Written by Allan Hall
It was while covering a tedious rail crash enquiry on the outskirts of Manchester that I was tersely summoned back to the office by a grumpy news editor who put the phone down on me mid sentence having demanded to see me NOW.
Had he been informed that a ghastly overservement of the devil’s buttermilk the night before caused me to be late – seriously late – for the start of proceedings into the causes of a train crash in Eccles the previous year? Did he know that I had neither washed nor shaved? He would certainly surmise the latter. I gobbled a packet of mints on the way back to the Express Newspapers building in Ancoats for the drumhead court martial.
Once inside I was frogmarched into his office and the door was slammed behind him. I had prepared my speech; ‘Look, I can explain everything….’ when he fixed me in his gaze, threw a business class airline ticket at me and said; “I need you to get to Switzerland. NOW.” It was clearly the word du jour.
Some hours later myself and photographer Ricky Blake were boulevarding alongside the pristine waters of Lake Geneva. The clock had ticked on since the midday summons. It was time to eat.
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Switzerland is beautiful, rich, clean, pristine….but a bit like a caravan site in winter. Boring. Geneva seemed then, as it does to me now, a town of commerce and little else. The nightlife had gone the way of the white rhino. But still and all, they can cook. We pitched up at a French brasserie near the lakeside where the horrific prices would look splendid on our expenses claim forms. This is what we ate – and what you can recreate for a fraction of the price demanded in the land of the cuckoo clock.
Where was I? Oh yes, Jackie Stewart. Now, but not then, SIR Jackie Stewart. My news editor, one Jeff McGowan, had informed me that Britain’s superstar of the F1 grid had been struck down in his hideaway home in the Alps with motor neurone disease, the same condition which carried away actor and fellow Swiss exile David Niven to the other side. Could it be something in the water?
I asked where the tip to such a sensational story had come from. I was informed it had emanated from another Stuart – Stuart ‘The Bullet’ McCartney, Scottish reporter for the Daily Star. As I lingered over the last of my delicious kidneys I pondered on why on earth he would not wanted to have bagged a trip to Switzerland for himself….
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It had been too dark, and we were too hungry, to go skidding around the mountains ringing Geneva on a Thursday evening. It was time for dessert to finish a fortifying meal ahead of the Jackie Stewart hunt which would commence the next day. A chestnut charlotte, or charlotte de marrons as advertised in Switzerland, was the perfect choice.
Dawn erupted bright and fine over the snowy mountain tops. I had no idea where Sir Jackie’s hideaway rested but surmised it would not be too shabby. I had been under strict instructions to keep this story a secret at all costs. Naturally I called up the local Reuter’s news agency office in Geneva and asked if anyone knew where the race-ace lived and was provided with the name of a small village just a few miles out of town.
Upon reaching the hamlet a local guided us to the spot. No-one answered the doorbell. A nosy glance through the window confirmed it was his as one room was a shrine to himself; trophies, photos, ribbons, medals – the glittering prizes of a life spent in the very fast lane.
The same Reuters man who had provided the address now gave me the telephone number of Jackie’s secretary in Geneva who, being informed I was now the motoring correspondent of the Daily Star (it never had one to the best of my knowledge), told me our quarry was in America on a promotional tour for Firestone tyres. Downhearted on this Friday morning, Ricky and I agreed we would keep this holiday-shortening news to ourselves until the next day, when we would inform our respective puppetmasters and then head for the airport. Which left open a luncheon window a mile wide.
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The brasserie-restaurant de L’Hotel de Ville is old, elegant and, unlike many establishments noted in these culinary jottings, still going strong. It serves reliable, dependable classic French cuisine in beautiful surroundings, has a wine cellar the size of a small country estate and a cheeseboard not much tinier.
Replete and defeated, journalistically, we prepared to return home on the morrow. But then I glance at the airline ticket I had been handed the previous day. It stated quite clearly that it was unbreakable and unbendable: that we returned home on the following Monday, ie three days hence, or we bought another ticket. The news editor was perplexed. He opted for us to stay in Switzerland with the parting words: “Do try to keep the costs down.”
After a weekend spent cruising the roads of Switzerland, neighbouring France and Italy – eating pike-perch from Lake Geneva, truffled woodcock and a marvelous duck lasagne – it was back to the Express building in Manchester and the workaday treadmill. But let me just relate this superb Italian celery dish which also featured during our “economical” weekend.
The ‘dying’ Jackie was not forgotten. I was instructed to find out when he would next be in the UK. Just a few weeks later, having lied to the Ford Motor Company that I was the car correspondent of the Daily Star, I found myself in the presence of the great man himself. The venue was a racetrack on the outskirts of Belfast, the event a ride in the new Sierra Cosworth with Jackie at the wheel.
I had arrived in Belfast the previous evening with my Swiss dining companion. We chugged Guinness in the ornate surroundings of The Crown opposite the Europa – the hotel with the accolade of being the most bombed in the world. The food was nothing special.
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So it was, with something approaching a clear head, I kicked the tyres and enquired about the tappet settings on the car Sir Jackie was promoting. Then it was time for a spin.
As he effortlessly threw it at high speeds around the track, it was now or never.
“Forgive me,” I said. “Me being a motoring correspondent and all, this is a little embarrassing. But my office have asked me to enquire: are you dying of motor neurone disease?”
If a withering glance could contain fury, disbelief and contempt in more or less equal measures, it was the one he threw me in the rear view mirror. He paused then replied: “Do I look ill? I think you should tell your boss to look at the manager of a certain football club in Scotland.”
So we scurried away. I called The Bullet in Glasgow, told him what he said. “Oh Jesus Christ, don’t tell McGowan.” The man with the illness was, indeed, another Stewart altogether and the knighted Sir Jackie remains, I am pleased to say, in rude health.
Ah well. At least he broadened my dining horizons.