Sunday 25 March 2018

Paul Kimmage: Never a dull moment in this world of characters

Paul Kimmage

Paul Kimmage

A disgruntled reader sent me a barbed note on Twitter last week: 'Is there anything you actually like?' It's a hard question to answer in 140 characters and I was tempted to just say 'No' but there are certain things, I guess.

What are those things? Well, wines from the Rhone valley, obviously, and the voice of Long John Baldry, and walking through the gates of Augusta National on the first day of the Masters.

I've always liked the way Julia Roberts was put together, and buttered toast with raspberry jam, and the 'willy' scene in The Crying Game, and the wedding ring falling in The Sixth Sense and I'd watch Sideways and listen to Kate Bush and Damien Dempsey and 'O mio babbino caro' forever.

There's a sunny terrace on the Algarve I quite like, and double espresso, and Channel 4 News, and still thinking I'm 27 when I climb Alpe d'Huez. I like my mother's fruit cake, and my brother's dog, and books by Dennis Lehane, and, to be fair, there's a lot to be said for sex if you're still up to it. And I love people.

I am absolutely fascinated by people.

The month is March 2005: I am sitting in the lobby of the Savoy hotel in London with John McCririck, the mouth-almighty racing pundit. "Thank goodness you've come early," he sighs, puffing on a torpedo-sized cigar. "I abhor tardiness, so you've got off to a good start, but I'm not sure about your choice for lunch.

"I'm off the Savoy, I really am. It's a place that for the last ten years has been living off its name. You go to the Savoy and people think, 'How lovely' - it's not. The food is awful. I've not been into the new grill, so we'll see what it's like, but I'm very much anti-Savoy."

"I'm sorry," I confess. "I was trying to impress."

"Oh, God, you don't have to impress me, dear boy - you're the great Sunday Times. When is this going in?"

"On Sunday, is that a problem?"

"No. I'm meeting someone else this week and I'll be putting on the same gramophone record for you as I am for him, and you'll want a different angle."

"Let's just start and see where it goes."

And like a flick of a switch, he's off, licking his chops with lust for the lovely Kate Winslet . . .

"My favourite fantasy is to be marooned with Kate Winslet. She's wonderful. I've never met her, but she comes over with one of the most important things in a woman - she makes you laugh. Sex with her would be fantastic, same with Dawn French.

"It would be fantastic having sex with Dawn French because there's meat on her, and you'd be roaring with laughter all the time. I think Kate and I would get on very well."

Barking his dislike of Vanessa Feltz . . .

"Imagine being Mister Vanessa Feltz! Can you imagine anything worse in life? This great big bossy know-all! She must be dreadful in bed, mocking you and telling you what to do all the time. It must be appalling. I was with her last week and she threw water over me.

"And no girls should wear make-up; it's terrible for the skin. They should grow fringes and cover up their foreheads and necks. Anna Ford's neck on the BBC One O'Clock news is disgusting. It's like a strangled chicken. I love the voice, great voice. She's a journalist; she's done it all, a terrific record. But whenever you watch her on the news you are hypnotised by her ghastly neck. Katie Couric, the queen of breakfast television in America, wears a polo neck. So cover-up your neck, woman - it's not asking much.

Spitting his contempt for all things religious . . .

"My greatest single wish in life is that nobody believed in religion. The Middle East would be solved tomorrow; nobody would care about Jerusalem or Northern Ireland; all of the terrible troubles and passions in the world would go. The whole thing is absolutely made up. They're all fairy stories.

"There's no God up there. When you're dead, you're six feet under. I'm meant to be a Protestant, but I've always realised it was nonsense, all that getting down on your knees and praising Him. Why is it that you've got to worship them all the time? If it were anyone else, there would be something wrong with them. He must be a right egomaniac.

"We're told the ideal place is the right hand of God, but who'd want to sit there? Can you imagine it? Hundreds of millions of years sitting at the right hand of God! It must be the most boring place. And the civil service they use to organise it - how they work out whether you've been good or bad - must be absolutely amazing. Hell sounds a much better place - at least there'll be a few characters down there."

The month is April 2009: David Feherty is sitting in the study of his splendid home in Dallas, regaling me with tales from his life as a golfer, and a pro-am he played once - the 1982 Bob Hope British Classic - with the actor Telly Savalas and Alex 'Hurricane' Higgins.

