I met Jay Z! Three AMAZING encounters with celebrity.
“I’m nobody! Who are you? Are you nobody, too?”
Ian McKellen looks a lot like Ian McKellen, which is unusual because famous people don’t normally look like the famous people they’re supposed to be. Bob Dylan, for instance, looks like a tiny man pretending to be Bob Dylan.
I hadn’t realised I was standing next to Ian McKellen when I dropped my wallet into his shopping bag. We were at the bar of a London pub. My friend waited at our table for a pint of lager.
The wallet spilt its contents as it fell — cash, change, cards — all into the belly of McKellen’s shopping bag.
After the fall, there was a moment of stillness. During this pause, feeling anxious, I considered what to do. McKellen was watching his wine glass get filled up.
(I still hadn’t realised it was Ian McKellen.)
Despite a fear of getting told off, something that governs all my behaviour, I dropped to a crouch. I dared to run my hands through the stranger’s bag. My stuff was sandwiched between heavy shirts in tissue paper.
A voice resonated above me.
‘What have we here, my boy?’ said Ian McKellen in Ian McKellen’s voice.
I distinctly remember him saying ‘my boy’.
Looking up, I explained.
Sir Ian McKellen was remarkably understanding.
A few years later, I saw McKellen’s penis. Appearing as King Lear, he took his clothes off during the storm scene. I remembered how I’d dropped my wallet.
In the last year of school, before leaving for university, a group of friends swore a solemn promise. We would each learn a musical instrument. Then, when we’d graduated, instead of taking jobs entering data or teaching kids, we’d form a band.
I would learn the guitar. I used part of my student loan to buy a guitar. It was going to be great. The partying, the music, the sex.
The guitar sat unused in my student accommodation throughout my degree. A woman once asked me to play it. I couldn’t. I never saw her again.
The first celebrity I met was Mitchell Thomas. You won’t have heard of him, unless you’re a fan of the football team Tottenham Hotspur. He played 156 games for them in the late 80s. By the time I met him, in the late 90s, he was at the end of his career. It wasn’t his history that interested me, though, it was his name — my name in reverse.
(Or was my name his in reverse?)
Thomas Mitchell. Mitchell Thomas.
He was playing for Luton Town in a pre-season friendly against a local non-league club, Tiverton Town. I remember a member of the crowd chatting to the goalkeeper during a break in play. The goalkeeper didn’t appear an athlete. He looked like someone’s dad.
My friend said I should get Mitchell Thomas’ autograph because it’d be funny. At half time, I took the programme, printed in black and white on two folded sheets of A4 paper, to the break in the fencing that surrounded the pitch. I hadn’t realised how huge Thomas was until he came jogging towards me, growing taller with each step. Footballers are smaller on TV.
A few local kids, younger than me, jostled at my elbows because Luton, of course, was a professional football club, even if we didn’t recognise any of their players.
I shoved my programme into Mitchell’s path. He stopped. He took my friend’s pen. He was panting hard. Sweat rose from him in clouds.
Growing up in the West Country, I’d only ever seen black people on TV.
‘What’s your name?’ he asked, thick London accent.
My voice trembled, part puberty, part nervousness.
He looked from the programme to my face. He thought I was taking the piss. I tried to assume a look that illustrated how serious I was.
He handed back the pen and programme with a gruff ‘fuck off’.
I jogged back to my friend. He asked what happened.
‘He told me to fuck off.’
When I got home, I vomited. I’d eaten a bad hotdog.
I met up with school friends not long ago. Any pretence at interest in each other’s present lives soon dissolved after a few pints. We spoke hungrily about the past. About the time a sheep’s heart was hidden in a friend’s blazer during Biology. About our failed band.
‘I was always sure I was going to be famous,’ someone said, later.
He’d been to drama school. He works in insurance now.
‘Isn’t that Edward Albee?’ I asked my friend but my friend didn’t know.
If you’ve seen Edward Albee once, you’ll forever remember him. I’d classify his look as 1970s Bowery if I understood what that meant.
This night, at the Almeida Theatre in Islington, he was wearing leather trousers and a leather jacket. He had a moustache and, like many celebrities, was shorter than you’d imagine. He did look like Edward Albee, though.
I didn’t greet him. I avoid greeting anyone. If I see a friend when out, I’ll hide. Once, someone I knew from college accosted me in a pub with a violent demand to know why I’d spent half the evening ducking behind a pillar.
And, anyway, what could I say to Albee? And how would he react? I told my friend it was definitely Edward Albee and went in to watch the play, Sam Shepard’s Curse of the Starving Class (I think).
The play finished. Leaving, I found myself shoulder to shoulder to Albee. This was an omen. As we moved out into the London night, I turned.
‘Mr Albee,’ I said. ‘I’m a big fan.’
I didn’t mean to say this. It felt stupidly British to call him ‘Mr’. And I didn’t mean to say I was a ‘big fan’. Not because I’m not a big fan, even though I’m not — I like those of his plays I’ve seen (The Goat is great) — but because it sounded so pat. Especially when chatting with a playwright, whose very bread and butter is the avoidance of cliché.
He smiled. He thanked me. He offered his hand and asked my name.
We had a pleasant chat as we walked to Angel tube station. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf happened to be playing in London at the time. He said I should go see it. Funny. But, in particular, because Kathleen Turner was terrific.
Albee seemed like a really nice guy.
When I told my girlfriend about meeting him, she said maybe it was an omen. I’d end up a prize-winning writer.
I’m yet to win any prizes. I’m not even a writer, something I’ve wanted to be since school.
I once walked past Jay Z in the Whitney Museum of American Art. I thought he was someone from college. I was about to ask what he was doing in New York, before realising he was Jay Z. He nodded as I said ‘hi’. He was wearing a white t-shirt and Hawaiian shorts. He was with a middle-aged white woman. She looked like the headmistress of an exclusive private school, but the sort bohemians send their kids to.
I haven’t seen a celebrity for a while. I’ve moved to the London suburbs, close to where David Bowie grew up. My neighbourhood is too monochrome for famous people.
Last month, I took my five-year-old to a local branch of Waterstone’s, the bookshop. There was a long, serpentine queue to get in.
‘Do all these people really want to buy books?’ asked my son.
They were waiting to meet a YouTube star who’d written a book about how to be a YouTube star. There were hundreds queuing, mainly kids. I’ve never seen a bookshop so busy, not even during the imperial years of JK Rowling.
A group of girls, heavily made-up, at the back of the queue, were in tears. I didn’t know if they were crying because they were going to meet the YouTuber or because they weren’t.
My son once ‘met’ a Darth Vader impersonator on Brighton seafront. He cried all the way home. He’ll remember this when he’s older.