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SUNDAY 21 JULY  2024

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Flying in a helicopter is no fun, it can be the height of discomfort

A rare dry and sunny July afternoon in my daughter’s beautiful garden in rural Kent when the unmistakable sound of a helicopter blocked out all else. There on the village green opposite was an air ambulance negotiating trees, cables and telegraph poles to land its medics and go to the aid of someone a great deal less fortunate than us.

 

It brought back memories of my various trips in helicopters and take it from me they are far from the glamorous mode of transport people assume. They are cramped, noisy and shake a lot. But they are a quick way of getting directly from A to B.

 

Andrew Cameron, when md of Express Newspapers, was fond of them and in the ‘90s we took the trip from Battersea Heliport to Warwickshire (stopping on the way to pick up his mistress.) We were bound for an event at which I was due to present the winner of our Express Countrywoman of the Year (one of our more esoteric competitions) to Prince Philip who, true to form, was typically rude to the poor woman.

 

The lady, whose name is lost with the fog of age, was a falconer and had done her homework, discovering that Philip had been taught falconry by his old chum, the pompous character actor James Robertson Justice. She relayed her findings to the duke.

 

His one word reply was an emphatic and nasty No, whereupon he turned on his well polished Oxfords to move on. The only explanation I could come up with was that she had reminded him of his days with Robertson Justice and others at the men-only Thursday Club in Soho where what happened there stayed there. And by all accounts for very good reason. (The Press, as we know was slightly more obsequious towards royals’ dodgy antics in those days.) 

 

Around the same time we were flown by F1 team sponsor Highland Spring to the British grand prix at Silverstone where the venue becomes for that one Sunday of each year the busiest airport in Europe. As we were about to take off for the return journey to Redhill aerodrome I was sitting next to the pilot who asked me to look up through the glass top and let him know if there was any traffic above. Assuming he was having his little joke, I laughed. He wasn’t, it was the only way he could be sure it was safe to go.

 

Much hairier was a 110-mile trip from Makeni in the central mining region of Sierra Leone back to the capital, Freetown, 15 years ago. We were in an old British Army transport helicopter which had seen better days, much better, had no seats and the fuel tank was strapped to the sides inside the bloody thing.

 

As for the we, it was the controversial mining billionaire Frank Timis, half of the Sierra Leonian cabinet and little me acting as Frank’s PR man. We sat on boxes, passed round crates of booze and Timis chain-smoked throughout the hour-long terror ride. And the main contender to succeed to the presidency of the country opened beer bottles with his gleaming white teeth. It was like a scene from Good Morning Vietnam but without the genius of Robin Williams.


My first trip in a helicopter was in 1977. I had organised an event in Hertfordshire and needed to be back home in Tatsfield atop the North Downs by 7pm. Why? Darlings, it was my luvvie days and I was typecast as a louche tea planter in The Brides of March farce in our village’s amdram production. Suffice to say that various dusky maidens are involved plus an Arab sheikh.

 

Our journey back by air was running late so, instead of landing at Biggin Hill three miles away, the brave pilot decided to touch down on the village green next to the village hall where my adoring audience was due to arrive. Word got around and, as we lowered, the pilot spotted my fellow cast member in fez and full flowing robes plus harem.

 

‘Bloody hell, what on earth!’... was all he could manage. I thanked this brilliantly helpful chap and headed to the pub for a sharpener before curtain-up.

 

*****

 

Rishi Sunak said Sorry in his farewell speech; Penny Mordaunt was gracious and said ‘Democracy is never wrong’; Grant Shapps admitted that people never voted for divided parties. And Liz Truss said nothing and buggered off into the early morning Suffolk light. What a piece of work she is and top marks to the Star for its lettuce brainwave. It’s one of those brilliant ideas which will mark this stupid woman for ever.

 

Happily, Sunak pulled back from naming her in his dissolution honours list. The only former PM on it was Theresa May and if we have to have honours, and I wish we didn’t, then the new Baroness May was a decent and deserved recipient. But a knighthood for  Oliver Dowden, the intensely wet deputy prime minister who urged Sunak to go early for the election? Surely it should be ‘Arise Dame Olive’.

          

As for a peerage for Rishi’s so-called chief of staff, 36-year-old leather-jacketed Liam Booth-Smith, words fail me. No they don’t but even this fine organ does have its standards.  

 

*****

 

The national anthem has been sung a lot of late what with the Euros and Lewis Hamilton’s wonderful comeback win at Silverstone. The melody is a bit of a dirge but why the words? Surely patriotic Britons should be singing for the nation, not praising the monarch and wishing him/her to long reign over us. Just think, what if by an accident of birth, we were belting out our praises for King Andrew? New lyrics please!

 

*****

 

 When Keir Starmer was knighted in 2014 he invited his parents to the ceremony at the Palace. The senior Starmers arrived in their battered old Volvo estate and after much explaining were allowed through the gates.

 

Rodney, who was a toolmaker (who knew?) was guided to a parking spot by a flunky who was then asked to exercise the family Great Dane which had come along for the ride. The poor chap did just that and all went swimmingly until the family pet spotted its lunch.

 

One of HM’s corgis.  


ALAN FRAME


10 July 2024