WELL, I was warned that she might be difficult. And so ...

Date: Friday 22nd March 2019

WELL, I was warned that she might be difficult. And so it proved. She had no wish to answer my questions, just to plug her new book and then be off. One well-known television personality who turned out to be nothing like the persona she was fond of projecting in front of the cameras.

It’s not all honey this journalism lark. Oh yes, you get to meet many interesting people, some of them quite famous. I once got to spend a morning with Margaret Thatcher who, I might add, was charming and not anything like the “Iron Lady” of repute.

You get to interview the good — which is the majority — the bad and some that turn out to be plain ugly in character. Never meet your heroes. I can understand why they say that. It’s always a disappointment when someone you have admired from afar turns out to be churlish or dull beyond description.

James Cracknell, who at the age of 46 is about to make history as the oldest rower in the Oxford-Cambridge University boat race, is one of the good guys. A gold medallist at the Olympics in 2000 and 2004, Cracknell is studying for a MPhil in human evolutionary studies at Peterhouse College, Cambridge, and is preparing to defy the logic of time by participating in next month’s race.

I interviewed him a few years ago after he had returned to active sport following an accident in America that came close to costing him his life. While cycling across the Arizona desert plains he was struck on the head by the wing mirror of a truck travelling at 75mph, suffering major head injuries as a consequence.

James had sought out challenge and adventure in his post-Olympic life — desert marathons, rowing across the Atlantic, for example — but he admitted since his accident: “I’ve had a different appreciation of what you have in your life.”

Unlike celebrities who view interviews as a dreary task, but a necessary one to promote their books or their theatre tours — one well-known comedian told me she was on her sixth of the day when I came on the phone — Cracknell was more than happy to give me his time and thoughts on a wide range of topics. In fact, he said he would write an email to me when he had given a couple of things more thought, and it duly arrived an hour or so later.

The sense I got was of a man who, having achieved so much already, was restless in pursuit of something intangible. He was a committed campaigner for the wearing of bike helmets. “I would have been dead had I not been wearing mine,” he said. No longer was he training seven days a week, but he said training had always been a significant part of his life and he ascribed his remarkable recovery from his accident to his fitness levels.

However, hearing the news that he is now ready to become part of the boat race crew next month, there seems something prophetic about Cracknell’s comments to me when we spoke about athletes choosing the right time to retire, and the impact retirement had on their subsequent lives. “Rowing is a team sport and your dreams are in other people’s hands, and their dreams in yours,” he said. “Many athletes that have won their last race don’t know they won’t win the next one, so they continue.”

Like many great athletes, James Cracknell can be focused yet stubborn and selfish. He admits to all those qualities. He says that, because of his age, he is fighting a battle of perceptions. “Whether it works I don’t know. We’ll find out,” he adds.

As a child I always listened intently to John Snagge’s boat race commentaries on the radio. For some unknown reason I always wanted the light blues of Cambridge to win. Over the years it’s a sporting event that has slipped from my consciousness, but I will be following this year’s race and hoping that Cracknell proves that age is just a number, this isn’t a race too far and that nice guys do sometimes finish first.

FAILED BY PARLIAMENT

WHATEVER becomes the final outcome of Brexit, one thing has become disturbingly evident in recent months. Parliament is no longer fit for purpose.

In the past we’ve tolerated the arcane nonsense of its quaint old rituals and the plodding language so beloved of the several lawyers who sit as MPs. But latterly it has become an exercise in futility as Parliament’s relationship with the people has dissolved and disintegrated.

These are dangerous times when extremes, all over the world, are gaining ground. Not a good time for our Parliament to surrender its last vestige of credibility. Honourable members have been more bothered about procedural matters and selfish posturing than about working in the national interest.

Some MPs would have spent their parliamentary time in anonymity but for the opportunity Brexit has afforded them to get their faces on television. It might be laughable, but it’s no laughing matter. Here we have the two major parties, one of them ungovernable and devoid of all discipline, the other preaching tolerance and equality and doing the very opposite.

Brexit has divided the country and Parliament has signally failed to provide leadership, compromise and sacrifice for the greater good. The system is broken and we may end up paying a very heavy price for all this.

POETRY ON A PLATE

BRITAIN may be in the grip of what’s been called “an unprecedented vegetable craze,” but vegetarianism and veganism are nothing new in these parts.

The word vegan was coined by a Keswick schoolteacher, Donald Watson, in 1944. But veg was on the dinner table at Greta Hall, one-time residence of the poet Coleridge, in the early 1800s when, according to journalist Ben MacIntyre, writing in The Times, Coleridge experimented with a meat-free diet on account of his “bowel attacks”. Whether it cured his bouts of wind, MacIntyre doesn’t say, but all that cabbage and carrots gave the poet insomnia.

Indeed many of the Romantics — Byron, Shelley, Keats, for example — dabbled in vegetarian diets. Shelley believed it would ward off syphilis while Keats hoped it would lessen his carnal desires. It appears that vegetarianism is nothing new. It was on the go more than 200 years ago, largely invented in Britain by poets.

So what of the Wordsworths. Were they veggies, too? Sir Walter Scott was a frequent visitor to their home in Grasmere and he was wont to climb out of his bedroom window of a morning and leg it up to the pub for a full English — or should that be Scottish? Scott reputedly said there were three meals a day in the Wordsworth house — “unfortunately two of them porridge”.

Greggs had not invented its vegan sausage roll by then, but next time you bite into a broccoli floret try taking a bit of Romantic poetry with it — and watch out for the wind that once afflicted Coleridge.

BLAME THE WIND

TALKING of wind, I saw a game at Brunton Park a couple of weeks back played in the worst conditions I can recall. The rain came horizontally, in gusts up to 70mph and Carlisle United foundered.

I woke the next morning feeling unusually irritable and one degree under. I most probably suffered a bout of ancraophobia. No, not spiders. This is the uncommon fear of winds and is known to account for depressing mood changes of the kind that follow a home defeat against the league’s bottom team.

So was it Storm Gareth that produced sweaty palms, a dry throat, feelings of nausea and rapid heart beat? If it wasn’t the storm or the football results, and as it continued for a few days after, then there can only be one other explanation for what brought on the ague — the politicians who have dragged us to European humiliation.

EWE’LL NEVER BELIEVE IT

I USED to have this dream, more a nightmare really, that I turned up to report a sheepdog trial and they were short of a judge and I was enlisted, got all the marking for the fetch, drive and pen wrong and was being run out of the field angrily pursued by Roy, Floss and co.

Many’s the hour I whiled away watching obedient collies respond to whistles and calls while rounding up sheep at local shows and dog days. Can it really be true that drones are taking the place of well-trained sheepdogs? That Floss and friends are heading for the jobcentre?

As I write this week’s column, is Threlkeld dog day’s estimable secretary, Margery Mattinson, at home framing the 2019 schedule to include a class for straightest flier? One man and his drone, the nightmare gets worse.