“For most people, I suppose coming into direct contact with one or two famous people during their lifetime might be moments of rarity to treasure in one’s memory box of recollections. For myself, I know that any meeting I have ever had with life’s events or persons of celebrity or ordinariness has been for some spiritual purpose or divine reason.
Over my lifetime, I have personally met and known over 1000 famous people from the arenas of stage, film, screen, church, politics, royalty, etc., of which 860 of them have publicly read my children’s books to school assemblies in Yorkshire Schools between 1989 and 2002. Because this is not in the ‘usual’ experience range for a person, I can only presume that it meets with some purpose and link in my destiny.
For some people, life is considered to start at the point of conception and for others at birth. For me, I consider the life I am living to have really started at the age of eleven years of age when a large lorry ran over me in the street and wrapped my twisted body around its large drive shaft beneath its carriage. Nearby building workers placed four planks beneath the lorry to raise it from the floor and pull me out. I was taken to Batley hospital with extensive and life threatening injuries, where I remained for the next nine months. Every rib, leg and arm was broken, my lung was punctured and collapsed and my spine was badly injured along with other internal life threatening injuries. I remained on the hospital danger list for over one month, during which time I received the Last Rites of a Catholic administered by a priest several times. Also, during my first three weeks in hospital, the doctors told my parents on three or four occasions, not to expect to see me alive the following day.
On one occasion, as I flitted between semi consciousness and the next life, I distinctly heard a doctor tell my mother that I probably wouldn’t see the night out. I recall being angered hearing this as well as being afraid of dying. I didn’t want to die then! I was too young to die at the age of eleven. I wanted to play football for the Irish National football team like my father had; there was so much I planned to do with my life. The upshot was that I made a sacred promise to my God that if I lived, I would live as good a life and do as much good to others as I could. God kept his part of the deal, and with several exceptions and failed attempts on my part, I have always tried to honour mine.
After having my life spared, my life began anew at the age of eleven years, being told that my spinal injury that left me with no feeling beneath my waistline meant that I’d never walk again. With years of mental meditation, prayer and a miracle along the way, two years after my accident I felt pain below my waistline. I knew that pain meant life and my spine had reconnected with my brain to restore my mobility. It took me a further year to stand and hobble and the next four years to be able to lose myself in a limping crowd of pedestrians. During my life, I was to face the medical sentence of death a total of five times between eleven and my 74th year and yet survive. This merely tells me that I’m still serving my purpose and that my God is content to leave me here a while longer.
Following a recent medical relapse, I had another life-threatening emergency hospital admission on Boxing Day, and I remained in hospital for a month. During this time, they dealt with a collapsed lung, my inability to breath properly, mass fluid on my chest, numerous and unidentified infections with no immune system to fight them off, along with a Lymphoma in my chest that would have killed me, had it been discovered a month later and which requires aggressive chemo treatment over the next nine months. I entered hospital with two cancers (one terminal) and left it being treated for a third cancer, which is also terminal.
My recent period of hospitalisation and brush with death once more naturally gave me much time to think, reflect, remember, pray and be grateful for the life I’ve experienced to date, my happiness with my wife Sheila and my close relationships with my family and friends. The many hundreds of prayers and daily masses offered on my behalf has brought home to me in a way how much I am loved across the world, for being me. I could never in my life have believed that one could be so loved by so many good people and I truly believe that the good Lord continues to work through your prayers. Please keep me in them as I’m not out the woods yet on this present medical excursion and I still have so much left to do before I see to see my body remains placed on the other side of the green sod.
Anyway, my recent time to think, led me to conclude that my life changed at the age of eleven years when I entered the 1950’s bubble gum blowing craze of the time. The first challenge was to blow a large bubble with your gum which covered your entire facial surface without exploding, and then, before it could deflate, suck it back into your mouth palate and prepare for discharge once more! However, the ultimate challenge that was never accomplished by any bubble gum boy or girl on the estate was to ‘get a full set of stars.’
