Meeting One of the Truly Great

As a young man I often thought about the question of greatness and wondered whether a lifetime of fame and fortune was what I really wanted, but it wasn’t until I was a middle-aged man, following failed enterprises and bungled relationships, that I finally found my answer. I met a man whose position in society might well be described as great. That man was Stephen Camelot, whose party only six months previously had been elected into government. It was the night of the 11th November 2010, when much of what we call our sovereign nation was no more than a frozen wasteland. Not the sort of night you might expect to bump into the Prime Minister in an ordinary London pub.

I had stopped in this more fashionable part of London on my return from the blowy crags of Scotland to visit an old school chum, whom I had recently encountered on a social network site. The meeting with the friend, in fashionable Belgravia, was less than satisfying and halfway through the evening he disappeared on his way to a more pressing engagement while I was left to fend for myself. It was then, wandering through a scene reminiscent of a winter wonderland, that I came across the forlorn pub on the corner of an upper class tree-lined avenue. All I wanted, ripped with hunger, was some food, since my school chum’s idea of hospitality had been to deposit large volumes of vodka down his gullet before leaving to meet one of his mistresses in a club up West. I was not invited and left to starve.

Stomach rumbling, my footsteps crunching through snow, I got into one of those reveries where you wonder what life’s all about. I had been disappointed by my friend, not because he had been more successful than me, but because that fact seemed to bear upon every conversation we had. He could not resist reminding me at every turn that he had a more prestigious status, drove a better car, and lived in a part of London where property values were measured in seven digits. I had expected a quiet recollection of mischievous times at school, long-lost girlfriends, and a renewal of the laughter which had once been interminable between us, but all I got was a boastful rendition of his financial achievements, which admittedly were considerable, in the City, his ruddy complexion intensifying as he joyfully described how fortunate he had been through the years, landing it lucky on numerous occasions, buying when the markets were down and selling when they were up, and remarking what a laugh it was to be fifty and single, rich and handsome. He found little time to question me about my own trek through life’s hills and dales, which though less profitable in material terms, nevertheless had left me with a broad and bountiful hoard of memories which I would have been more than happy to share with him. But he was not interested. Halfway through a harangue about the exorbitant rate of inheritance tax his phone went off and seconds later he was picking up his hat and jacket, and with a less than sincere apology departed. All he knew about me was that I had failed miserably in a business venture, and that had been enough to deter any further chat on the subject of my life. I had wanted to brag about my writing, which was going down a treat on the Internet, but wasn’t given a chance. Londoners it seemed, at least the class to which my friend belonged, were bitterly unforgiving with regard to failure. I was already missing the stormy heaths and the glassy lochs of my beloved Scotland. Why had I come back?

Under the pressing blackness of a wintry sky I felt the familiar onset of depression and thoughts of my own suicide. Ending my life, the dissipation of all things natural, the surrender into an entombed eternity, for a moment became a matter to be cherished, or at least seriously considered. What did I have to live for, after all? In my mad rush for greatness, you see, as a young man I had thrown all sensible plans out of the window, and with the bathwater went the baby, as it were. Now, no family, no job, no real home except for a windswept hut on the sloping moors of a Scottish glen, there was nothing really left to which I could point with pride. I had lost it all. Unlike my friend, who seemed to be happily living the life to which I had once aspired.

The houses were all set back from the road in grand acres of land which the snow enrobed like royalty in ermine. These great and noble people all knew the meaning of success and understood its dangers, so had used their money to gain protection from a disturbed society. High black railings topped with gilt-tipped spearheads stood guard against intruders; gargoyles and lion heads cast from solid balls of concrete roared and intimidated from large gateways. At the end of this avenue I arrived at one of those solid old buildings one comes across regularly in London with all its adornments from an earlier age still in place and a sign swinging over the door in ancient style proudly proclaiming its name, in this case the Nags Head. There were lights on inside and I imagined a gathering around the bar nursing pints. Despite the bright posters in the windows – “Bar Meals served daily, 12 – 9pm”, “A Variety of Real Ales Available” – the place made me feel uncomfortable. The windows were covered up so you couldn’t see inside, as is often the case. Still, I was hungry and as it seemed I had found the only source of hospitality available I gathered up my courage and pushed open the heavy door. I was pleasantly surprised by the scene that greeted me, warm and appealing, traditional décor and a smiling landlord. I strode with renewed confidence towards him, returning his smile as the heat from a real fire in the grate began to thaw my bones. I felt instantly happier. Reassured, stomach still grumbling but now more hopeful, I made an enquiry regarding food.

