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The Greatest Experiences of My Life

27 Dec 2014 at 12:39

Some time ago a friend of mine listed the 100 greatest moments of his life in a Facebook post. What a great thing to do, I thought. He listed 100 events with no commentary. I’ve decided to emulate him, but not do 100 (not sure I could think of that many!) but try to offer some explanation. It’s been quite an emotional thing to do in some ways, but it’s brought back some great memories, along with a few painful ones too. Not sure whether I’ll have the balls to compile a mirror post of the worst moments of my life. Just to explain, these are in no particular order, apart from the first one! I hope you enjoy reading this, and maybe you’ll then be inspired to do the same yourself.

1. Civil Partnership – 15 June 2008
It took place at Wadhurst Castle, not far from Tunbridge Wells and it really was a perfect day. John and I had been together for nearly thirteen years so it was about time we made it official. I proposed to him on Holkham Beach in north Norfolk but it took him a week to say yes. We invited 104 people to share the day with us, and everything went swimmingly. My sister Tracey made a brilliant speech at the reception and David Davis was seen to shed a tear during the ceremony. He later reckoned he had some grit in his eye. More “HERE”. Pictures HERE

2. Supporting West Ham – the 2006 FA Cup Final
Two nil up, and yet we all knew it wouldn’t last. This was truly one of the great Cup Finals of all time. Even though West Ham lost in the end (to Liverpool) everyone who was there knew what they had just witnessed. Walking away from the Millennium Stadium afterwards it was all hugs and handshaking with Liverpool fans, who knew how lucky they had been. I hate Stevie Gerrard! More HERE

3. Olympic Saturday
That Saturday evening in July 2012 will forever be one of the greatest in the history of British sport. And I was there. I took my niece Philly, and I hope the memories of that evening stay with her for her whole life. We saw Mo Farah, Jessica Ennis and Greg Rutherford win gold medals for Britain. The atmosphere was unbelievable. And to think, from next August I get to go to that fantastic stadium every fortnight! More HERE

4. Winning the Medway Ports Golf Championship
I haven’t got many sporting achievements to my name, so winning a golf competition in 1992, when I had only been playing the sport for 5 years had got to count as one of the great moments of my life! Trouble was, Medway Ports were one of my clients, and I was told afterwards it wasn’t the done thing to beat your client at anything. I guess I was also a bit of a bandit, as I was still playing off a handicap of 28. I now play off 13, although never actually play to it.

5. Getting my first car
It was an orange Ford Cortina MkIII. It was Easter 1981. I paid £750 for it and it became known as The Big Jaffa. I was as proud as I could be. I had ached for a car ever since I passed my test in November 1979, only a few months after my 17th birthday. I was home for Easter from my year in Germany and drove it back to Bad Wildungen. Sadly it only lasted until July 15 1982, when I wrote it off on my 20th birthday by hitting a Transit Van head on at 50 mph. Since then I’ve become a huge Audi fan and have owned 9. My last one was an S5, which I was very sad to part with in September. It was replaced by a Jaguar FType. I do like the Jaguar, but I also miss my Audi…

6. Being Selected in North Norfolk
It was September 28 2003. I had told the North Norfolk Conservatives selection committee I was gay, and the 200 people at the general meeting selected me, giving me 66% of the vote on the first ballot. I walked away from that meeting as if I was floating on air. I remember Theresa May calling to congratulate me and me being proud that a supposedly anti-gay local party could do what they did. Even though I failed to win the seat, and had a terrible result, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and can’t look back with too many regrets.

7. Getting my degree at UEA
Like Neil Kinnock, I was the first member of my family to go to university. I chose UEA in Norwich because it had the course (German, linguistics and Teaching English as a Foreign Language) I wanted to do and I loved the campus. I had three great years there and loved every minute of it. I’ve been back a few times since and felt like I was a ghost wandering round. I remember the moment I discovered I had got a 2(1). Time seemed to stand still. I was proud. But not as proud as my mum.

8. A Week on the Normandy Beaches
In late May 1994 I took my Dad, my friend Daniel Forrester and his Dad Ed, Steve Kiddy (my uncle) and Dennis Nicholls (family friend) to Normandy. It was two weeks before the 50th anniversary of D Day. We visited war graves, the famous beaches and had the time of our lives. Ed and Dennis are no longer with us, but I know Daniel and I look back on this week as one of the greatest times of our lives. It was a week of Dad-bonding which at times turned into Last of the Summer Wine.

