Ten years ago Alan Watkins hailed my cab in Fleet Street. ‘It’s Alan Watkins,’ I exclaimed with great fervour. ‘I’ve been waiting to meet you all my life!’ Or something like that. During the course of our journey, I quoted a line he’d used repeatedly in a television interview following Mrs Thatcher’s election to the leadership of the Conservative Party (‘She has an incurably commonplace mind’), quoted a line from his Brief Lives, quoted Richard Ingrams on his drinking habits and complained of his too frequent use of the phrase ‘to be sure’ in his Observer column. Watkins had never before been recognised by a cab driver. I think he was fibrillating with excitement.
The other day I picked up Bernard Levin outside Harrods. ‘Hello, Bernard,’ I said with unintended but insolent familiarity. ‘The last time I saw you, you were wearing an olive-green overcoat.’ This was not a clever thing to say, but I thought it would do as a start. I was not encouraged to continue. We drove in silence to Marylebone. In Wimpole Street I asked him if he used a word processor and he answered this question civilly enough. He does use one. He doesn’t agree with Watneys that word processors necessarily produce overwriting.
I suspect that Watneys went home and told his wife that a cab driver had just recognised him. This is what people do. I was giving Watneys a fillip to his self-esteem. Nothing wrong with that. Nothing wrong with enjoying it. But Bernard, I suspect, has had all that, decades ago. He does not need or want or enjoy it any more. The Editor has written of the ‘tiresome duty’ he feels to talk to cab drivers. I sensed afterwards that Levin had rushed to get in my cab, head bowed, hoping to avoid being recognised. I was vain enough to think I might interest him. And it was just vanity; I’ve not read the great man’s column for years. I think his writing is clogged by semicolons; but I am getting ideas above my station here.
Sometimes I get it right. I once picked up the late Lord Vaizey – not a famous face – and drove for a mile before delivering my humdinger question: did he regret publishing a book on modern history at the same time as Paul Johnson had published one on the same subject? Vaizey was delighted. We spoke of his book, the meaning of life and all that, and I remember him saying when I dropped him off that he would like so much to have given me a copy, had he had one to hand. This was moving stuff. He really meant it.
Sometimes I get it quite wrong. I once picked up Clive Anderson and went into my exclamatory routine: ‘It’s just – becoming – famous Clive Anderson!’ I said. There was no hint of malice in this remark, but Anderson cut me dead and read his newspaper. So I improved, for a while. Some weeks later I picked up Rory Bremner. I did not thrust myself upon him. After a decent pause, I asked if he was the man he most closely resembled. Bremner beamed modestly. We established that he was he and I spent most of the journey describing how I had ballsed up my encounter with Anderson.
I don’t know where this leaves us. There are no women in my story so far. This is not because I don’t recognise them. It is more that well-known women seem to be uniformly pleased to talk. But few of them have been around as long as Bernard Levin. I originally binned this piece on the grounds that LR readers wouldn’t want to read tittle-tattle. But I think it may just be reprieved by this quotation from Levin, which somehow made it to Private Eye’s Pseuds’ Corner: ‘ … but my habit of talking to myself (I have always gone on the principle that anything I say must be more interesting than anything I hear) could be unnerving.’ Levin does indeed talk to himself whilst riding in a cab. I was unnerved for a moment, but the practice now seems to me an efficient and inoffensive way of avoiding tittle-tattle with cab drivers.