Encounter with political and sporting playmakers

As 2023 has passed, I reflect on the famous statesmen and sportsmen who have died during the year: Henry Kissinger and Jacques Delors, for example, titans of geo-politics who strode the global and European stages, and Bobby Charlton, whose artistic play dazzled football fans the world over. Then my thoughts turn to the politicians and sportsmen who I myself have known: some world-renowned, others less so. Who were they, and what impression did they make on me?

As a young and politically aware student in London in the late 1960s, the politicians of the day would frequently attend university debates and discuss events and policies. These included the ebullient and confident Nigel Lawson, later to be Mrs Thatcher’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, who sported a green velvet dinner jacket as he set out his plans for radical economic reform of Britain’s sclerotic economy, and Enoch Powell, whose love of classical Rome overrode his political judgement when he spoke allegorically of the River Tiber foaming with blood and inflamed racial tensions in Britain.

As portrayed and in fact, Edward Heath, Prime Minister from 1970 to 1974 was arrogant and rude, while his education secretary Margaret Thatcher was clearly already fixated with her hallmark uncompromising determination. Overseas, Ronald Reagan, then governor of California, displayed genuine warmth and interest in this cold-calling youth from England who he welcomed into his Sacramento office for a short chat, while down in the southern hemisphere, a serious Sir De Villiers Graaf, leader of South Africa’s anti-apartheid United Party, bemoaned the growing conflicts threatening the African continent over the lunch table in Cape Town’s City Club.

Later in life and now carving a path through the world of manufacturing, I had several encounters with energy secretary Peter Morrison, the only politician I know who headed straight for the airport bar after getting off his flight. In his defence, he probably needed a ‘stiffener’ to get him through the dinner he was due to host for the Japanese Ambassador. Despite our differences over policy, he did at least abolish the stately home, complete with butler, which the Yorkshire Electricity Board maintained at its customers expense for the benefit of its senior executives. His successor Cecil Parkinson, pilloried by the press for his sexual peccadillos rather than his policies, used a barrage of words to deflect all criticism, but words being their stock in trade, politicians tend to be prolific speakers but terrible listeners. John Major’s ‘honest John’ demeanour concealed a political persona as wily and scheming as the best of his contemporaries, while Old Etonian David Cameron’s polished urbanity managed to win him two elections. To his credit, I never knew him forget a name, or a face, or speak from notes.  

Back abroad, and nearer the present day, Lawrence Gonzi, past prime minister of Malta, and Kaspar Villiger, former President of the Swiss Confederation, both bewailed Britain’s departure from the EU, as did Albania’s current PM, Edi Rama. All saw Britain as the great counterweight to Franco-German domination and their natural ally and protector and were dismayed they could no longer rely on UK support in the councils of the European continent. Meanwhile, back in Africa, F W de Klerk, courageous architect of the end of apartheid against the will of his party, applied himself vigorously to assisting leaders from the developing world in the art of government through his Global Leadership Foundation.

And what of the sportsmen? Three come to mind. It was 40 years from eye-witnessing his terrible crash at the Nurburgring in 1974 before I first met Niki Lauda in a Vienna restaurant. I congratulated him on his courage and determination, not just on the racetrack but in the air, he having proved against the claims of its constructor Boeing that the fatal Lauda Air crash over Thailand was caused by a manufacturer’s computer glitch and not pilot error. Even more time elapsed between Stirling Moss’s epic 1955 Mille Miglia victory, which I remembered reading about as a young boy, and meeting him as ‘elder statesman’ of the paddock at the Monaco Grand Prix. His 1000 miles in 10 hours on ordinary roads remains unbelievable to any present-day motorsport enthusiast.

But my ultimate heroic sportsman was not really a sportsman at all. Cesare Fiorio, once manager of the Ferrari race and Lancia rally teams, had another credit to his name. As captain of the motor yacht ‘Destriero’, holder of the Blue Ribband for an Atlantic crossing, his steadiness and courage was without equal. Guiding his 75,000 horse-power monster speedboat as it surfed down the Atlantic rollers in the pitch dark at 80 knots, he knew one false flick of the helm would have spelt disaster. 50 sleepless hours after leaving New York, the vessel passed abeam the Bishop Rock lighthouse to set the record. All but forgotten today, Fiorio’s achievement is commemorated only by a trace on a paper chart on the wall of his private museum in Puglia and a framed letter from Trinity House on the wall of the sponsoring Yacht Club Costa Smeralda, but to me, his is the ultimate sporting triumph.

Deja una respuesta

Tu dirección de correo electrónico no será publicada. Los campos obligatorios están marcados con *

You May Also Like