My embarrassing meeting with Sir Roger Bannister

The death of Sir Roger Bannister has led me to remember my embarrassing meeting with him. That memory in its turn made me thinking of my absurd conversation with Aung San Suu Kyi. My meetings with the world famous seem to be characterised by ridiculousness.

I met Sir Roger only once, at Leeds Castle in Kent. I’d been invited to give an after-dinner speech to a group of health policy wonks assembled by the King’s Fund. These were the days when I often gave such speeches, and I had something like a set speech that I’d adjust for the event.

For some reason I can’t remember–perhaps fearing that many present  at the dinner would have heard my set speech or perhaps boredom with the speech–I decided to do something different. I hit on the idea of using my father’s jokes. He had a great collection of jokes, many of them to do with bodily functions–particularly defaecating.  There were lots of a-man-goes-to-the-doctor and a-man-goes-onto-a-pub jokes. I didn’t stop to think that this sophisticated audience might not appreciate such jokes; nor did I know that Sir Roger and his wife would be there.

After a few drinks I launched in. I won’t give you the full speech, not that I can remember it anyway, but I can remember Syd’s jokes. We still tell and laugh at them, mainly through remembering Syd and how he told the jokes. Here’s a couple:

A man goes to a doctor. “Doctor, my shit is coming out like spaghetti.”

“Let me have a look. I can see the problem. That’s it fixed.”

“What have you done doctor?”

“I’ve cut six inches off your string vest.”


A man goes to a doctor. “Doctor, I’ve got problems with my bowels.”

“What’s the problem? Do you go regularly?”

“Yes, every morning at 6.”

“What’s the problem then?”

“I don’t get up until 6.30.”

As I told the jokes, I felt that I hadn’t struck the right note. But I continued. People laughed. It wasn’t a disaster.

During the night I reflected on my unsuitable speech but comforted myself that it would all be forgotten quickly.

But at breakfast I was in the queue behind an elderly man and his wife. “Good morning,” said Sir Roger, “I’m Roger Bannister, and this is my wife. Thank you for a wonderful talk.”

He was charming and humble, as everybody says he was, but I knew he was being polite–and actually thought my talk far from wonderful. All I could think is “I’ve been telling smutty jokes to a very famous man. I wish that we could rewind and start again.”

I never saw him again.

There is another parallel with my memory of Ang San Suu Kyi. She came into the news because of her fall from grace–with her failure to speak out on the plight of the Rohingya people. Sir Roger hasn’t fallen from grace, but sport, including his sport, has on the very morning his death has announced. It seems that our currently most famous Olympians–Mo Farrah and Bradley Wiggins–both used drugs. Both too have got rich from their sport, while Sir Roger never made any money. He had to squeeze time from his medical training to train and run, and he trained for only 45 minutes a day. He was a kind of middle class Alf Tupper, the athlete I read about as a child in comics who would catch the bus to his races and eat fish and chips before winning the race, usually against “toffs.”

RIP, Sir Roger. I hope the memory of my smutty jokes faded fast.





One thought on “My embarrassing meeting with Sir Roger Bannister

  1. Pingback: Absurd meetings with famous people: number 3 | Richard Smith's non-medical blogs

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