Motoring in search of motor neurone disease

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By former Daily Starman ALLAN HALL

I came across this ancient daguerreotype — a Mercedes with an interesting number plate and myself with hair — while rifling through a box of photos, cards, threatening letters and assorted ephemera left by my late mother. The picture triggered a memory of the mad old, glad old days of Grub Street when anything seemed possible — excepting, of course, reality.

Thirty six hours before this moment in time was frozen on the winding roads above Switzerland's Lake Geneva I had failed to wake up to cover a rail crash inquiry in … Stockport or Salford? Somewhere starting with the alphabet's 19th letter.

All that mattered on the day, I believe it was in the early spring of 1985, was that I was a) massively overserved the night before, b) did not arise to cover said iron horse post mortem and c) believed my staff job on the Daily Star in Manchester to be over before it had barely begun.

I reached the hallowed grounds of the inquiry three hours after it started. The Star photographer in attendance, who had managed to wake, wash, dress sensibly and arrive punctually, told me the news editor was 'looking for me.' I received a quick fill on the morning proceedings from a kindly Daily Mail man, held my breath, and dialed Star news editor Jeff McGowan.

"Where've you been?" Fuck, he knows! He has eyes inside my squalid bachelor masturbatorium and fucking knows I didn't wake up until well past the fucking BBC midday news.

"Well Jeff, err, it's like this… get back here now." The line went as dead as my nascent national newspaper career.

Pausing only to drink sugar-loaded Cola drinks and to dry-scrape my stubble with a razor inside a filling station's convenience marginally cleaner than the one in my Didsbury flat, I sashayed theatrically into the Mancunian Black Lubyanka, up to the newsdesk to present my neck to McGowan's waiting guillotine.

"Come in here," he said without pleasantries, pointing to the decorous airing cupboard which passed as his executive office for ceremonies such as these.

I held my high-octane breath: less out of fear for my future than of it igniting upon contact with the perpetually-smouldering, foul-smelling sheep-shit burner — aka a pipe — McGowan often had on the go in those heady days before smoke-free zones and 'nothing-for-me-thanks-I'm-driving' lunches.

He slammed the door shut, put the yurt-warmer on the desk in front of him, fixed me with a beady eye and said: 'You're fired.'

Actually, that's what I expected. Instead he pushed a business class Manchester-Geneva airline ticket towards me and said: 'You'd best get going.'

Your Mission, Mr. Bond: to find celebrated ex-racing driver Jackie Stewart in his tax-haven lair and put it to him that his last pitstop is imminent. That he is in fact dying of motor-neurone disease.

The same affliction that removed widely admired thespian David Niven from the chessboard of national treasuredom. Curiously — conspiratorially — also an ex-pat who also dwelled amid the Nazi-loot washers in their antiseptic, revenue-free mountains, before he was called to the last raclette feast.

Was it something in the Gruyere? Something less than Alpine fresh striking down the cream of the twin cosmos' of the F1 and the featrical?

The caring, sharing ooh-ahh was about to find out....

After negotiating melting snow piles into the back garden a quick glance through the window revealed the premises to be a shrine to the pint-sized Scottish speedster

McGowan said the source for this yet-to-be-ripped yarn was one Stuart 'Bullet' McCartney, the much-liked and admired Scottish reporter on the Star. McGowan said he was too close to the source to go and do the job himself. Hmm, thunk I, smelling rodents. Who would not trade the rainwashed streets of Glasgee for the monied splendour of Geneva for a few days?

McGowan applied Le Carre-esque diktats about the need for secrecy on this one and I and photographer Rick Blake were to contact no other journalist foreign or domestic while abroad.

Not having a clue where he lived I rang the local AP man shortly after landing and was furnished with the name of a village not far from Geneva. After a few door knocks a guy pointed out the home of the dying legend.

No reply at Chez Jackie. If indeed it was his drum. But after negotiating melting snow piles into the back garden a quick glance through the window revealed the premises to be a shrine to the pint-sized Scottish speedster.