“Sandwiches only I’m afraid, sir,” I was informed. “‘S after nine o’clock, see.”

He was a nice man, big balding head and neatly trimmed sideburns framing a pink cordial face that had spent half a century or so greeting the most eminent of Belgravia customers. He guessed by instinct that I had expected something more than two slices of a loaf. “I can do you a nice cheese n pickle?” he commiserated. I nodded appreciatively and added to the order a pint of the local brew.

While I waited I looked around and realized with relief that I was the only one in the pub. I picked up the pint when it had been placed before me and, before niceties could resume, escaped to find the furthest nook away. I am, I must admit, an unsociable man. I don’t as a rule have time for small talk and the frivolities of gossip. I like to be quiet. I like space and fresh air. I came to this conclusion years ago. Brought face to face with an almighty unhappiness I realized that my life in every respect was wrong. It was wrong by my choice of partner (a vivacious socialite), by the job I was doing (Quality Control Manager for a company manufacturing screws), and by the daily drudgery of living in a hectic metropolis (London). None of it was me. I had to be alone, I had to have space to think. I made some reckless decisions, leaving my wife and employment, and moved to Scotland. I made some poor career moves and ended up being conned by a Scotsman with a knack for thievery. I was driven by some blind need to find what was right for me, but none of it was, as it turned out. Alone and penniless, I discovered there is no bottom to desperation. I had sunk lower than I had ever imagined possible given my optimistic start in life, but there were yet further depths I could have plumbed had not a chance meeting rescued me. I became friendly with a literary agent from Edinburgh who was impressed with my work. He found a publisher in Australia who was happy to pay £200 per article on a subject for which I appeared to have a knack: celebrity commentary, which basically meant bitching about famous people. It was a piece of cake and couldn’t believe I was getting paid for work by someone I had never set eyes on on the other side of the world. I headed for the hills and took out a lease on an isolated woodland lodge that was not so isolated as to be devoid of wi-fi. I was six months into my new life, restored and happy, when I bumped into my school chum on the Internet.

Now, back in London, I was depressed again, but I couldn’t decide if I was depressed because I was not living the life my friend was living, or that I wanted to be as far away from it as possible. What was certain was that living in the Scottish wilderness had dulled my manners, brutalized me and I wanted nothing more than to be alone. I wondered again about my friend and the short time we had spent in disjointed reunion, his glowing, pink face a constant reminder of my own more straitened circumstances. I imagined he would not be sitting alone in a pub right now waiting for a cheese and pickle sandwich. He would be in an elegant lounge filled with elegant people, drinks being served on silver trays, a bevy of beauties on the dance floor, and maybe one, perhaps the most beautiful of the lot, tucked into his embrace like a contented kitten.

I was interrupted in my thoughts by a small plate landing on the table in front of me. It carried a scrumptious looking sandwich, a hefty hunk of cheese between two doorsteps of crusty bread. A glistening brown pickle oozed from the sides. Beside it, an alert leaf of lettuce, green and moist, had been placed to add colour, like the final touch of an artist’s brush, but it was just as the appreciative juices began to accumulate in my mouth at the sight of this work of culinary art that I thought I heard a man sobbing. I looked up at the landlord, who was still standing by my table, wondering if he had heard it too. He met my gaze and understood, as he understood every nuance of body language. He had been about to depart, having completed his mission to provide me with sustenance, when hearing the sob and catching my eye he wavered. He said nothing, only shook his head sharply left and right, in a stiff and self-restraining manner. His eyebrows began a jig, his lips pressed tight, and I guessed from this charade that he was trying to tell me something, perhaps to urge me not to mention the sobs, to say nothing, to ignore the blatant and obvious moans which sounded like a man crying.

But by then my curiosity was so raised that I had to search the rest of the area for the source of the distress. I looked left and right and finally behind me, and through a latticework of rotting wooden beams that decorated that portion of wall I saw that I was not the only visitor in the pub as I had first thought. There was a man at the table behind me, tucked into another recess, with his head in his hands, an uneaten portion of sausage and beans on a plate in front of him and shoulders popping up and down.

