In a week of Royal gloom and slow Covid progress, it seemed a good idea to search for some unusual nuggets of pleasure. If one looks hard enough, they can be found – not on radio, not on screens large or small, not even in the doubtfully named newspapers. (Biased comment papers might be a more accurate description but I digress.)
No, the nuggets are in the world of sponsorship, an important element of modern business marketing. Globally, companies spend £35 billion a year on sponsorship with some £2 billion being expended in the UK. Covid will doubtless affect the figures in the future but Olympics and football World and European Cups will keep the tills ringing. Current marketing whizzkids, however, might be surprised to learn that their trade is not that modern.
The first sponsorship was in the fifth century BC, when rich Greek citizens paid to finance competitions and festivities. Later on, celebs like Octavius, Julius Caesar and the Medici family recognised the image value of gladiatorial and arts patronage. Without sponsorship, Leonardo da Vinci and Botticelli are amongst those who might not have flourished quite so brightly nor so quickly.
My little nuggets, however, are in the more humble surroundings of English and Welsh racecourses. They may not command the international impact of Coca Cola or Nike but who could not enjoy the Chestnut Room at Thirsk Ideal Wedding Venue Handicap Chase; at Newcastle the Vertem Very Different Stockbrokers Handicap Chase; at Newbury the Dubai Duty Free Full of Surprises Handicap; and at Chepstow the splendid first three of the Barry and Michelle Hurdle, the Bucket Manufacturing Chase and the Dan and June Squires Hurdle. All proud, if modest, contributors to our sponsorship heritage.
Grand National reminiscence about Gregory Peck reminded me of my encounter with Gene Hackman. It was brought about by the man we hired to clean the carpets in our house. He'd done the living room, the hallways and the stairs, and he was putting his equipment away when he said, 'You'll never guess whose house I did this morning'. 'No,' I said. 'Where were you before you came here?' 'East Sooke.'
East Sooke is an area of winding roads and scattered residences that lies across the bay from where we’d built our house. It's rural Canada, old west coast, and sits at the bottom corner of Vancouver Island. It's lovely over there, majestic in places with old-growth cedar and Douglas fir trees, big eagles, some bears and cougars. Out at the end of that narrow road you can see across the Straits of Juan de Fuca to the Olympic Mountains in Washington State.
I knew some people who lived over in East Sooke, but no-one of any great note. 'No idea,' I said. 'Gene Hackman,' said the carpet cleaner. I laughed. 'You're not telling me Gene Hackman lives in East Sooke.' 'Yes, I am,' the carpet cleaner said. He was a small man, skinny. I'd wondered when he'd arrived how he was going to get his bulky equipment up the front steps, but he managed it all right. 'He just bought a place over there; that's what he told me. It was Gene Hackman all right. I asked him if it was him and he said it was.' 'Gosh,' I said. Then the carpet cleaner was gone and I forgot all about it. I had to fly to Chicago the next week, and there was much to prepare.
With more than two-and-a-half million square feet of exhibition space, the McCormick Place Convention Center (as they spell it there) bills itself as the biggest meeting place in North America. It sits on a waterfront 'campus' close to Chicago's downtown, with nearly 6,000 parking spaces, a two-and-a-half acre rooftop garden, 50-foot high interior ceilings, and 170 rooms with 6,000 square feet of meeting space, and six ballrooms. It's hard to wrap your head around the scale of it.
I'd gone to Chicago for BookExpo America, the biggest book fair in the United States. When I first saw McCormick Place, it seemed to me you could park a squadron of Boeing 747s inside the main exhibition hall. But on that day the hall was packed from one end to the other with booths; booths for retailers, publishers, writers, digitisers, audiobook producers, magazines, rights, and a huge range of associated services and supplies related to the business of creating, making and facilitating the idea of writing, reading and listening. The booths were neatly set out in streets, each street labelled and every little street clogged with masses of people. It was a long way from sleepy Sooke at the south end of Vancouver Island.
A constant stream of announcements came through the loudspeaker system. Former President Bill Clinton was going to speak in one of the halls. There were still tickets left; you could queue for them in the main foyer. Another announcement told us that so-and-so was here to promote their latest book. She could be found at such-and-such a time at booth number five thousand seven hundred and whatever. 'Consult the official Book Expo map for the exact location.' It didn't take long to switch the mind off and ignore the endless stream of announcements that punctuated the air in the main exhibition hall.
At some point that first morning the name 'Gene Hackman' took my attention, as the loudspeaker intoned something about a book signing. Right then a lady in a bright green suit – one of the BookExpo America officials – walked past. Without thinking I said, 'Excuse me ma'am, have you got a second?'
She stopped and turned. 'Yes, of course,' she said. 'What do you need?'
'Well, I just heard Gene Hackman's name mentioned over the loudspeaker system. He's my neighbour. I didn't know he was going to be here. I can't get away to see him at his book signing this afternoon, but I'd just like to say hello since we're both here. Do you have any idea how I could do that?'
'As a matter of fact I do,' she said. 'I'm in charge of the Green Room – the hospitality suite – and Mr Hackman will be in there at lunchtime. If you come along at, say 12.30, I'll be on the door and I can let you in.'
At 12.30, the nice lady was standing at the door of the Green Room. 'In you go,' she said. 'He's right there.' I stepped into the Green Room to see a crowd of people surrounding the unmistakable figure of Gene Hackman. They were standing in the centre of the room, about 10-deep around the film star. He was taller than I had expected. Taller and bigger than he'd looked as Popeye Doyle in The French Connection
. His hair was a sandy red colour. He was a well-built, imposing figure; an ex-US Marine. I barged through the crowd, right to the front of it, and stuck out my hand.
'Mr Hackman,' I said, 'I thought I'd drop by to say hello. Our carpet cleaner told me you'd moved into our neighbourhood. I didn't realise you'd be here in Chicago'. He gave me a puzzled look. One or two people in the crowd edged away. 'Your carpet cleaner?' he said. 'Ah, what neighbourhood would that be?' 'Sooke.' 'Sooke?' he said. 'Where is Sooke?'
That was when I began to doubt the carpet cleaner's story. 'It's at the south end of Vancouver Island,' I said. 'When the carpet cleaner came to our house last week he said he'd just finished doing your carpets in East Sooke. He said you'd bought a place over there.'
Gene Hackman shook his head slowly. 'Not me,' he said. 'I haven't bought a property in... ah, East Sooke.' He smiled. 'I've got a place in the San Juan Islands though. That's not far away. We can see Vancouver Island from there.'
'Oh dear,' I said. 'I'm sorry about that. I was looking forward to buying you a pint at the Seventeen Mile House. It's our local pub.'
Gene Hackman looked at me. He was polite, although a bit nonplussed. 'What's the weather like out there just now?' he said. The crowd was pressing back. I can't remember what I said about the weather but it seemed like a good time to leave. I thanked him and apologised for interrupting. 'Not at all,' he said, and stuck out his hand. I shook it, and left.
We never did use that carpet cleaner again.
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