For weeks on end – and at the time of writing – I remain “on standby” to go to Mosul in Iraq. Being on call is one of the most disruptive and exhilarating aspects of my job as a television journalist. Sometimes, when the phone rings, it is only to say “stand down”, as happened recently when I had been primed to head to Berlin.
However, in TV-land, hazard comes in many guises – and as I recently discovered, disguises too. I do not know what the actor Nigel Harvey looks like “in his civvies”, but in full-fig, he looks like an archetypal Santa Claus. Indeed, he was recently named Britain’s Best Father Christmas, in which capacity he was invited into the Sky News studio.
The interview fell to my co-presenter, Claudia, but when Nigel/Santa said that being an award-winning Father Christmas required speaking “as St Nicholas should”, I was unable to curb my enthusiasm.
“How,” I chipped in from the wings, “can you talk like St Nicholas, who was a 4th-century Greek bishop?”
Nigel stroked his snow-white beard, eyes narrowing over half-moon spectacles, before shooting back, quick as a flash: “Well, it’s taken me a long time – not as long as some of your questions, though, Colin.”
Laughter in my ear from the gallery confirmed that Nigel, an actor by training who thinks it is folly for us to spend a fortune on grottoes and a pittance on the man in the red suit who sits in them, had hit his mark.
Before we concluded, he aimed another couple of well-honed verbal snowballs in my direction and, minutes later, the exchange had gone, if not viral, then running an online temperature. This is, of course, an occupational peril.
There are guests who must be handled with care, lest they flounce off set or otherwise take umbrage. Veteran Labour firebrand George Galloway was always a candidate for a set-piece rant (though in person I have found him charming), as was Bianca Jagger, who was once so outraged by a question I put to her as she stood in Downing Street ready to hand in an Iraq War-related petition, that she wrenched out her earpiece and walked away.
I hope my wife and I may be forgiven a gentle sigh of relief as the children return to school this week after the Christmas holidays. Five of our six children succumbed to a bug. Worst-hit was our eight-year-old. Katharine – so named after a post-interview conversation about girls’ names with no less an inspiration than Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor – spent Christmas Day in bed. Her younger brother, John, was not much better. Neither was able to touch their Christmas lunches. Their big sister, Edith, picked at a sprout or two.
There is a grim inevitability about these infections, as they systematically work their way through a large family. But how blessed we are to be born in an era when child mortality has plummeted.
Hilary Mantel – yes, she of the “Catholic Church is not an institution for respectable people” diatribe – depicted this bygone sense of serial vulnerability in her magnificent Tudor novel Wolf Hall. Thomas Cromwell, an arch-manipulator, is powerless to stop sickness carrying off his daughters and wife, one by one.
What makes for a good political memoir? Ken Clarke’s autobiography, A Kind of Blue, provides an answer. For my generation, whose formative works included the candid confessions of Alan Clark’s Diaries, the former chancellor’s life story feels a little insipid. The recollections are those of a man who saw – and had a hand in – the grand sweep of Britain’s post-war history.
But as Charles Moore’s official biography of Margaret Thatcher reminds us, it still takes an accomplished stylist to bring such events alive. How can someone, like Clarke, who often speaks with such an ear-catching flourish, produce something so comparatively bloodless? An explanation might be found in the foreword, where he admits to dictating his story to a secretary.
Tony Blair, whose verbless spoken English was rarely considered eloquent, ended up writing (by hand, with a fountain pen) a beautifully crafted autobiography. Put simply, it is easier to write – and endlessly rewrite – perfectly formed sentences than it is spit them out. Perhaps only Churchill could leave us guessing whether we were reading a monologue transcribed by an aide, or prose dashed off by the great man himself.
Colin Brazier is a presenter for Sky News