I looked back up at the landlord questioningly. He shook his head urgently and with a final, warning wave of his principle digit walked briskly away. I surmised that he was commanding me to ignore the commotion, but I couldn’t. Whatever correct protocol polite English circles demanded when meeting a stricken adult male, stiff upper lip type abandonment, I found I could not oblige. He was too close to ignore and his wailing too obvious. I kept on looking back at him and suddenly, on my third or fourth stare, he became conscious of my presence and looked up. He was markedly shocked to see me, so much so that he stopped crying and instead manifested a momentary look of terror, as though I was some ghastly monster ready to devour him. I noticed first how smartly dressed he was, in expensive suit and tie, and then how out of keeping this was with the unkempt look of his face and hair.

As soon as he saw me he embarked on a scramble to smarten up, wiped his face with a voluminous handkerchief and straightened his tie. Then he smiled, a massive camera-ready smile displaying perfect teeth. In a second he had erased his misery and become the confident public figure we all know from our TV screens. I caught my breath as I recognized the piercing blue-grey eyes, the wide rose-tinted face and the smart black hair now being brushed sharply back from his forehead with a big flat hand.

He was more handsome in the flesh than he appeared when pixilated, and bigger built. His hands made broad pugilistic fists when clenched, adding strength to an impressive list of qualities that he possessed in abundance. I was impressed, awe-struck by his presence, I, who had spent the last six months criticizing, in the very public arena of the Internet, every policy he had ever enunciated.

“God these sausages are hot,” he joshed, once he had recovered from the shock of realizing his breakdown had been witnessed. His recovery was speedy and near miraculous. These superior beings inhabited bodies with incredible reflexes. “Make your eyes water!” he laughed, the same swallowed chuckle I was so familiar with from his numerous TV debates and interviews, intended to charm and disarm at the same time.

I was now caught in a painful dilemma. I had made social contact with the country’s leading citizen in an empty pub. There was no escape. If I turned back to my cheese sandwich, which my taste buds were desperate to devour, I would spend the rest of my life berating myself for having ignored open conversation with the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, a cowardly act and one I would live to regret. But if I opened my mouth to speak I knew all the wrong things would come out.

He made up my mind for me. His brain of course worked faster than mine. He had already computed all the possible scenarios of our unfortunate encounter. His statesmanlike instincts warned him I was trouble. He had to “close me down”. The way he decided to do this was both surprising and disturbing. He stood up and came over to join me at my table. I felt myself physically retreating at the suddenness of his assault. I had to readjust any earlier understanding I had of the world. In that more primitive awareness I had assumed that leaders of nations were remote, untouchable gods. Yet here was Stephen Camelot, the Stephen Camelot, slipping easily into the seat opposite me round a table too small to offer any respectable distance between us, like old friends reunited. I smelt his overpowering aftershave, saw the pores of his skin prickle. By the time he was seated and speaking to me his head was barely six inches away from mine and towering over my cheese sandwich. I was stunned into disbelief. This was not happening. Was he about to berate me about my nosiness? With only minor disgruntlement, I realized that my heart was beating much faster and my brow was beginning to grow hot. I was displaying all the symptoms of an over-excited groupie. I, who had spent so many blogs demeaning the culture of Celebrity was now being bowled over in a pathetic way by a very famous person indeed. I was no different to the rest, I realized with dismay, a starry-eyed commoner, aroused by the presence of greatness.

He was still smiling as he said, “Look I don’t know what you saw, but let’s just say you didn’t see it, shall we?”

Whether it was my star-struck brain that had shut down to all rational thought, or if it was the nonsensical nature of his request, I don’t know, but I found myself having to repeat the statement over and over in my head before it made any sense, and even then, the sense it made was curiously Alice in Wonderland. How could I unsee what I had very obviously seen?

“Look, let’s not beat about the bush. We can part as friends and pretend this never happened, or we can play silly buggers all night until one of us caves in, and we know who that’s going to be don’t we?”

Again, bafflement on my part, as my brain struggled to take in what was happening. Meanwhile my stomach moaned, distraught that so close to being fed it was now for some obscure reason being denied. I looked at my cheese sandwich, mouth aching to take a bite of it.

“You’re Stephen Camelot aren’t you?” was all that came out in the end. All the stupid clichés that you mock others for who find themselves in similar situations are the only things that pop into your head. Camelot’s expression altered, as though he was reassessing me, reconsidering my intelligence level. He had assumed that any customer of the impressive Nags Head in the middle of wealthy Belgravia would be at least partially educated and, with any luck, the by-product of some famous public school. Clearly that was not the case. My vowels were wrong, jaw hanging open too much, eyes too close together. He wondered for a moment if he could convince me he was not Stephen Camelot, but that idea vanished before it really gained a foothold.

