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.

With ‘er ‘ed tucked underneath ‘er arm!



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).



  1. Ha ha ha, great post honey 🙂

    Ok, I have one for you……

    I stayed at One Aldwych hotel in London a few years back. We had the penthouse suite, but didn’t pay the penthouse price (long story!).

    Anyway, a couple of days later I saw Cher being interviewed on breakfast TV. She was sitting on the sofa in the same penthouse suite. She must have checked in after we checked out. I hope they changed the sheets for her! Lol 😉


  2. Pauline

    Oh yes!! That’s a brilliant one Vikki …9/10 (have deducted a point due to jealousy re you staying in the penthouse suite! I don’t care how it came still stayed there, whereas I lead a Travelodge life and stay in those creepy chain motels located on industrial sites throughout Europe!

  3. He he he 🙂

    We own a printers Pauline, so we get a few freebies and room upgrades when we stay in the hotels we print for 😉


  4. Pauline

    Some room upgrade! Any higher up the scale and you would have been sleeping amid the stars…as you almost were! And please don’t tell me you were allowed free access to the mini bar champers and caviar,or I’ll have to deduct another point. xx

  5. Here is my brush with fame:
    We lived in the UK in the late sixties and stayed in a house one weekend that was used as the model for the book 39 steps by John Buchanan. The owner told us the place was full of secret passages. Being a safety conscious born and bred New Yorker I made my poor husband push furniture to block any conceivable entrance before we slept.

  6. Pauline

    What a classically oblique and intriguing brush with fame this one is Diane, I love it! Mind you, having failed to find one proper secret tunnel during all my years of travelling in the UK I’m a bit sorry you blocked those possible entrances.

  7. In the 1970s I directed musicals at the school where I taught, in Camberwell, South London. I was in charge of the actors but there was a musical director for the orchestra. It was a joint schools’ production so I didn’t know the musicians. After the last performance for one of the shows I was in the pub opposite the school, when actor Michael Gambon came over. He congratulated me and then bought me and my husband a pint of beer. What a nice man! I was told later that his boy played trumpet in the band.

    • Pauline

      Wow Sheila, and now you will be able to say it’s your Harry Potter Brush with Fame!!

  8. I’ve had a few, but one brush with fame was in the 1980s. I was playing Iras, Cleopatra’s handmaiden, to Vanessa Redgrave’s Cleopatra in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket in London. Sixty-odd characters and only twenty-something actors meant, except for the leading roles, everyone had to understudy someone. I understudied Cleopatra. Every night there were famous names in the audience, except the night Vanessa lost her voice and I played Shakespeare’s biggest female role. Morgan Fairchild had been in with her director, producer et al., from the film she was making, and the night after I went on, Barbara Streisand, Cubby Broccoli and the 007 entourage (Tim Dalton was playing Antony and landed the role of James Bond) were in. On the night I went on the house was full, and the wonderful audience gave me a standing ovation. However, there was no one in the audience that could have made my brush with fame a sweeping experience.

  9. Pauline

    Oooh, I had goose bumps reading this Madalyn. What an extraordinary experience. If only Barbara had attended ONE night earlier!! She might have whisked you away to Hollywood stardom and fabulous wealth. But what wonderful memories, and what an extraordinary achievement anyway! I’m sure you deserved that standing ovation…can’t even imagine how that must feel.

  10. I was once complimented by Zadie Smith, but not for my writing. I was in a shop opposite the British Museum to review an exhibition of Chinese art and she popped in. She rented a room over the shop. She asked how long I’d been learning Chinese and said she admired anyone who studied languages. She struggled with French, she said. False modesty, no doubt, but she gained a fan. Can’t wait to read her latest: ‘NW1’


  11. Pauline

    I’m with Zadie, Sheila… am in awe of you learning a language as different and difficult as Chinese. I too struggle with French and in my case it is definitely not false modesty. This is a big issue for me, as The Water Doctor’s Daughters is likely to be published in France. I love this brush with fame, it’s a little beaut!

  12. I once had a chat with Damon Hill when he and his 15 year old son were karting against my husband. A few years after DH retired from F1, his son wanted to get into racing, so in order to help his son DH formed a team with him and a friend to do endurance karting. We were aware he was there and we knew not to pester him or stare, but we happened to unknowingly set up our “pitch” (where we sit and signal to the track from) next to his, and later he started a conversation with me. I chatted back. He seemed lovely, but quite private, and sadly I put my foot in it by asking a question most people would find friendly (“have you done the whole season?”), and he clammed up. And that’s when I realised that you can’t just treat a celebrity like you’d treat any other person. You have to bother to understand what would worry them.

  13. Pauline

    How interesting Debbie, your question didn’t seem at all intrusive to me. Am in two minds re your last comment; can see what you mean but I heard someone say the other day that you should treat ‘ordinary’ people as celebrities and celebrities as ordinary.

    Rob and were a few feet from Jack Brabham at the Goodwood Festival of Speed but were too shy to say hello. It was a pity as Rob raced cars in his young days and Brabham was one of his heroes.

  14. Pauline

    Here’s my own oblique brush with fame. Rob and I were at a literary function in Sydney attended by John Howard and Tony Abbott. I shook hands with Mr Howard and chatted to him about Governor Lachlan MacQuarie, who I was researching at the time. But the brush with fame bit is that we later heard this was the evening when Howard encouraged Tony Abbott to make a push for the leadership of the Liberal party. Of course some might say it was more a brush with infamy!

  15. Almost famous?
    While on a publicity/research trip to Australia, connected to LOUISA ELLIOTT and LIAM’S STORY in 1990, my husband and I were staying at a fabulous 5 star hotel overlooking Sydney’s Harbour Bridge. After a full day of interviews, we invited the publisher’s rep – a pretty girl – to have dinner with us in the hotel.
    My husband was chatting away to her, while the waiter was being extraordinarily attentive to me.
    He was in his 20s and quite a hunk. I was feeling more than flattered when he came over for perhaps the fourth time, and whispered, ‘I’ve just realised something.’
    ‘Yes?’ I breathed, wondering what was coming next.
    ‘You’re NOT Penelope Keith, are you…?’
    I had to chuckle – and still do. My friend back home often said I was like the star of series like, ‘To the Manor Born’ – especially when scandalised. I’d never been able to see it – but after that, I believed her!
    We discovered later that Penelope Keith had been doing a theatre tour of Australia a week or so before!

    • Pauline

      Oh that is truly a 10/10 Brush with Fame Ann. It’s wonderful, and in Australia no less! Ha ha, I love Penelope Keith! She somehow reminds me of Joyce Grenfell, a great favourite of my mother’s and also of mine. My word, the publishing world sounds a lot more glamorous in those days!

  16. Before joining my sister Kate in our local Girl Guides company, I had been a Brownie when living in Chelsea. One evening during our weekly meeting a photographer arrived to take a photograph of us all. We were told that the picture would appear in the newspaper later that week due to the fact that Princess Anne was going to join our group. Our excitement turned to disappointment however when we later learned that it wasn’t Holy Trinity Sloane Square that the Princess was hoping to join, but Holy Trinity Brompton a mile or so away. The photographer had made an error. We still got our photo as a memento of what nearly was ……..

    • Pauline

      Goodness me Marcia, you may have ended up bosom buddies with Anne! You might even have married her older brother!!

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