9. Dinner with Margaret Thatcher
To celebrate Politico’s’ fifth birthday we organised a dinner at The Savoy in early 2002. Margaret Thatcher was to be the guest of honour. However, three weeks before the event she suffered a stroke and was banned from speaking in public. She, Denis and Carol still came, however. I sat next to the Iron Lady throughout and she was very good company, and quite funny. I was told I had to stop her grabbing the microphone, and I was successful in this until right at the end of the meal she made a beeline from the podium to thank the assembled throngs. All I remember was putting my arm around her waist and pulling her away!

10. Co-presenting ‘Sunday Service’ on BBC Radio Five Live
I have had two career ambitions in my life – to be an MP and to be a radio presenter. When the producer of 5Live’s Sunday Service, Jo Phillips, asked if I’d like to co-present the programme with Fi Glover I thought all my Christmases had come at once. I became Andrew Pierce’s deputy for three years and presented the show around 20 times. It had long been my favourite show on the radio and Fi was my favourite presenter. I was like a pig in the proverbial.

11. First show on LBC
Seven years after Sunday Service I had assumed I’d never get a radio show, but things changed after a chance conversation with Yasmin Alibhai-Brown. She and I ended up doing an audition at LBC and three weeks later a call came asking if I could stand in for their evening presenter, Petrie Hosken, who was ill. It was the day of Nick Clegg’s speech at the LibDem conference, I remember. I got through it relatively unscathed, which was a miracle bearing in mind my total lack of preparation. A year later I was offered the same show 5 days a week. More HERE

12. Taking part in ANY QUESTIONS for the first time
This was ‘big boy’s’ radio. To say I was nervous was an understatement. It was in August 2008 and the show came from Ottery St Mary in Somerset. My fellow panellists were Mary Beard (who’s since become a good friend), Tim Smit from the Eden Project and Sarah Sands. Jonathan Dimbleby has a wonderful knack of putting newbies at their ease. “Iain Dale presents a Night With Ann Widdecombe at theatres around the country,” said Jonathan to the audience. “Is that a whole night?” I paused for a moment and said “A gentleman never tells, Jonathan”. And off we went. More HERE

13. Winning Radio Presenter of the Year
I’m not the sort of person who ever wins awards. But in July 2013 that changed when I was named the Arqiva Radio Presenter of the Year. I had also been shortlisted for a Sony two months earlier, but didn’t make it to the first three. I assumed it would happen again bearing in mind I was up against Frank Skinner. At the event I was told Skinner hadn’t shown up, so my mood brightened. Turned out he said he’d only come if he had won. The moment Chris Tarrant announced me, I could hardly believe it. To win that award after only two years in the business, and for it to be awarded by my peers, was a very special moment indeed. All downhill from there! More HERE

14. Visiting Lebanon in 1991
In 1991 I became the first British person to go to Beirut since the release of John McCarthy. Believe it or not I was speaking at a conference on transport privatisation. I even got an SAS guard. I was advised to stay in the hotel at all time, but I couldn’t resist it and took myself off into the centre of Beirut and was then shown round the mountains and valleys surrounding Beirut. I must have been mad, but it was a memorable trip and I would love to go back now. Then, the place was largely still in ruins.

15. Meeting the Queen
Back in 2002 John and I were invited to a reception for the book industry at Buckingham Palace. There were 800 people present so I doubted we would actually get to meet Her Majesty. John, who is normally not one to push himself forward, worked out that if we stood in a certain place, The Queen would have to walk past. So that’s where we plonked ourselves and sure enough, a few minutes later we found ourselves talking to her. She was very easy to talk to and I remember her throwing her head back and laughing uproariously at something I said. Sadly I can’t remember what it was. We explained that our bookshop was only a few hundred yards away from the Palace in Artillery Row, but she clearly had no idea where that was. Why should she? I also remember her being incredibly tiny, and people trying to inveigle themselves into the conversation.