By the age of thirteen, I’d been robbed of all childhood innocence and the world around me was changing faster than the serial altar-bound Liz Taylor could say, ‘I do.’ My hitherto rose-tinted glasses were removed, smashed to pieces and replaced with the adolescent spectacles of scepticism and mistrust.
The cause of this change was a film star called Betty Grable, who was also known by my peers as ‘number 46.’ Betty Grable precipitated my introduction to ‘the conspiracy theory.’
Being a ‘let it all hang out’ 13-year-old, I could blow bubble gum with the best of the big mouths whilst ensuring that my intake of oxygen was sufficient to prevent me passing out.
To promote its own brand in the West Yorkshire bubble-gum war, one manufacturer cleverly cottoned on to the idea of including coloured picture cards of famous film stars inside the sealed wrappers. The series I was collecting numbered 50, and before long every child on the estate was saving them, swapping the duplicates, and occasionally stealing any that was found ‘hanging around’ beyond the eyesight of the owner. Soon we were laying bets upon who would collect the first full set.
Being away from school between the ages of 12 and 15 years due to a traffic accident, meant a lot of school absence for me and this enabled me to chew more bubble gum daily than any of the others racing to complete the set of film stars.
Three months into the contest, and via a combination of purchases, finds, swaps, swindles and thefts, I was way out in front and red-hot favourite to win. I was racing towards the finishing post with 49 picture cards in my back pocket. Only Betty Grable, ‘number 46’ stood between me and the prize as emerging as ‘top dog’.
Needless to say, I never did manage to add ‘number 46’ to my collection. To tell the truth, I never did lay eyes on a ‘number 46’ and neither did any other collector on the estate. As James Cagney, ‘number 17’ in the series would have said, we began to smell the presence of ‘a dirty rat’.
After a 3-hour council of war, it was unanimously agreed by the 18-strong bubble-gum brigade that ‘number 46’ didn’t exist. We agreed that it was a kind of 'find the lady' card trick that cardsharps used, and which the poor punter never won because the lady was never in the pack to be found in the first place! Having solved the bubble-gum scam, we even went so far as to proclaim that no such glamour doll called Betty Grable ever existed and that it was just another card-trick scam dreamed up by bubble gum promoters!
From that day forth, we became determined to treat all adult scam-merchants with deep mistrust and the contempt they deserved. We mingled our blood by use of a small penknife and swore an oath on the pain of death, never again to be dealt a hand with one card missing. All among us agreed that all adults are ‘dirty rats’.
This experience with the picture-card scam cost us the trusting spring of innocence in our stride towards manhood. We now trod the path of adolescent life; weighed down with a healthy dose of worldly scepticism anchored in our boots.
During my adult life, I’ve met many stars and famous names from the celebrity world and since 1989, I’ve even managed to persuade over 860 famous names to read from my children’s books in Yorkshire schools. As young children around the ages of 9 and 7 years, the young Princes, William and Harry had two of my books read to them at bedtime by the mother, the late Princess Diana, who contacted me and requested that I sent her them. I’ve also spoken with the late Princess Margaret on the phone and Princess Diana, I’ve met Princess Anne at a Dewsbury Disablked Centre she agreed to open for me, and Queen Elizabeth presented me with an MBE in the early 90s. My charitable work has been supported by two presidents, two prime ministers, three archbishops, a drug tsar and three chief constables. Former Chief Inspector of Schools for OFSTED, Chris Woodhead, once described my writing in a press interview he gave as being of ‘High quality literature’, the late Dame Catherine Cookson liked some of my stories so much that she and her husband Tom funded a 500 limited-edition publication with all book sale revenue going to charity, television personalities Brigit Forsyth (of 'the Likely Lads' fame) and Magician Paul Daniels have recorded some of my stories for radio transmission, and I once received a telephone call from Nelson Mandela who congratulated me upon one of my published books called, ’Two Worlds-One Heart’ and described my African stories as 'wonderful.'
Between 1989 and 2000, regional newspapers in Yorkshire covered my work and charitable activities in over 2000 photographs and articles. The single question that I was most often asked by journalists and media reporters was ‘how’ I managed to persuade this galaxy of stars to become a celebrity reader in our schools, publicly reading from the published works of a relatively unknown and obscure author for no payment, as well as offering their support in other ways to my writing and charitable projects. All I could reply in honest certainty was, “I invited them by letter and they agreed.”