He nodded affirmation. He was tight-lipped now, thinking hard, and I could tell it was the very process of thinking that was doing the damage. His face deteriorated, the confident persona lapsed, his eyes misted over. I thought he was about to cry again. It began to feel like this could be a very long night indeed. Then he did the first thing, apart from the crying, which began to convince me there was really something desperately wrong. He took my pint, still untouched between us, and swallowed half of it in three of four consecutive gulps. When he put the glass down there was a look of lunatic desperation about him. Beer, the bits that had missed his mouth, dribbled down his chops. His eyes veered violently from left to right.

“I can’t do it! I can’t do it! I can’t do it!”

He began to rave. Instinctively I reached out to him. I forgot my trepidation, moved by the suffering this man was going through. What had happened: some family tragedy, some unutterable global calamity? I imagined the headlines the next day: “War With China!” or “Camelot Loses Wife In Horrific Accident!” Then underneath, “Man in pub saves the Premier!” These fanciful imaginings grew to unmanageable proportions in the split second between Camelot’s rant and my sympathetic words which were still to follow. I saw myself on page six of the Sun circled by grateful citizens honouring my courage. “Had it not been for Michael Papayiannis’ timely intervention at the Nags Head in Belgravia, we may all now be engulfed in nuclear war! A real hero!” I felt myself being dragged into the vortex of current affairs. All my training in Scotland as a political commentator on the Internet had prepared me for just this moment. The hairs on the back of my neck prickled. My skin became goosey. I cupped the back of Stephen’s hand which rested on the copper surface of the table and asked, like a concerned doctor, “What is the problem exactly?”

It would have been kinder to pick up an axe and cleave the poor fellow in two. He eyed me now with horrific intensity, a blind concoction of psychotic paranoia and cynical disbelief.

“You can ask that? What is the problem? Why, man, don’t you read the papers?” The last word of each question was screeched out in a panic. “There are problems everywhere!! The world economy is collapsing, China is plotting with the Middle East to undermine the power of the West, the environment is eating itself up, nobody believes in God anymore, and to top it all, my wife is pregnant again!”

“Gosh!” I said, doing my best to show empathy, and then wondered belatedly if the upper class ever said “gosh” anymore. I wasn’t sure whether to commiserate with him on the state of the planet or congratulate him on his prospective new arrival, though to be fair he had lumped them all under the same miserable umbrella. This man, I realized very quickly, had lost his powers of discernment. Everything just seemed bad to him, from foreign affairs to his forthcoming baby. And of course I knew exactly how that felt. One particularly bad day at the screw factory had been enough to tip me over the edge. I fancied a couple of gulps of the beer myself, but hesitated on the basis that it now seemed more like Camelot’s beer than mine. The sandwich too looked forlorn. It was becoming harder and harder to do anything about that. How could I sit listening to him listing all the worries of the world and then casually take a bite out of a cheese and pickle sandwich?

After a few moments of irate expostulation, Camelot stopped talking and breathed hard. He had become short of breath and was hyperventilating, his left hand going to his chest as though in pain.

“My God, what am I doing?” he said. “I shouldn’t be talking like this to you. These are not your problems. If you blab any of this to the press… “

“Don’t worry,” I said, keen to comfort him. “I’m not the type to gossip. But I am concerned. You really aren’t well. I was exactly like this a few years ago, and do you know what I did?”


“I went to Scotland.”

“You went to Scotland.”

“Why yes.”

“But why Scotland? Scotland’s full of angry Nationalists isn’t it?”

“Well, I suppose. But that’s not why I went. I went for the solitude, the air of the mountains, the views of the lochs. It was real therapy.”

“Well, good for you! I hope you found what you were looking for. But with all due respect I hardly think we can compare notes. I doubt you had one of the most important jobs in the world when you upped sticks and moved to L’Ecosse!

“No, I had just lost my job.”

