I was walking through the frozen food aisle at Tescos on Wombwell Lane just up from the Stairfoot Roundabout in Barnsley on Wednesday morning, looking for Weight Watchers oven chips when I saw the poet Coleridge pricing up Viennettas. He looked well, considering. Like in the Northcote portrait just before he set off for Malta.
I paused, a bag of frozen peas in one hand, my nervousness held awkwardly in the other. The dilemma was to approach or not? And there you have it, the tempting mystique of celebrity; thats one of its charms along with the money the aura of otherworldliness that surrounds it; like a force field. And theres also the danger that if you get too close youll break the spell. Someone wont be what you think they are. I once saw Wackadays Timmy Mallet going through the rubbish bins at KFC in Bolton like an urban fox and was so shocked and overawed that I couldnt feel my fingertips for three weeks afterwards. There were some chicken skins stuck to his trademark comedy glasses.
Thats the effect fame can have on you, almost like a minor road traffic collision, or a small win on the National Lottery, depending on how it goes.
My shameful encounter with Jimmy Saville was like running into a brick wall.
But here I was on a normal, bog-standard everyday Wednesday morning, in a place Id been a hundred times, watching one of the greatest minds theres ever been. Here was the man who wrote Christabel and Biographia Literaria, who re-popularized Shakespeares Hamlet, ten feet away from me. Stacking ice cream into his trolley. Six numbers, no need for the bonus ball. Jackpot.
I felt shivery and had a metallic taste in my mouth.
I visited Nether Stowey in the summer of 1999. Caught the good weather and got chased by wild ponies on the Quantocks. Even now, if youve read the right things, the whole place reeks of the summer of 1797. Wordsworth walking over the green fields from Alfoxden with Dorothy. Charles Lamb coming down to visit on one of his escapes from the East India Company. But the pull for me was always Coleridge. Flaming Cross once told me about the Angry Brigade the 60s anarchist group who had planned to blow up Dove Cottage and spray graffiti all over Grasmere announcing Coleridge Lives! I sort of digged their bag, man.
Curious about what he might be buying I peeped into the trolley.
A party pack of Seabrooks crisps sat comfortably on top of some Guinness Original and a big bar of Galaxy. There were some flour covered muffins, a frozen prawn curry. A four pint plastic bottle of milk. Some Whiskers cat food.
As if conscious of my look Coleridge half turned and gave me a quizzical glance. Three for one, he said, nodding into the freezer, a trace of a West Country accent. Like honey and butter on a slice of crusty bread. The Sara Lee gateauxs are marked down as well.
I smiled, thankful for the opening. Have they got any mint ones? I asked.
Coleridge nodded, dipping back into the open freezer. He held out a mint and chocolate Viennetta.
I juggled the frozen peas and the Viennetta into my basket.
Going for the offer? he asked.
Youd be mad not to, Coleridge confirmed, handing across two more frosty boxes.
I dropped the ice cream into my trolley and hesitated. So, I said at last, determined not to let the opening close, Kubla Khan?
Coleridge straightened himself up, brushing the chill from his fingertips. Yes?
I leapt through the window: Whats it all about?
Coleridge twisted his full lips. For a moment he looked weary, like a comic being asked to say his catch phrase for the hundredth time that week, and then the smile returned to his heavy lips. Its difficult to say, he admitted. What do you think its about?
Creativity and the nature of genius.
Encouraged, I said: And what about the writing of it?
The Person from Porlock, you mean? he said. Coleridge thought for a moment and then grinned. Now, thatd be telling, wouldnt it?
Getting him to sign the cardboard carton on my friendly bacteria, I left it at that and resumed my shopping. I didnt want to be one of those boring buggers that badgered the stars. Take them as real people. Most of them wanted it that way. Except perhaps Kenneth Williams, but thats another story.
Its amazing the different feel you get in different supermarkets. Tescos has a sense of comforting affluence somehow. I think the bright lights have a lot to do with it. Theyre selling optimism by the pound. Netto on the other hand, is like an end of line sale in a 1970s Moscow food hall. The depression wraps around you and sets in like flu. Pessimism aching your bones.
I did the rest of my shopping, spent a lot of time walking slowly and eaves-dropping behind a fat woman with swollen ankles who was talking to Samuel Johnson about last nights edition of Who wants to be a millionaire? Then made my way to the checkout.
I was stood in line, waiting by the till, when I felt someone bustle against me and Julius Caesar shouldered his way past. Bleeding foreigners. They simply dont know anything about queuing.
Oi, toga boy, I shouted, conscious that this was the man whod defeated Scipio at Thapsus with inferior odds, but I felt like Id gone too far and had to see it through one way or another. Does tha wanna get to t back o t line, or what?
He hesitated, pulling out his points card from the folds of his toga, flaring his nostrils and giving me a haughty glance.
I could tell straight off that he was going to brazen it out.
Brian Glover, who Id seen earlier browsing through the box-set DVDs, was stood by the Aeros, just about to join the line for the checkout, said: Same old faces, eh? Same old faces. Still holding his basket, he folded his arms.
As if suddenly self-conscious, Caesar had dropped the next customer board.
Its at your feet, lad, Brian remarked.
Caesar scrabbled it up.
And how much have you got in that bleeding basket?! I asked, pointing at the bulging mass of stuff the Roman was pouring onto the rubber belt.
I pointed up to a sign above the till.
Ten items or less, mate, Brian said critically, echoing my own thoughts.
Looking significantly into his basket you could see he was embarrassed to be caught out with too many items.
He mumbled a hurried apology in Latin to the bored girl on the till. His forehead creasing through embarrassment.
I should bloody think so, Brian said, disgusted, behind me. And I bet he wants to pay wi Switch.
Caesar turned, obviously thinking it was me thatd spoken. Pulling out his bank card, he smiled and bowed graciously, but I knew hed have me if he could. You could tell. Joaquin Phoenix looked like that at Russell Crowe in Gladiator just before they had their Coliseum settler, so Id seen it all before. Roman spite. It kept me on my toes.
Coleridge walked up to the next conveyor belt, pushing his trolley, nodding to me and smiling. He glanced across where Julius Caesar was bagging up his purchases.
At it again, is he? the Sage of Highgate queried, motioning his head towards Caesar. He was the same last week when there was that end of line sale on tinned pears. He had two baskets full. He nearly knocked Matt Busby off his feet.
Caesar glanced sideways, scowling, then smiled at the checkout girl again.
Coleridge, grinning, winked at me. Ita populi Romani exercitum hiemare atque inveterascere in Tesco moleste ferebant, he paraphrased.
Me and Brian were nodding, exchanging a glance of agreement.
I couldnt have put it better myself.