. And my neighbour does the same thing, it is clear he thinks I am a lost soul in need of a guiding hand: I think he feels desperately sorry for me that I have no fields and woods to call my own, if I want to eat, I need to go to a shop and I appear to have no roots, I’m drifting, I’m rudderless - otherwise why would I keep moving about the place?
So there you have it: the secret of a successful and happy life is simplicity and a profound sense of superiority. If I was a greater man, I’d be able to sum it up in a word but, alas, my mediocrity burdens me: I need two.