“Really, I’m sorry. Another victim of the last government’s ludicrous policies, I suppose? I’m really sorry. You see that’s why I went into politics, to help poor suckers like you trying to get on in life. Budding entrepreneurs with ideas for wealth creation… “

“Wealth creation? Excuse me but I hardly think cutting public spending by 25% is a way of creating wealth… “

“That, regrettably, was the legacy of the last lot. You can’t blame… “

“But that’s just it! You guys always talk about blame, like children in a playground punch up. It’s just party politics to you isn’t it? What about a bit of consensus, of bit of common sense? Simple solutions to complex problems, that’s what this country needs.”

“Yes, that’s very good. Simple solutions to complex problems! Are you a writer? Must be. You look the type. Sure, but it’s all very well for you, armchair critics, babbling from the sidelines, but once you are in power, the real thing, it’s all very different you know. You become consumed by this, this thing, this machinery of government that has been turning for age upon age and it overwhelms you. It turns you into a puppet. That’s what it is. That’s what I am. I had so much to say, yet already after only six months in the job, I know nothing I want to get done will ever really get done.”

“Really? But why? You’re in charge aren’t you? You’re the Premier!”

“Well yes, you would think so wouldn’t you? But somehow it hasn’t worked out that way. There is such a thing as Parliament, and the Civil Service, and not to mention the Monarchy, and the Press, and a puerile Opposition Party, and the House of Lords, and the Treasury, and the MOD, and not to mention the EU, and a million and one things that have been designed purely and simply to stop a decent man from doing his job. It’s impossible trying to get anything done. How on earth are you expected to keep all these people happy while at the same time running a country? I have spent so much time spouting drivel in front of the camera, political spin to settle the consciences of a hundred men and women in positions of power, that I haven’t had any time at all to think about real policy.”

“That explains an awful lot,” I said, smugly sarcastic.

I was undergoing a massive upsurge in my confidence levels while speaking to the Prime Minister in this casual and forthright manner about the pressing concerns of the nation. In fact, I was becoming downright excited. I couldn’t believe I had him in front of me and that I could say anything to him at all. I lined things up in my head, education, health, the police… a million grievances that had been accumulating in my angst-ridden conscience all the time I had been living by a loch in Scotland, all the things that were wrong with the world, with Britain, with society in general. Like everyone I thought I had the answers, but uniquely I now had the opportunity to tell Camelot to his face. I waited for him to finish a sentence, so that I could get my bit in, but this proved harder than I could ever have imagined. He was a garrulous individual indeed, like all politicians, once started on a topic never finishing. I thought my head was filled with unfathomable concepts, but his was truly bursting at the seams. He was going crazy with ideas he could not implement, constrained by the ageing machinery of government so intricately put together that nobody, not one single individual, could navigate their way through it. Britain didn’t need a constitution. It had complex, enigmatic, convoluted history tying it up in knots instead.

One thing of note happened during his speech. I suddenly found the courage to pick up my sandwich and eat it. He didn’t seem to mind at all. Then I picked up the half a glass of beer that was left and said, “Do you mind?” and he said, “Not at all,” and while he went on with an explanation of his view of the Iraq war, I took an almighty swig.

So at last I had my food and drink in my belly and felt better for it, and realized at the end that I was actually enjoying myself. Being with Stephen Camelot and sharing a pint with him was really making me feel quite good about myself. I wasn’t sure if it was his mysteriously charismatic personality or just the fact that he was our country’s political leader, but whatever it was it was cooking up a pleasant concoction inside, and not at all the feeling I might have expected to have in his presence. For once I did not envy my friend and his bevy of beauties at the club. I was doing something far more important.

I didn’t get a chance to say my piece though, since before Stephen had come to the end of his tirade he found himself again in that sad place where there seemed to be no solutions and he buried his head in his hands and cried: “Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.”

“Look, look, don’t fret so. I’m sure you’ll feel better in the morning.” It felt ludicrous trying to console this eminent personage. Who was I to be giving anyone advice? But he was so wrapped up in his grief that saying anything at all seemed better than nothing. How often had I blamed the government for things not going right? How often had I criticized the good and the great for their own pitiful shortcomings? Here was my chance to let rip, but nothing came to me. I saw only a poor old fool, losing himself in the knot of privilege, duty and obligation. He deserved a knighthood in my book, just for putting himself up for the job in the first place.

I left Stephen Camelot staring into the dregs of my third beer that night, the third one we had shared (why he didn’t buy his own was a mystery) and resumed my journey down the wintry white street. I was heading for the station and the overnight train back to Scotland. The open country, the fresh air, the heather and the bracken beckoned me, and I was happy to leave the achievement of mighty things to the truly great.

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