16. Visiting Number Ten for the First Time
My first tentative footstep into the political arena was to set up a Conservative organization in 1982 at the very left-wing University of East Anglia. Only a few months later followed my first encounter with Margaret Thatcher when she invited the chairmen of the various University Conservative Associations to a reception at Number Ten. For a country boy like me, it was unbelievable to have been invited and it was something I had been looking forward to for months. Just to climb those stairs, with the portraits of all past Prime Ministers on the walls was worth the trip on its own. And there at the top of the stairs was the Prime Minister. She had obviously perfected the art of welcoming people to receptions and as she shook you by the hand and wished you a good evening, she moved you on into the room without you even knowing she was doing it. Most of the Cabinet were there – I remember discussing with Cecil Parkinson the number of free running shoes he had been sent after a recent profile had announced to the world that he was a keen runner. He offered me a pair but it turned out his feet were much smaller than mine! We were constantly plied with wine and I made a mental note to stop at two glasses. But after the second glass was emptied I felt rather self-conscious without a glass in my hand so grabbed another. Just as the Prime Minister walked by I took a sip. All I remember is my stomach heaving and me thinking that I was about to throw up at the Prime Minister’s feet, thus ending a glorious political career which had hardly got off the ground. Luckily I managed to control my stomach and all was well. It turned out that it was whisky in the glass, rather than white wine.

17. Trip to Rwanda
Back in July 2007 I joined Andrew Mitchell and 50 volunteers for a 5 day trip to Rwanda. I was there to film a documentary for 18 Doughty Street internet TV. The volunteers were there to take part in social action projects. What a fascinating country. I kept a diary. Click on the links. Day 1, Day 2, Day 3, Day 4, Day 5

18. Losing my Gay Cherry
Epping Forest. Watched by a deer. I think that’s enough detail, don’t you? The deer is still traumatised. So am I, for that matter :).

19. First trip to the USA
When i was working for Patrick Thompson MP at the House of Commons he had an intern called Mark Milosch. In the summer of 1987 I went to visit Mark in Ann Arbor in Michigan for a month. And what a month it was. We spent ten days of it embarking on a 3,000 mile trip right round America, starting in Detroit, heading up to northern Michigan, across the northern states to the Badlands and Yellowstone, down through Utah, into Arizona, through the Grand Canyon, into Texas, visiting Southfork (!) and heading back to Michigan via Memphis and Kentucky. And all in a ten year old Buick. An experience of a lifetime.

20. Trip to the Soviet Union
In April 1976, at the age of 13, I went on a ten day trip to Moscow and Leningrad (as it was then). There were about 30 of us on this trip, led by the school’s Head of Languages, David Lewis, a man who was to have a great influence on my life, teaching me German. I remember taking £14 in spending money and returning with half of it. For a 13 year old it was an amazing experience. I remember the marble clad tube stations. I remember the lumps of ice in the river Neva in Leningrad. The Hermitage, Red Square, Lenin’s tomb. Unforgettable. I returned a few years ago and almost pined for the Communist days. On my return it was as if I had gone back to Detroit. And the food was as awful as ever.

21. Seeing Abba in Concert
I vividly recall seeing Abba win the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest with Waterloo. I immediately became a fan and eagerly awaited their every release. And so it was that in 1979 (or was it 1980) a group of five of us trooped off to Wembley Arena to see them in concert. We were about as far from the stage as you could get, but it didn’t seem to matter. I can’t remember a thing about the evening except for nearly losing my bag down a chute.

22. Presenting Drive on LBC
On any radio station the two most important shows are Breakfast and Drive. I had been very happy presenting the evening show, and them also Sunday mornings. In the evenings I had virtually free reign to do what I wanted. I had truly never been a presenter who constantly hankered after another timeslot or manoeuvred to get it. So when I was offered Drive it was with mixed emotions that I said yes. Mixed because it meant I’d be replacing my friend James Whale, and I knew it would have to be much more newsy than my evening show, and therefore more constraining. On the other hand, you just don’t say no to a promotion and that’s what it clearly was. And I’ve never looked back. I love the fact that there’a a lot of Breaking News in my timeslot and I thrive on that. My first big test came on May 22 2013, only two months into the job when Soldier Lee Rigby was murdered shortly before I went on air. Read more about that HERE

23. Buying Princess Diana’s Audi Cabriolet
It was July 1994 and I had ordered a new Audi Cabriolet. It was supposed to arrive a few days before a motoring holiday in Germany with my friend Daniel Forrester. I cancelled the order and took a trip to Dovercourt, St John’s Wood. They had a beautiful turquoise Cabriolet on their forecourt, with cream leather. Only 4,000 miles on the clock. They told me it had been owned by Princess Diana. I didn’t believe it at first but they then showed me photos of her driving it. Bought. Sadly I sold it a year too early. If I had owned it when she died I know I could have made a mint. But I’m not that kind of boy. Am I.