"Fuck me Telly Savalas! He smiles. "He drank a bottle of Courvoisier in the first nine holes and must have hit about ten people. The sound of balata (golf ball) on flesh was sickening! He quit after nine holes, said he couldn't take it anymore because of the people - it's not a golf crowd - they're there to see Kojak. It was a certainty they were going to get nailed. And as for Higgins . . .

"I'm getting ready to tee up and I hear this rustle and farting from behind me and I look around and he's going through my bag. He's (rummaging) through my balls and has come up with this sweet - an Opal fruit - that looks like it's been in there for about six months. It's oozing out through the wrapper on both sides and he's trying to undo it and I look at him and say 'Are you all right?' And he says (mimics a nervous twitch) 'I j . . . ju . . . just need something sweet.' I thought to myself, 'That man is not right.'

"But what a snooker player. I used to watch him practise at Balmoral when I was the assistant pro there. There were two snooker tables up above and he would shove a paperback book on the edge of one table to make a ramp and pot balls on the other table and jump them across between the gap - unbelievable.

I remind him of a once-stated desire to return home to Northern Ireland.

"I would love to go to Donegal," he says, "but I don't think I could go home to Bangor. I enjoy going back to where I was born but people can be so small-minded and mean-spirited and sometimes it gets too much. I'll go places where people might know who I am and it's, 'Ahh, yeah, what's so f**king special about you?' And I think, 'I'll tell you what's special about me - I f**cking escaped! That's all!'

"I've had this conversation about Pádraig (Harrington) a couple of times and I insist - he's the first Irishman to win a Major championship because Fred Daly was British. Trust me, I worked with Fred for two years and he was about as Irish as Saddam Hussein. For me (nationality) is not a political thing, it's an emotional thing.

"I always felt like an Irishman whereas my Uncle Jack was a member of the Orange Order and the Lodge, and the whole thought of it (being Irish) was just an anathema."

"How do you explain that?" I ask.

"I think I always felt it, but I really felt it when we won the Dunhill Cup and they were raising the flag and I felt myself welling up. Before, whenever I won anything, it was always, 'Let's go and get wrecked' not, 'Let's get emotional'. There was never anything emotional about winning for me but when I won for Ireland it hit me in an entirely different way.

"And again, there is nothing political about it. I much prefer the British anthem, it's just a much better tune, but I'm an Irishman. Another thing they do over here that drives me berserk is the American national anthem. Can you imagine them doing that anywhere else in the world? Just butchering it like that."

"In what way?"

"The gospelising of it and all the rest," he says. "Imagine doing that with God Save the Queen or The Soldier's Song!' It just wouldn't happen. It's supposed to be about the Nation but they make it about themselves. It's about the singer. It drives me nuts. I think of these old men who fought in World War II having to watch this teenager with a tattoo on the crack of her ass singing this song that their friends died for! It bears no resemblance to the anthem. It must drive them out of their minds."

The month is March 2011: I have been promised an interview with the snooker great, Jimmy White, to promote a new range of underwear he has designed for Prostate Cancer Awareness. But inevitably, there are skidmarks . . .

"I'll meet you on Monday afternoon in Leicester Square," he says

"What time Jimmy?" I inquire.

"Four-ish," he says.

"Where exactly in Leicester Square?"

"We'll find some place . . . call me in a couple of days.

I call two days later.

"All set for Monday, Jimmy?"

"Yeah, but can you get to Southampton?"

'Sure, what time?"

"I'll let you know."

"Where in Southampton?"

"I'm not sure yet . . . call me Sunday afternoon."

I call on Sunday afternoon: "Hi Jimmy, just wondering about tomorrow?"

"How long are you around?" he asks.


"Could you do it on Tuesday evening?"



"What time?"

"Come to my house at six."

I get to the house on Tuesday evening and the first surprise when I buzz his electric gates is that they open. The second is that he's home. But not for long. He's about to leave for China. He makes some tea and I reach for my notes and begin by informing him that he is five days older than me. He smiles and shakes his head: "Wow! We've both had a hard life!"

The month is October, 2004: Seve Ballesteros is lying on a bed in a plush English hotel. "What would you like to talk about?" I ask, reaching for a notepad and feeling like the late Anthony Clare on In the Psychiatrist's Chair.

"I don't know . . . whatever," he replies, resting his head on the pillow and gazing at the ceiling."

"Why don't we start with all the women you've slept with during your career?"

Okay," he smiles.

. . . to be continued.

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