Now, I’ve blown enough dodgy bubble gum to realise that the odds against so many of them accepting the invitation to read from a relatively unknown West Yorkshire author, simply because they were asked, is greater than the likelihood of Jo Brand declining the offer of a fresh cream bun after a three-week enforced fast. A graduate with a quadruple PHD in Psychology, Astrology, Existentialism, and Chinese Philosophy might tell you that having been born a Scorpio in the Year of the Horse might explain it. Alternatively, my good luck may just be down to having been born the eldest of seven children, who was also born to an Irish mother, who herself was the eldest of seven. Or perhaps, being a person who was nurtured upon the wholesomeness of Hovis brown bread and Horlicks, allied to a belief in God, was guarantee enough to ensure that such a pedigree was simply running true to form in my journey to the stars. Or as I grew to believe, I might have been perceived as having been no more or less than a 13-year-old boy who grew up determined never again to be thwarted in his ambition to secure ‘a complete set’ by some unobtainable star.
I will readily accept that there is no ‘number 46’ in my pack of cards and that when I sent out an invitation to a celebrity to publicly read from my books in one of our children’s schools, at the point of writing the invitation, I did not believe that it would be declined. From 862 invitations, all except two were accepted. From the 860 famous names who accepted the invitation, all proceeded to read in school assemblies or libraries from my books with the exception of two public readings ‘that I cancelled’; one by Cherie Blair and the other by Margaret Thatcher. However, that’s a story for another day recounted in this section of my website under the title, 'The one that got away.' http://www.fordefables.co.uk/the-one-that-got-away.html
Whenever I had contact with the stars, I was forever mindful that they also lived on the same plane of this Earth as myself and other humans. So, although they are designated ‘stars’, they can be reached: unless of course you believe them to be beyond your grasp.
Before I returned to England in 1965, I worked with 'The Canadian Pacific Railway' as a waiter. I was on the Toronto to Vancouver run, a 3000-miles three-day journey across some of the most magnificent landscape in Canada. Like most waiter's jobs, the wages were meagre and the only hope was to earn enough in tips to make the long hours of work more gratifying. The one unusual thing about Canadian trains is the amount of passengers and freight they carried. They were some of the longest trains I ever saw then or since and I often felt they could have stretched from one English county to another.
There were two waiters on duty, myself and a 25-year-old chap from Saint Columbus, whose only ambition was to one day become famous. He possessed no discernible talent, but what he lacked in ability, he more than made up for in sheer good luck, along with the good looks that most young men born branding cattle and mending fences on the open range of the Saint Columbus seem to naturally possess.
I can't recall his proper name, but we called him 'Lucky,' on account of him always coming up trumps wherever the ladies were concerned. Even when he fell down, he always landed 'sunny side up' as they say whenever fried morning eggs are presented with their yolks smiling back wide at you!
During the latter half of the outbound journey, I was asked to deliver a coffee to the passenger in car ‘F’, at table number ’46.’ Having developed an instinctive aversion to the number ‘46’ since my bubble-gum-blowing adolescent years, I asked my Saint Columbus buddy on duty with me to take this order instead of myself. He was delighted to have the opportunity of an extra tip and did so willingly.
My buddy, Lucky, complied with my request and returned five minutes later grinning widely with his sheer good fortune. “Never look a gift horse in the mouth, sucker,” he jibed as he waved a $20 bill in the air. The passenger he’d served at table ‘46’ was Mary Tyler Moore, one of America’s hottest TV stars and the Oprah Winfrey of her time, and she had obviously been pleased enough with the service Lucky had provided.
If only.......if only I’d served table ‘46’ singing a few notes in my sweetest of voices; Mary might have sensed the singing talent lurking within this mere coffee attendant and offered me a spot on her own TV channel and launched me into overnight celebrity status? If only Mary had heard the voice, perhaps.......perhaps she would have 'believed in me' like my wife Sheila does?" William Forde: February 4th, 2017.