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Sunday, 6 July 2014

The world was different then

The grumpiest character I ever interviewed was Nicholas Parsons, the genial host of Just a Minute. Try talking to that guy when you're not a celebrity panellist or an adoring audience member and see how genial he is. 

It took me an hour to pull the teeth that resulted in these 700 words, but it was fascinating stuff and maybe an 87-year-old - he is 90 now - should be permitted some tetchiness with strangers. 

Sent away by his father from his London home to an engineering apprenticeship on Clydeside, ("The world was different then. We didn't do as we wanted - we did as we were told."), Parsons managed to stick it out and serve his timeFor a 16-year-old with a stutter and a posh English accent, that's impressive. I'd have said impossible.

He attributes his survival in that tough environment to his ability to make people laugh - which surprised me, because he's better known as a straight man, first to comedian Arthur Haynes back in the 50s, and now to quick-witted panellists like Paul Merton. 

"You're not listening," Al interrupts my train of thought and pulls me back to a more pleasant present - a chat with my always amiable pal, a Harviestoun real ale and a macaroni cheese lunch in the Burnbrae Hotel.

"Sorry, I was thinking about Nicholas Parsons," I say. "But I heard every word you said. You discovered dry-rot in your big Bearsden bungalow and got fed up waiting for builders who never showed. So you tackled it yourself and now you've a large hole where your bedroom used to be - which you fell into it the other day when you incautiously stood on a joist and it broke into three pieces."

"I'm impressed," he says, guiding a large forkful of macaroni to his mouth and taking a swig of his lager. 

"Brain like a well-oiled filing cabinet, full of indexed folders," I say.

"Or an ancient attic, stuffed with cobwebbed garbage," he says.

"That too," I say. "But despite your total lack of building expertise you have no worries about finishing the job because, and I quote, 'It's engineering and I'm an engineer.'"

"Time-served with Rolls-Royce," he says. "Which means more to me than my degree. I could still strip a gas turbine, repair it and put it back together again."

"Beautiful machines," I say. "I never worked on one, but I got up close during a tour of their Sinfin site, when I was at Raynesway designing nuclear reactors. I was ten years with Rolls-Royce."

"I was five," he says. "Finished my time in 1971, when the economy was in a mess and there were no vacancies. I was so disappointed. Why Nicholas Parsons?"

"He's a time-served Clydeside engineer too," I say. "Just shows you. Engineering prepares you for anything."

"Precisely my point," he says. 

"When did you decide to become an engineer?" I say.

"When I realised I didn't have the charisma to be an undertaker," he says. "How can you tell if an engineer is an extrovert?" 

"He looks at your shoes instead of his, when he's talking to you," I say, standing up and reaching for my jacket. "Excellent lunch, pal. See you next week."

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