Close Encounters of the Famous Kind
published: 9 /
In the first in a new series, in which our writers tell of encounters with the famous, Julie Cruickshank tells of a strange meeting with Michael Jackson in Foyle’s bookshop in London.
Many years ago after a hectic week at work I used to sometimes enjoy popping into London for a Saturday morning mooch. It was always relatively quiet and for a little while the shops and cafes were tourist-free. One sunny Saturday - June 15, 2002 - I decided to head to Foyles in Charing Cross Road for a spot of book browsing. If you don’t remember the old Foyles, know that it was chaotic, eccentric, labyrinthine, impossible to navigate. But I loved it. During that month London was in the grip of football World Cup fever and bedecked with flags, as England would that very day play Denmark and reach the quarter-finals. That morning I was a little early and the shops had not yet opened so I decided to go to a cafe.
I sat by the window, enjoying my coffee. I remember I wasn’t really thinking about anything in particular - I was just enjoying the moment, the sunshine, London, and the anticipation of a leisurely browse in my favourite bookshop.
The usual London eccentrics were wandering around, still on a high from the night before. It was a beautiful morning, but a normal day. Or so it seemed. I had no idea what was about to happen to me. At last it was time for Foyles to open so I stepped outside and waited for a few minutes until finally the doors were opened - in true Foyles style, with an old-fashioned key.
The old Foyles - which was relocated in 2014 - adhered to a very odd and old-fashioned system. Some of the books were arranged by theme, but others were filed by publisher, which led to a sometimes very confusing and always exhausting hunt around its many floors and departments. That day I knew where I wanted to go, and after a few dead ends and wrong floors I found the correct section. I was after a particular book which I knew had only been published in the US and, in those days before Amazon was really dominant, Foyles gave me the best chance of finding it despite its chaos. So I entered the section, in a quiet area of the bookshop, and started to browse. The only other person there was a young female assistant who was busy cleaning and tidying the shelves.
I picked up several books and made my way around the shelves, enjoying the distractions of other books whilst keeping an eye out for the publication I had high hopes of finding. I didn’t find it that day, though. Another female assistant ran into the department and, gasping, said to her colleague: “Michael Jackson’s in Theatre and Drama!” The second assistant looked up, bewildered: “Sorry?” “Michael Jackson! He’s here, in Theatre and Drama!” said the second assistant urgently. “He’s here now! Come on!”
I could not quite believe what I was hearing. Michael Jackson, the world-famous pop star, was on this quiet Saturday morning in Foyles the bookshop on Charing Cross Road. So I did what anyone would do: I followed the girls as they ran to see him. I thought I might somehow be prevented from seeing Michael, that this was a secure private visit, but after all I was a customer too and nobody had prevented me from entering the bookshop.
The Theatre and Drama section was housed in a little alcove. Two very tall guys were standing at each side of its entrance, clearly Mr Jackson’s bodyguards. The girls were already inside, and I took a deep breath and then boldly strolled past the guards who made no attempt to stop me. The two assistants seemed to melt away, since they were probably not meant to be playing truant from their departments. And there by the counter just inside the entrance to the alcove, no more than six feet away from me, stood Michael Jackson, the King of Pop.
Michael was wearing his famous yellow mask. He was tall, far taller than I had imagined, and flanked by another two thickset American guys in their fifties, who appeared to be his fixers. He was talking to the very young, very startled and extremely red-faced guy in charge of the department. “Could you show me some books about musicals? Movie musicals?” he asked politely. The young assistant obliged. Michael exclaimed over the books in delight. “Oh these are really cool, I love these!”
I was struck by Michael’s pleasant, well-mannered tone. Above the mask his eyes were startlingly huge. Never in my life have I seen such enormous eyes on a person. They made him seem slightly ethereal. Which, I guess, he was. He was polite and patient with the young bookseller, who was clearly more than a little overwhelmed by such a famous customer. Michael continued to leaf through the various books brought to him. He conferred with his fixers as to their merits but the two tough burly men, more at home with the detail of a security brief, clearly had no interest in the subject of musicals, and awkwardly agreed with whatever Michael said. I suddenly felt sorry for this huge superstar. His companions were not friends with shared interests he could shop with, just employees, but they were all he had, and he could not function in normal society without them.
I hung around for a while, pretending to look through a book about stage direction, feeling faintly ridiculous. I remember being annoyed with myself for not having upgraded my mobile phone to one with a built-in camera, relatively new at the time. But would I have dared to take a photograph? Probably not. I wanted to approach the King of Pop, just feet away from me, and tell him how much I admired his music, how much I loved his ‘Earth Song’. But the fixers and the bodyguards looked too intimidating and my courage failed me. I felt silly, pretending to browse when I was in the presence of one of the most famous men in the world, but I didn’t know what else to do, so I slipped out, just as Michael was asking for books about Vivien Leigh. I didn’t feel like browsing anymore. Book buying would have to wait for another day. I wanted to sit and think, to try to take in what I had just witnessed: this totally unexpected, almost surreal scenario on a quiet Saturday morning in a bookshop in London. I walked straight out of Foyles into the bright sunlight, and made my way to another cafe.
Sipping my coffee, I still felt the glow from my thrilling encounter. It occurred to me how lucky I was, able to go where I pleased, anonymous, and without protection and an entourage. Unlike Michael. I had had a small insight into the empty loneliness that his huge fame had handed him. I could call the press, I mused. I could say to people on the street: “Michael Jackson is in there!” But I didn’t. I thought instead: leave him be, let him enjoy his shopping trip.
I’m so glad now that I did.
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