It was Kirk Douglas on the Michael Parkinson show, I was barely in my teens. My mother was watching too, and she had good reason to be interested, as she’d met Kirk on a train when she was in her early twenties. That is another story, and I won’t tell it here. To cut a very long story short: she turned him down. But as I said, I can’t say more. For one thing, my father still doesn’t know. Please don’t tell him.
However, she was eager to watch Kirk on Parkinson, and just before the programme started had told me of their meeting, so I was keen to sit with her. I knew of Kirk as a Viking, and Van Gogh, and assumed he portrayed any character as long as his name began with V. At the time he met my mother Kirk was appearing in a play by Chekov, (probably as Vanya, or maybe Vershinin) and my mother was travelling from South Wales to Nottingham, where she was at college.
Fabulously famous Kirk came and sat with her in an otherwise empty carriage. My mother didn’t have a clue who he was. The train pulled into the station, where a huge crowd had gathered. She said “is there someone famous on the train?” and he said, “yes, it’s me.” This, I promise you, is true.
Despite my mum’s pleasure in telling me the story, I was not particularly taken by Kirk’s appearance on Parky. He seemed to be a bit dim. I don’t think that now, but I did then. And here’s why.
Do you know the Monty Python sketch in which Mrs Anne Elk, played by John Cleese, explains her theory about the brontosaurus? Mrs Elk takes what feels like hours to get to her theory, which, in the end, is no more than something like ‘they are thin at one end, fat in the middle and thin at the other.’ Kirk had a theory that was a bit like that. ‘My theory, Michael,’ he said, leaning forward as if he were about to share an insight worthy of the world’s attention, ‘my theory,’ he said, ‘is that people are different.’ Like Mrs Elk, he seemed to take a long, long time to get to his point. And in the end his point was so commonplace as to be wholly undeserving of such a big build up.
You can imagine my disdain. I felt almost ashamed that he could make such a trite observation and be someone of any significance whatsoever.
But here we go. Decades later, I consider why some people like some things, and not others. Why is it we behave in different ways when confronted by the same uncertainties, or the same pleasures? Why don’t I like cricket or golf or gardening? Why do I love beetroot? Why does my brother enjoy the tediously idiotic waste of carbon that is Formula 1? Why are some people so sure of their beliefs, and others, like me, always full of doubt? How can ANYONE like Wotsits?
The reason, of course, is that people are different, and the reasons for those differences are impossible to comprehend. Yet my understanding of how people are different is far deeper and richer and meaningful today than when I was just a tiny wee lad sitting next to my mum on the sofa watching the Great Dimpled One. Now Kirk’s words seem positively wise. Indeed, if there is one thing I’d like to tell all governmental policy makers, it’s this: ‘people are different’.
All those years ago Kirk’s words were no more than empty sounds, but now they are of huge significance. When we’re young we tend to imagine others think in similar ways to us; it’s a form of narcissism. As we age, we learn how different others are.
People are different and interpret things differently. Age and experience make us understand things that once seemed transparently obvious in more subtle and complex ways. Words that meant so little to us when we were young can mean so much as we get older. Books that we read as teenagers have lost all their power, whereas other writers who we may once have thought dreary, in our mature years become vessels of sagacity.
So, Kirk, I’m sorry, you were right. You could have expressed yourself a little better, but nevertheless, I think you had an understanding of human nature that I didn’t, and therefore I was unable to understand you. And it’s interesting that your son got to marry a girl from South Wales, even if you didn’t.
But I’m glad my mum told you to bugger off. My dad is much funnier. And he tells a better story.