BRUSH WITH FAME
I once worked in an office where the favourite tea break amusement was Brush with Fame. It was difficult for new members of staff to get the hang of, because it was no use simply boasting that you had slept with a Rolling Stone or that Bob Hawke snogged your mother. Dear me, no – something extremely oblique was called for; preferably wreathed in whimsy.
The best example I can give is a story told by our computer manager, Sydney. Living in London during the swinging sixties, he called at his local butcher’s shop for a couple of steaks. By coincidence, someone rang to cancel the T-bones set aside for Ringo Starr. Sydney snapped them up and proudly ate a Beatle’s dinner! You might say that he has been dining out on this ever since.
It is appropriate that London should feature in that little gem because British hotel owners have been playing the Brush with Fame game on a commercial basis for centuries. Sometimes that brush is as light as a lark’s feather . I’m sure you know the sort of thing; the chamber pot above the public bar said to have been emptied over the head of a passing monarch by a careless maid, or the fragment of cloth allegedly cut from the hem of Oliver Cromwell’s nightshirt as he slept . Visiting the UK recently I decided to cast a critical eye over some of the more dubious claims to fame.
At the Black Bull pub in Moffat a sign states that Robbie Burns wrote a verse on one of their window ledges. Well, perhaps he did, but unfortunately the ledge is no longer in the pub; they only have a replica of it. Much to my glee they were not even completely sure what happened to the original but think it was given to the Tsar of Russia!
Damsel’s Farm near Painswick is a grand, 14th century farmhouse in the Cotswolds offering high quality accommodation in an historic setting. Owned by the Burdett family for generations, it was supposed to have been used by Henry VIII as his hunting lodge and it is thought that Anne Boleyn planted the great oak tree in the front garden. I was prepared to accept that Henry stayed there but I decided to write to the Burdetts and diplomatically inquire whether they had anything to substantiate their Anne Boleyn oak story. Clearly I was not diplomatic enough because I am still waiting for an answer.
I had a much better response from Mrs Hazel Shaw-Cotterill, who claimed that her bed and breakfast cottage in the village of Milstead, Kent was the model for Uppercross Cottage in Jane Austen’s novel Persuasion. Knowing that Persuasion was set in Somerset and Dorset I thought I may have backed Mrs Shaw-Cotterill into a corner. However, two days later I received a wad of photocopied newspaper articles stating that Jane was indeed familiar with Milstead and had metaphorically moved the cottage to Somerset as the fictional residence of Charles Musgrove. I was ashamed at ever doubting Mrs Shaw-Cotterill because she was absolutely charming . She urged me to drive down and stay at the cottage as her guest but it was an invitation I felt far too guilty to accept.
Sometimes a brush with fame has a touch of the macabre. Elsie Whiteside’s guest house in the Lake District is called ‘Lady Jane ‘ and is advertised as having ; ‘ a friendly resident ghost’. Ghosts are a dime a dozen in Britain so even after the Shaw-Cotterill episode I was a tiny bit cynical. Oh yes, I thought, they’ll probably tell me that Lady Jane Grey glides down the passage with her head tucked underneath her arm. However, when I rang Mrs Whiteside she explained that the guesthouse had no connection with Lady Jane Grey whatsoever and that she had simply named the house for her daughter Jane. Much to her embarrassment the accommodation advertisement had appeared with a slight misprint – the correct wording was actually; ‘friendly resident host’.
NB – A version of this article was originally published in The Australian newspaper.
Have you had a brush with fame? Share your experience via the comment box (see below).