From Paddington to Didcot...
Updated: Jun 10
...a Voyage of Discovery With Whispering Bob Harris
Friday May the 25th. Our journey begins at London’s Paddington Station. I’m on my way home from the cricket at Lord’s on Great Western’s Delayed service to Bristol Temple Meads (I suggest that they incorporate the ‘Delayed’ into the official name – it would save a fortune in announcements), and who plonks himself down opposite me at a little table for 2?
20:10 - Smart chap, tall, distinguished. Grey beard, thinning on top. I note his Lord’s wristband and copy of the official England v Pakistan programme, and employing everything I learnt from Conan Doyle, deduce he’s been at the cricket too. Looks a bit like Bob Harris, I thought. Legendary presenter of The Old Grey Whistle Test, TV’s premier music show of, well, ever, and unmissable if you were, as I was, just into the teenage years when it was in its magnificent pomp.
Whispering Bob is a big noise on Radio 2 nowadays, where he’s a great proponent and advocate of country music. Again, as in the Whistle Test years, I owe him plenty for his recommendations.
It’s probably not him though.
20:15 – He makes a phone call, “Hello, it’s Mr Harris here…” Oh my, I’ve gone a bit giddy. Not only the admission of the “Mr Harris”, but THAT VOICE, once so memorably described as sounding like, well, more of that later. For now, Bob’s sorting out his taxi at Didcot and I’m wondering what to do.
20:20 – Mmm. I glance over the top of my Evening Standard, and Bob’s busy with his ‘phone, probably emailing Kacey Musgraves and asking her what she’s got for tea. Or one of Wishbone Ash – perhaps to clear something up about the cover of Argus. So it doesn’t seem the right time to say, “Er, excuse me Mr Harris…” so I take to Twitter and Facebook and in understated fashion announce that I’M SITTING OPPOSITE WHISPERING BOB HARRIS.
20:25 – A number of likes and comments pop up on the social media. Then I have an idea.
20:30 – I have written Bob Harris a note.
20:32 – I re-read my note. My joined-up writing is so awful that it even got me kicked out of medical school, so I wrote it out in BLOCK CAPITALS, but what with the train bumping around and me having a large grappa after an early dinner at the Frontline Restaurant, it looks like it was written by a madman (alright, quiet at the back). It is also far too long.
20:33 – I have written Bob Harris another note.
This one is much shorter, and doesn’t wiffle-waffle about with compliments, it just says I’d like to buy him a drink, but if he doesn’t want one or if I’m bothering him just to ignore me. However, it ends, “So, thumbs up for a drink!”
I figure I’ll just slide it across to him, perhaps next to his ‘phone. Or on it. Then I figure that perhaps I won’t.
20:36– I close my notebook. We’ve just left Reading. Didcot’s the next stop. I consider, “Does your heart sink when you find yourself sitting opposite a bloke (for it will always be a bloke) of a certain age who wants to talk about music?” Well, he could kill that enquiry stone dead with a simple “Yes”, couldn’t he?
20:38 – I return to Twitter and tag @WhisperingBob in a post about wanting to buy him a drink, but not wishing to disturb him. He looks up shortly afterwards, and, “Here we go!” But no, false alarm. I think he’s waiting for the trolley.
20:43 – Fighting back an impulse to lean over ever-so-casually to Bob and say, “Get you a drink?” I head for the buffet car. Return with a can of Tribute, which I tuck inside my jacket while opening it in case Bob gets splashed and he takes against me (he has of course to this point, very little idea that I exist at all).
20:50 – “We are now approaching Didcot Parkway. If you are leaving the train at Didcot Parkway, please make sure you take all of your belongings and Great Western Delayed are not that bothered that you’ve had another miserable journey”
20:51 – Bob is gathering his stuff together.
20:52 – “Ahem, Mr Harris?”
He looks up expectantly.
“I just wanted to say thank you for being there in 1973. Whistle Test meant the world to me and my mates.” Phew, I had said it, well I had said something.
Bob Harris BEAMED at me, that lovely toothy grin lit up the carriage, “Wow,” he said, “thank you so much, that’s really kind of you.”
“It was so important. A...a… a beacon of hope,” I added, possibly over-egging the Whistle Test pudding, but I was in now. We shared a few words about Kacey Musgraves, shook hands, and Bob bade me a cheery farewell. I was half-hoping for a wave as he passed by the window, but it wasn’t to be.
20:55 - Of course he was so nice when I finally bothered him that I wondered why I hadn’t done it sooner and we could have spent 40 minutes talking about The Sensational Alex Harvey Band and Vinegar Joe. Of course, given that prospect he might have not been so sweet (although I suspect he would have been).
21:00 – There’s a young lady across the aisle. She’s asked me where the bar was, to mind her stuff while she went to the toilet, and I’ve had to stop her accidentally breaking into the driver’s carriage in search of said toilet in some confusion over the fact it was to the right and not dead ahead through an inaccessible door. So, as is often the way on trains, we have broken the ice.
Kate announces she’s getting off at Chippenham, although she doesn’t know where that is, only that her friend is picking her up and driving her to Chepstow for a hen weekend.
“Wales!” she exclaims, “Even though we all live in London.” Which seems a fair point.
“Where are you going?” asks Kate.
“I live there.”
“Oh. Do you always get the train with your friend?”
“Or work colleague is he? When he got off you thanked him for recommending someone. Kacey something. Is she your new PA or something?”
I explain that I’m not such a high flyer, and expand a bit about Whispering Bob Harris. Kate makes notes, she is most curious, and clearly quite the high flyer herself.
“He’s on the radio,” I said.
“But you recognised him?”
“Yeah, well he used to be on TV a lot.”
“He presented a programme called The Old Grey Whistle Test, and, ask your dad, he’ll know.”
Kate jots down Whistle Test, and says, “I’ll ask my boyfriend, he knows about that stuff. I can see why he’s on the radio, he’s got a good voice hasn’t he?”
“Danny Baker once said...,” I began. “No, I can’t. Well, yes, OK, you’re going on a hen weekend, I can probably tell you, he said his voice sounded like a vibrator in 6 feet of sand.”
I tell Kate about the notes.
“Bit creepy,” she says, astutely.
When I get home, I tell Mrs B. About the notes.
“Bit creepy,” she says, also astutely.
“That’s what the girl on the train said.”
And so began a whole new conversation.
P.S. With the intention of scanning them to illustrate this piece, I kept the notes. However, on reviewing them this morning, they have been shredded, burnt, shredded again, and the remnants locked in a safe and sunk. In a North Korean nuclear test zone.