If there was an inch of wall or shelf space not adorned with a picture of him, a rosette, medal or trophy testifying to his prowess behind the wheel, I couldn't see it. There was even silverware jostling for space on top of the grand piano — a trophy, I suspected, like everything else in this Jackie Graceland.

Another call to AP landed me with the telephone number of his secretary in Geneva. Courteously she informed me that her boss was currently in America on a promotional tour for tyres and would not be returning home for some time.

All this had been gleaned within two hours of touchdown. It was a Thursday. Rick and I agreed it would be a shame not to splash out on a day and night entertaining ourselves, so we informed Thought Control that enquiries were continuing and went on the lash.

Next day I informed McGowan our prey was in Indianapolis. I didn't expect him to send us there, and indeed he didn’t. But as I was speaking to him I was leafing through the tickets we had been issued with to return home. They were for Monday. Changing them, according to the small print, would be tres cher.

"Stay the weekend, but try to keep the costs down," said McGowan. Oh yes, that'll work in Switzerland.

It was a marvelous three days spent criss-crossing into Italy and France, eating delicate lake perch, guzzling not-so-delicate vin blanc, drinking pression beer in spectacularly overpriced mountainside hotels: the grey and dirty streets of Ancoats seemed further away than ever.

All good things must end and Tuesday morning saw us back at the Ministry of Truth. McGowan was determined not to let this belter of a story go and instructed me to find out when he was expected next time in the UK.

I don’t do these sorts of stories at all. My office says it has come into some information that you are … dying from motor neurone disease. Sorry for asking

His helpful secretary said he was due in Northern Ireland at a promo for Ford Sierra Cosworth cars in a few weeks time. Bingo. McGowan upgraded me to Daily Star motoring correspondent and we were back on the starting grid.

I registered my new status with the Ford company's press office and turned up at a racing circuit outside Belfast on the appointed day. The assorted gasket heads from various specialist magazines and regional papers seemed bemused that the thinking man's bin liner would go to the expense of appointing one of their reporters to such a role. I smiled a lot and kicked the wheels of the car being showcased that day. Knowledgeable, see?

The diminutive great man arrived shortly after tea and biscuits had been dispensed. He seemed in remarkably good health. Must be the medication.

After a lecture on the firepower of the Cosworth we were all to be given a high-speed drive by Jackie around the circuit before getting the chance of a go behind the wheel. It came to our turn: photographer in front, me in the back, deathly sick motor racing icon in the driving seat.

As he charged effortlessly through the gears and alternately accelerated then braked, it was now or never.

"Mr Stewart," I said. "My office … well, it's embarrassing for me as I am strictly a motoring correspondent … I don't do these sorts of stories at all … but my office says it has come into some information that you are … dying from motor neurone disease. Sorry for asking."

The beady eyes narrowed into slits. The eyes that had scanned the great asphalt raceways of the world, leading their owner to glory, bore down on me in the rear-view mirror, radiating contempt, scorn, disbelief and hatred.

"Do I look ill to you son?" Asked the great one.

"Well as I said, it's the office and..."

He cut me off saying: "I think you will find there is a Scottish football club manager with the same name as mine who's not very well with the ailment you mentioned."

The car fell into silence. Jackie did not resume his monologue about the merits of the car. He pulled to a halt and we slunk away, not bothering to stay for the promised lavish lunch as the laser beam eyes of Jackie Stewart burned into our tabloid scum backs.

I related his denial word for word to McGowan. Afterwards he suggested I write a story saying he denied he was on the verge of croaking, but swiftly saw the pointlessness of this.

So our £5,000-plus adventure in Switzerland and Ulster was over. Some weeks later I had to call Bullet about something else and casually mentioned the odyssey.

"Oh Jesus Christ, yeah, it was some football bloke," he said. I don't know to this day if the mistake was genuine, or payback to McGowan for some perceived slight.

I was just happy to have had a bit of a jolly involving perch, vin blanc and Guinness.

 Allan Hall also worked for The Sun, Daily Express and other national titles. He now runs a news agency in Berlin.

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