I INTERVIEWED Tony Benn this week.
The former Cabinet minister was in town on Monday to give the annual Harold Wilson lecture at Huddersfield University.
In my line of work I sometimes get the chance to meet well-known people for a quick chat.
And I do mean quick. These aren’t interviews in the sense that some people might imagine, sitting down in some hotel lobby for a long discussion with the Dictaphone running.
It’s more like two minutes in a corridor at Huddersfield University, with me scribbling down a couple of pages in shorthand.
But even in these short exchanges I hope to gain some sort of insight into the person I’m interviewing.
MI5 whistle-blower David Shayler has a very loud voice. Poet Laureate Andrew Motion chews over every question before answering with great care.
Sir Geoff Hurst has locker room swagger. Or at least I think he does; I did that interview over the phone.
Andy Booth is a real gent who seems to have very little ego, given how highly he is thought of in Huddersfield.
As for Vic Reeves; well there’s a whole column in that. But suffice to say I think my colleague who idolised him found out why the saying “never meet your heroes” is sound advice.
In most cases I was struck by how small the famous person was, with the notable exception of Andy Booth.
Perhaps there is some psychological explanation for this. Maybe I expected a big name to be attached to a big frame.
Or maybe it’s because I’m six feet one.
But back to Mr Benn.
He was much as I imagined, articulate and utterly convinced of his world view.
What struck me as interesting was not his opinion of the relative merits of Harold Wilson and Gordon Brown or the war in Iraq, but the way he became most animated when he spoke about his grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
In other words, he was like any other 83-year-old man.
And this of course is the whole point. We’re all the same underneath, as Mr Benn himself pointed out.
Just because you’re in the public eye doesn’t make you special or more interesting than anyone else.
Like any good Ulsterman I pride myself on being down-to-earth. I would hate the idea that I fawned over people just because they’re celebrities.
But I find that when I interview famous people my mind sometimes goes blank. It happened this week when I was talking to Mr Benn and it happened last year when I had a quick chat with Patrick Stewart, also at the university.
When he finished an answer there would be a gap in the conversation where a fresh question was supposed to be. Eventually I would manage a new question, though usually not a good one.
My dramatic pauses were only a few seconds long but, I fear, they were noticeable. It was as if I was thinking: “Bloody hell, it’s him off of the telly.”
I never find myself stuck for words when interviewing “normal” people. It only happens when I speak to someone well-known.
And that’s not good. As a journalist it’s my job to talk to prince and pauper as Raef – the undoubted star of this year’s series of The Apprentice – might say.
Everyone, household name or not, has a story to tell.
And it’s not as if anyone I’ve ever interviewed has been worthy of adulation.
They may have a talent for acting, writing poems or playing football. And fair play to them.
But it’s not like any of them have found a cure for cancer.
They just happen to be good at things which society says are noteworthy.
I struggle to think of anyone who is genuinely worthy of awe, someone who I could legitimately feel nervous around.
Nelson Mandela is the only person who springs to mind.
I wonder if he’s coming to Huddersfield University any time soon.