When I heard Sir Arnold Clark had died I nearly wept. I doubt you believe me, but it's true. Although I met him only once, ever since that day I have followed his career with interest and still hold him in residual affection. Absurd. Hold my hand. I may need help.
It was all down to a single afternoon spent in the billionaire's company 20 years ago when he agreed to be interviewed for a magazine feature on the seemingly fatuous theme, 'One man and his boat'. The series was mostly fluff about how rich people relate to their yachts. I say seemingly fatuous because I never once phoned a celebrity who wasn't prepared to see me to talk drivel about their wretched yachts, and they would usually reveal remarkable insights along the way. So for me the interviews were far from fatuous.
I have no memory of anything he said about his yacht (a grotesque monster called Drum) but I do remember that at one stage in the afternoon we were both laughing so much that we had to take our ties off for the good of our health. Mine first. And most of the laughter was Sir Arnold laughing at himself.
The obituaries you may have read no doubt display him as an avuncular teddy bear with a heart of gold. And if you believe that kind of rubbish you deserve all you get. Nobody becomes a billionaire without being a bit vicious.
No, the man I met on that cold afternoon in a Tollcross garage could best be described a nippy sweetie with a heart of steel. But by God he was fun, and by God he could sell.
The interview had started off rather well. When I was a kid living in Glasgow's Park Circus I used to be sent by my mother to buy pints of milk near a garage where a 20-something Clark was the owner/ manager/maniac. He spent every single second frantically running around shouting at his staff to do anything rather than just stand around. I would stand with my nose pressed against the window watching a theatre that was better than anything on our new telly. Mr Clark wore a black suit, and whenever a customer came into the shop he treated them as a long-lost child.
When I recounted this vivid memory at the start of our interview it started him laughing. 'I remember! I remember!' He roared in a flurry of giggles in the slightly camp, slightly hyper style that wasn't entirely dissimilar to that of Donald Dewar. I can't remember his exact words but they were along the lines of, 'The business plan was to buy dirty old cars at the auction and sell them when they shone and it worked. And it didn't hurt that others in that part of town would also stop to stare!'
It was obvious 40 years on that the hyperactive salesman had lost none of his passion. And then there was money. Shortly after the interview he rented me his yacht for a weekend at such a bargain price that I never saw him as greedy – but by jings he chased down the pennies. 'Do you know I paid the former owner of this garage £xxxx for it,' he suddenly announced, 'but when we had lunch afterwards it was obvious he was expecting me to pick up the bill.' Again my own laughter set his off, and now he was laughing at himself. His turnover was approaching a billion, and yet here he was fretting over a lunch bill of around £13 years earlier.
What was it that made him so unique? Energy, attention to detail, more charm than a liner full of leprechauns. He had all of these characteristics, but so do many. At the core, beyond the ruthless streak, beyond the charm, beyond the knowledge of his business and how cars work, was a salesman who right up to writing this appreciation I have never fully recognised for his peerless skill.
Just before I left I shook him warmly by the hand and said that I had never had so much fun at an interview and that if I could ever do him a favour he had only to ask. 'On the contrary,' he replied, 'I noticed the awful vehicle that you arrived in. It's me that can do you a favour.' The charming old rogue promptly tried to sell me a car.
Then came a moment I treasure. I replied that he would surely advise me that a better plan was to go to an auction, buy a dirty car and give it a polish. He threw back his head, laughed as never before, and told me I was quite right.
A stone to his cairn.