24. Going on a school exchange to Germany
In April 1977 60 of us traipsed onto the ferry at Harwich headed for the Hoek of Holland, where we got a train to Cologne and then on to Bad Wildungen, where we were spending three weeks each with a German family. It was on this trip that something snapped in my brain and I became good at German. Before this I was useless at it but in the end of year exams I came top of the class. Two years later we returned and stayed with different families. This was the start of a lifelong friendship with the Niessner family. I fell in love with Germany, so much so that I ended up studying it at university. I fully intended to be a German teacher. How different my life has turned out!

25. First day working at the House of Commons
Back in the summer of 1985 my first job out of university was being research assistant to Norwich North MP Patrick Thompson. On my first day I remember waling down the corridor which leads from Central Lobby in the Houses of Parliament to the House of Lords and encountering former PM James Callaghan and ex President Gerald Ford walking the other way. I remember being in complete awe and wondering what a boy from Essex was doing working in a place like that. After three weeks I got used to it but there’s still that little bit of a thrill whenever I walk into the building.

26. Getting my first book published
In 1996 I was writing the business plan for Politico’s, I was also compiling my first book, which came to be called AS I SAID TO DENIS: THE MARGARET THATCHER BOOK OF QUOTATIONS. It was published in mid 1997 by Robson Books, owned by Jeremy Robson, who now works with me at Biteback. Since then I have written or edited thirty books. The BILL CLINTON JOKE BOOK even made the humour bestseller lists. So there!

27. First Skiing Holiday
In 1984 I was on a gap year, teaching in southern Germany when my sixth form students decided I should accompany them on a trip to Austria to go skiing for a weekend. On the first day I was so rubbish I could hardly stay on my feet. I couldn’t even manage to master the drag lifts. Overnight something clicked in my subconscious and the next day I was much better and really enjoyed it. I went on several skiing holidays after that and became quite a proficient skiier. I even took Mum once, along with some Swiss friends. I still remember the look on her face when she got on some skis and slithered twenty yards or so. Oh how I’d love to see that look of pure joy again.

28. Trip to Switzerland with Mum
Back in 2007 (I think) I took my mum back to Switzerland for a long weekend. We based ourselves in Zurich and drove out into the mountains from there. Just her and me. I still remember the look on her face as she realised she was about to get on a cable car. By that time she had had five hip operations and could only really walk with the aid of crutches or she had to be pushed in a wheelchair, which she hated. She did rather like being treated like royalty at the airport though! My sisters also took on her on many trips and each time she came back rejuvenated. Looking back I just wish I had done it more often. More "HERE

29. Winning Online Commentator of the Year
In 2009 I won the Online Commentator of the Year award at the Comment Awards. Since 2003 I had established myself as one of the three leading bloggers in the UK. I didn’t realise it at the time but it gave me a massive platform. I had been doing media and political punditry for a few years but doing the blog got me a massive amount of media exposure on TV and radio. I certainly wouldn’t have got the job with LBC without it. I gave up the blog at the end of 2010. I wonder now whether that was a mistke. More HERE

30. Trip to Australia in 2011
In June 2011 I was invited to give a series of lectures by Microsoft in Australia. Nice fat fee, first class flights, top class hotels. What’s not to like? I also broadcast a week of shows from Sydney, and also spent a week with my friend Shane Stone, the former Chief Minister of the Northern Territory in Darwin and his hideaway at Channel Point, 300 miles west of Darwin. The only other creatures there were crocodiles. Three weeks I will never forget. More HERE

31. Repeal of the Dock Labour Scheme
In October 1987 I got a job as public affairs manager for the British ports Federation. My remit was to persuade the Thatcher government to abolish the National Dock Labour Scheme, which essentially gave dockers in registered ports a job for life and strangled their competitiveness against non scheme ports like Felixstowe. On 6 April 1989 the campaign ended when Norman Fowler announced the abolition of the scheme. A three month dock strike followed and I was on TV and radio every day defending the employers’ position. Looking back, this is the thing I am most proud of in my career. Doing what I did had enabled the ports industry to thrive in a way it never would have been able to with the scheme still in existence. I reckon upwards of 100,000 extra people have jobs because that piece of legislation no longer exists. More HERE

32. Being appointed to Lloyds List
With the successful Dock Labour Scheme campaign finished, at the end of 1989 i found myself without a job. I spent an abortive three months as a public affairs consultant with Charles Barker, but hated every minute of it. So I wrote to the editor of Lloyds List asking for his advice. He promptly offered me two weeks’ work experience, writing on the paper on shipping and insurance. I took to it like a duck to water and soon found out I could write authoritatively about subjects like reinsurance which I knew nothing about (still don’t) or had little interest in. After the two weeks were up he offered me a full time job as the paper’s Insurance Correspondent, much to the displeasure of the NUJ who objected to me not having any training and a Tory to boot! When I left, the father of the NUJ chapel came up to me and admitted he was wrong and that I had done brilliantly. That meant a lot.

