I’m often asked if I find much time in my busy schedule to hate Phillip Schofield. I normally reply that I don’t give him much thought. While there are indeed a great many adjectives I would delightfully hurl at him like so many spanners wrapped in offal, these days, my hands are full holding a fairly broad-hipped opinion about people who watch ‘The Paul O’Grady Show’. They are the only people I currently consider the enemy and I would encourage you to do the same. Full-bodied eccentrics to the last, desperate like a constipative’s final gasp, they are full of that worldliness which leads them to consider cabbages the only fruit. To them a hosepipe ban is a cultural event and they donate their sphincters to medical science expecting to get tax relief. These are not bright people; as blind as a raincoat’s lining and as docile as gravy. Normally when I find myself in their company, I look for the nearest policeman and ask him to castrate me with his truncheon. Failing that, I try to disembowel myself with a coconut.
Unfortunately, last week, I found myself in far off Manchester with no policemen in sight and coconuts out of season. It was not the best time for one of these denizens of Transvestite TV to stop me in the street. I didn’t have high hopes for the encounter. He was a gnomish man who must have been pushing to peer up the skirt of ninety. I thought to make a dash for the nearby Athenaeum but he started to shuffle around me, examining the Madeley profile from side, back, and front, before he set a bead on my face and sighed. I could smell dumplings.
‘You’re looking old,’ he said. As simple as that. No small talk. No baiting it with compliments. Just a straight insult delivered with a slurp of his false teeth settling themselves back on receding gums. And then he was away. With the briefest of waves, he was back to the world of Scouse cross-dressers, cabbage and dry rubber hosepipes.
Yet had he waited just a moment, I would have explained that, like Shakespeare’s Cleopatra, age cannot whither me, nor custom stale my infinite variety. Let my face wrinkle and my brow sag, if they must, but you can never deny that my spirit is more youthful than that of many an angst-ridden teenager with a pension plan. It is why I care not a jot about looking my age. It also explains why I didn’t hold my tongue this morning when the doorbell rang and I found a strange man standing on my welcome mat.
Thankfully, he wasn’t alone, otherwise I might never have recognised him. Parked in the drive was a rocket car with AA Gill sitting on the luggage rack. AA gave me a wave as he always does; a flare of crushed velvet something special against the spare tyre.
‘We’ve come to take you for lunch,’ he shouted. ‘We’re off to the Hix Oyster and Chop House where we expect to make wry comments about the cuisine.’
‘Are you indeed?’ I replied and turned back to the tall man threatening me with a bleached smile the shape of scimitar. Without the clues of the rocket car and A.A. Gill to help me, I might have chased this stranger away with a few well times lashes of an umbrella. Instead, I stood staring at the poor man as I tried desperately to hide my disgust at the helpless product of unhindered vanity.
‘Well?’ he asked, standing there and making large hand gestures towards his face. ‘What do you think?’
‘You look a mess,’ I told him. ‘What on earth have you done to yourself? You have more than passing resemblance to Dick Van Dyke.’
‘It’s the new me!’ said Jeremy Clarkson with the euphoria that evidently comes of having your eyelids peeled by a laser. ‘Twenty thousand quid on the best plastic surgeon in London. He’s resculpted my chin and got rid of all my bags.’
‘Got rid of all your sense, I should say,’ I answered.
‘You can’t deny it. I look years young. And my testicles hang a good inch higher. I’d show you what he’s done for the hair on my back but it’s taking a time to heel. The skin graft hasn’t taken but that’s because we couldn’t get the right skin from a bald monkey. I’m having it re-laid this week.’
‘He’s left you looking like Richard E. Grant’s bulimic twin,’ I observed and dragged Jeremy into the hall as a dark cloud hinted at a sudden downpour. The last thing I wanted was a damp Clarkson threatening to split at the seams as he dried out.
‘Come on,’ he said, oblivious to his danger. ‘We’re going to try it out on London folk. See what they make of the new improved Clarkson 2.0 GTI.’
‘Grin, teeth, intelligence.’
‘Intelligence? They can help lift that as well?’
‘You’d be amazed what they can do with a laser,’ he replied.
This was an experience I thought it foolish to miss. I quickly changed into a suit and soon joined Gill on the luggage rack as Jeremy climbed into the driver’s seat. Once the cabin lid was shut and Jeremy was out of earshot, I turned to Gill.
‘I know what you’re going to say,’ he said. ‘But he wouldn’t listen to sense...’
‘I blame you for putting all these ideas into his head,’ I replied. ‘You and your metrosexual dinner jackets lined with baby otters. He used to be an honest, down-to-earth bloke who liked to talk about oiling bolts and greasing washers. Now look at him. He’s a monstrosity! He looks like Fred Gwynne’s less manly brother.’
‘Ah,’ said Gill, switching to his TV critic voice, which is at least ten decibels higher, ‘Fred Gwynne from TV’s “The Munsters”. A show of dubious writing quality but salvaged by the charm of a likable cast.’
Luckily the rest of his review was hidden behind the blast of the jet engine. I held on tight as we began to head towards Mach One. On the other side of the sound barrier, things grew quiet once again. Back to being the food critic, Gill licked a finger tip, nodded appreciatively at the flavour, before running it over an eyebrow. I feared the worst. I could hear a full metal wit being loaded into a chamber.
‘I can’t deny that Jeremy is probably a little in awe of my élan,’ said Gill, ‘but as I always say, you can’t catch panache. It’s sad that the same can’t be said of bad taste.’ He looked at me and an eyebrow curled towards the implicit.
‘What do you mean by catching bad taste? You’re not saying that any of this is my fault?’
‘I’m merely pointing out that my tan came from the Côte d'Azur.’
He shrugged. ‘Meaning it wasn’t a free sample in a woman’s magazine.’
I’d heard enough. I hammered on the roof of the cabin and the whine of the jet engine was replaced by the sound of brakes and the screech of Dunlops.
‘Don’t tell me he’s fallen off again,’ said Jeremy, popping his head out his plastic bubble. He looked to Gill who smiled, elegantly as always.
‘Not me,’ said AA. ‘We have a deserter in our midst.’
‘You not coming for lunch?’ asked Jeremy as I struggled to unbuckle myself. ‘We’re having escargot.’
‘A lucky day for the French snail,’ mumbled Gill.
‘I’m off,’ I said, slipping from the roof rack. ‘You can go to lunch without me. When you’re in the mood for the company of somebody who knows his age and is happy eating at home with a Pot Noodle, you know where I live.’
Gill shrugged but Jeremy’s face attempted a frown for which it was clearly not designed. He just looked pleased that ‘Mary Poppins’ had won so many Oscars.
‘Don’t go off like this,’ cried Jeremy. ‘I still haven’t shown you about my ears. They’re fully detachable and have Velco on the back.’
But I was too far gone to care listening, detachable ears or no detachable ears.
Give me lunch with men that are men and people who look their age. Give me men who are thinkers, wizened but wise, true to their principles, or habitually lost. Though my hair is brown and my skin is too, I am a real man at heart. When the crags on my face deepen, the hairs of my head whiten, you will see that I am still being myself and no other. You’ll never find me bleaching my teeth or wearing a baboon’s pelt on my back. I’ll leave that to O’Grady, Schofield and the rest of their unctuous kind. And though I never thought I’d say it, I’ll leave it to Jeremy Clarkson too. God knows. I’ll miss that craggy faced old bugger and his yellowing teeth.