Pavarotti on a moped

Prince Harry was in Hillsborough today.

Apparently his family own a house in the village.

You can usually guess when a royal visit is coming because you see a bit of extra security in the main street on the day. Police checking cars, cones laid out at the side of the pavement, just a bit of an excited buzz from the customers in the shops.

It always reminds me of my own journalistic experiences covering VIP visits and the tedious security precautions which had to be negotiated.

The hours of waiting around in a single spot waiting for that brief moment when the royal visitor or foreign dignitary walked past. And then trying to think of something interesting to write about it.

US presidential visits were the worst. The names of covering reporters had to be submitted weeks in advance, personal searches were carried out by grim faced dark-suited secret service staff and then you were bussed to a location about six hours in advance.

And then you waited. If you were lucky there would be somewhere to sit down.

I was at Aldergrove when George W Bush arrived for his Hillsborough summit with Tony Blair in 2003. They talked about peace in Northern Ireland. And war in Iraq.

Watching Air Force One landing on the tarmac at RAF Aldergrove was one of the more prodigious and unforgettable sights of my life.

The significance and symbolism of the massive plane pulling alongside Tony Blair’s small private jet could not have been lost on anyone. There was no doubt who was in charge. When Bertie Ahern’s tiny jet landed soon after it looked like a paper aeroplane beside Bush’s giant jumbo.

Dubya emerged and waved briefly before being whisked by helicopter to Hillsborough Castle. The village was virtually cut off from the world that night as the security forces kept anti-war protestors from passing the roundabout.

I covered many royal visits but the only ones which really stick with me are those featuring the Queen. The strain of trying to find words to describe her frocks has left an indelible mark.

The first time was when she opened the Laganside Courts complex in Belfast. I’ve described this infamous occasion before in this blog. A number of journalists, including me, were huddled together onto a small platform for an hour waiting the monarch to walk past. When she finally did I was struck by the urge to kick her in the arse. I didn’t.

The second occasion was three years later at Balmoral Showgrounds when she presented the Conspicuous Gallantry Cross to the Royal Irish Regiment. I was outside on the grass for three hours. It rained for three hours. Without stopping.

By the time she eventually appeared my biro had stopped working and I had lost one of my shoes somewhere in the sodden muddy field. For all I know it’s still there.

I almost had a third encounter with the Queen. This is where it gets a little weird.

A few years back I was invited as a guest to a garden party at Buckingham Palace. I presume my name had been put forward by someone in the NIO. Journalists get invited to these social events occasionally and I guess it was my turn.

I’ve no strong feelings about the Royal family. I’m not particularly an advocate of it but nor do I actively seek its demise. However, the opportunity to see inside the grounds of Buckingham Palace seemed too good to pass up.

Plus I had received a fabulous grand card which said I had been invited there ‘by Royal command’. These people really know how to throw a party. I duly accepted.

The invitation had been sent well in advance and I had to fill out forms and give details of my car, in case I decided to park at the palace.

I booked the flights and accommodation for me and my wife. And then….

And then I forgot all about it.

I should explain that I’ve never used a diary. I always keep dates and appointments in my head. I wasn’t used to planning something so far in advance. It probably also reveals something of the impact that the pressures of work were having on my mind that such a major event got lost somewhere in the fog.

A couple of months later I was in the office when I received a phone call from an unknown number. It was a man with a posh English accent. In my imagination I like to think it was Philip.

He told me that all the other guests were in place and enquired if our arrival was imminent. He needed to know for security reasons if we still wanted to park our car there.

Rather sheepishly I told him I was still in Northern Ireland and that I’d forgotten the date. There was a silence on the line. Then he said.

‘I’ll put you down as ill then sir’.

And that was it. I had stood up the Queen. People have been thrown in The Tower for less.

I never covered any event attended by Princess Diana. Her death occurred just at the moment when I was starting out in my career.

But I remember the sad event so well. Certain news stories are just so big that they stun you into a belief that it simply cannot have happened.

I was staying at my Da’s house that night. I was in bed. He came into the room and shook me awake in the early hours.

Instinctively I knew that something bad had happened. I contracted my muscles, waiting for some personal blow.

‘It’s on the news that Princess Diana’s dead. She’s been killed in a car crash.’

I sat up, rubbing my eyes.

‘What? Jesus, what happened?’

‘She was being chased through the streets of Paris by Pavarotti on a moped.’

This had quickly turned from tragic to surreal. Nothing seemed to make sense anymore.

‘What? What did you say?’

There was only a half-light in the room. But I remember my dad screwing up his face.

‘No, I don’t mean Pavarotti…what do you call them? Paparazzi!’

‘Oh right.’

I couldn’t really get back to sleep after that.

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