33. Buying my first property
When I bought my first property I felt I had made it. I only bought it because I felt if I didn’t I’d never be able to get on the property ladder. It was 1988, after all. So, 17 Howard Road, Walthamstow became home for four years. The novelty soon worse off, when I was burgled, had my car broken into and then stolen. It became a real millstone around my neck as I soon got into negative equity and couldn’t sell it for love nor money. Eventually I sold it in 1998 for exactly what I paid for it – £58,000. It would sell for £275,000 nowadays apparently. Not that I’m bitter.

34. Presenting the LBC Book Club
For around four years I presented this as part of my evening show, and then an abbreviated version as part of Drive. I got to interview dozens of wonderful authors, including some very famous ones, like Joan Collins and Joan Rivers. Perhaps the highlight was interviewing one of my all time sporting heroes – Gazza. It took me a while to get him to open up, but eventually he did. He was remarkably small and appeared very vulnerable. All the time I was talking to him he was clutching a man bag.

35. Opening Politico’s Bookstore
In May 1996 I left my job at The Waterfront Partnership very acrimoniously. I decided to open a political bookshop in Westminster which is what I did in February 1997. Looking back we had so little cash, it was remarkable it ever got off the ground. Politico’s soon became a part of the Westminster scene and we hosted some fascinating events there. We even sold quite a lot of books! In 2004 we were faced with a 50% rent rise so I sadly took the decision to close the shop and take the business online. I know it was the right thing to do, as I was sure that we’d have gone out of business within three years. Sad, but inevitable.

36. Starting Total Politics magazine & Biteback Publishing
Back in late 2007 I resigned from 18 Doughty Street TV when they decided to change it into a website. I had the idea of starting a political magazine but the business plan showed it would need far more investment money that I could ever come up with. So I went to see Lord Ashcroft and to cut a long story short, in July 2008 the first issue of Total Politics appeared. We had a lot of initial teething problems but the advertising income gradually started rising, along with event income and when we sold it to Dods in late 2012 it was making a profit. How sad therefore to see Dods effectively closing it down this month. A year after starting TP we formed Biteback Publishing, which has now published nearly 400 books and employs 14 people. It too is now in the black, but I won’t be repeating the mistake I made with TP. It’s not for sale.

37. Doing a Photoshoot with David Bailey
Yes, you read that right. I did a fashion shoot in 2004 for Esquire Magazine with other Tory candidates. It was a disaster. They obviously picked the worst picture possible of me! So when GQ said they wanted to do one with me I wasn’t very keen … until I heard David Bailey was the photographer they were using. Me? Being photographed by David Bailey? How could I possibly say no? So I didn’t. He was quite a character and very sweary. I can’t say I hugely enjoyed it, but I am not sure you’re supposed to enjoy photoshoots anyway.

38. Buying our House in Norfolk
Back in 2006 we were stony broke. The election campaign had cost me a lot of money. We had to sell our beautiful little cottage in Swanton Abbott just to pay the credit card bills I had built up. Luckily we made a profit on it and were able to get back on our financial feet. Seven years later I had built up a bit of money in the bank which was doing nothing. I’m a reluctant speculator so we decided to invest it in property and found a wonderful house in the Norfolk village of Lamas, just north of Norwich and on the edge of the broads. We have made great friends with the people we bought the house from and can both imagine moving here lock, stock and barrel at some point in the future.

39. Owning Dogs
I grew up with dogs on the farm. Back in 1997 John and I decided to get a dog from Battersea. We decided it needed to be fully grown and housetrained. So naturally we ended up with a six week old Jack Russell puppy who we named Gio. He was the light of our lives, a real character and we were both heartbroken when he died in 2011. We had decided not to get another dog, as we didn’t want to go through the heartbreak again and it would seem a betrayal of his memory. But the house seemed to empty without him. But instead of getting one puppy, we got two – a Jack Russell called Dude and a Miniature Schnauzer called Bubba. They’ve been with us for three years now. The hate to be separated and I don’t know what we’d do without them.

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