Made it Ma, top of the world! The James Cagney character then blew himself up at the top of a water tower to exit with style in an apocalyptic explosion. My own idea of making it, Ma, is rather less spectacular, but equally far-fetched: to receive a phone call from the BBC, requesting my presence on Desert Island Discs.
Being a compulsive list-maker, I’ve never had any trouble coming up with Top 10 pieces of music, books, films, paintings, finest football midfield players or whatever. Tell me about your fifth selection then, Mr. Sampson. Well, Roy, it’s a classic example of a memorably melodic three-minute pop song: ‘I Saw The Light’ by Todd Rundgren. (I only quote this particular choice because I was prompted last week by The Guardian home page to watch a video on You Tube of a slightly corpulent Todd performing a new version of his song with a slightly corpulent Daryl Hall and other friends at his Hawaii home.)
And so I wouldn’t have any difficulty in pinpointing my Desert Island Day, the best day of my life. As a young kid, it might have been the day at the end of Primary 7 when I finally beat Albert Jordan to the coveted First Boy prize. That kind of thing was important to me in those days. I was quite competitive then.
Albert Jordan was the ground-keeper’s only child. He lived in a house that looked like it was made of marzipan, about 25 yards from the school itself. Our first house in Belfast backed onto the playing fields. We kids dug a hole underneath the railings, so we could slip underneath and play in the grounds. During the summer holidays, I would slip through the hole – which his father would keep filling up with stones – to play tennis or two-man cricket with Albert. My friend was a talented southpaw and I could never beat him at tennis or bowl him out at cricket.
So it was wonderful to get that First Boy prize after several years of trying. Somewhere among my memorabilia is a fading black-and-white photograph from the Belfast Telegraph of me, grinning like a loon, sandwiched between Anne Kissock and Jane Rutherford, the object of my young heart’s desire. We were all supposedly pouring over my prize: a history book written by Winston Churchill. My glory, though, was tempered by the fact that the journalist (as usual) got a salient detail wrong. The paper printed that we were pupils from P5. I’m not 9; I’m 11, for God’s sake!
Still, it was a good day. But not the best. I know which day I should choose. It was the day our daughter was safely delivered into this world. I’d long muttered darkly that if it were a boy, I’d leave him as the Spartans used to do on some bare, craggy mountainside – to see whether he had what it took to survive to manhood. So I was greatly affected by the sight of what the consultant referred to as a healthy wee gurrell.
In truth, though, I was too agitated fully to revel in the moment. It wasn’t so much the matter of child’s sex, as the fact that she was delivered by caesarean section and I was perturbed at my wife’s bedside by all the antibiotics they were drip-feeding into her (the mother’s) system. At that point in both our lives, we were a little obsessed by the health of our immune systems, and so I was concerned that the antibiotics would undo all the results of following the Fit For Life diet, a book first introduced to me by James Moody, the great American tenor saxophonist, at a concert on the Brighton seafront, a day or two after the hurricane of 1987.
So not that particular blessed day. No, pop-pickers, number-one-it’s-Top-of-the-Pops occurred 23 years ago today, the 5th May. It was the day, not unlike today in fact – a warm early summer’s day that unravelled under a limpid un-Sheffield-like blue sky – when I married my wife in Bakewell Registry Office, Derbyshire.
The weeks before had been pretty stressful, organising the catering, the party (in the church hall at Tideswell, a delightful village in the Peak District) and accommodation for family and friends. We’d almost agreed to call the whole thing off. In the time-honoured fashion, we separated the evening before the event. While I was enjoying in our terraced house the company of my best man and his wife, who had flown over from New York, my estranged wife was holding court in her mother’s temporary lodgings in Tideswell – and resisting, in fact, her mother’s last-minute attempts to warn her daughter off tying the knot to a man with few prospects and suspect moral character. Her father, in his irascible wisdom, had stayed at home as if to underline the words of a Gerry Rafferty song: Her father didn’t like me, anyway.
We met up the next morning down by the river in Bakewell, surrounded by a gaggle of family, friends and local ducks. My peerless bride arrived in her open-top bottle-green Beetle, which she and her best woman, Vicky, had cleaned and festooned that morning. It was the first time that I’d seen the mustard coloured trouser suit of which her mother so strongly disapproved. Vicky had hennaed her hair a dramatic shade of red that bled onto her outfit. Together, the pair of them set the tone for a wedding that the registrar would describe as very, em… modern.
Surrounded by friends and family and relieved of the responsibilities of organisation, our mutual joy was so unconfined that the registrar had to demand a little decorum and attention half way through the service. After the handful of unofficial photographers had snapped us in groups great and small among the roses of the public gardens by the roundabout, we de-camped to the church hall in Tideswell, which the vicar had had painted specially for us. Presumably this cost rather more than the £15 we had paid him to hire the place for two days.
We ate a sumptuous meal prepared by the two charming male friends of my boss at the time, who looked a little like a diminutive version of Freddy Mercury. My mother and mother-in-law complained conspiratorially about the background music I’d prepared for the occasion and my best man let slip a four-letter word within earshot of my white-haired grandfather at the conclusion of the speech he reckoned he’d screwed up. In the absence of her irascible father, the bride was given away by her avuncular friend, Graham, whose speech was as funny as his appearance at a party a year or so later as a worryingly convincing Dusty Springfield.
The parents and everyone else over a ‘certain age’ disappeared for the party that evening in the same village hall and we danced until the wee small hours. Anyone still in the area met up late the following morning for an Indian lunch at the restaurant across the street where we lived. Debs and I then took off for our honeymoon in the house in the Corrèze we’d bought the year before, to be followed by my brother and his girlfriend. Being of a more practical nature than I, my kid brother – a plumber then and now in Guildford – was going to look at our 17th century folly and diagnose whether anything could be done with it.