As the unconvicted murderer Martin McGuinness and Queen Elizabeth II shook hands today, I was reminded of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. This is why.

Many years ago – along with six other blokes – I sold our communications agency Aspect to a Boston group known as HHCC – Hill Holliday Connors Cosmopulous. My main contact there was one of the remaining founders, Jack Connors. Boston has a thriving business sector known as the Marketing Mix (Micks): it’s all about a touch of the Blarney, for sure and good luck.

I liked Jack. If I’m honest, he was a bit of a bandit, but he had a keen sense of humour about himself. I wouldn’t say we became friends, but we both told a good story, and there was a mutual respect.  I loved Boston, and still do: apart from the John Hancock building, it’s generally low-rise, and compact. You can walk round it in two hours at the perimeter, and be out of the place into stunning New England scenery in under fifteen minutes outside rush-hour. Just a spit and throw down the road is Cambridge Mass, and it was in a restaurant there called Harvest – doubtless now long gone – where my partner Chris, Jack, HHCC’s FD and I scoped out the deal one Sunday evening in 1986. The payout enabled me to start a pension (somewhat late at the age of 38) that was looking quite good until Ben Bernanke and Mario Draghi got hold of it. But who’s complaining?

After a few months of working together, one afternoon Jack invited me out to dinner a deux – a great honour I’m told, only otherwise bestowed upon massive clients, or his faithful mistress and personal assistant. So I dropped the invitation to an intimate supper at the White House, and joined him. During the meal, we fell to talking about backgrounds, and discovered we actually had lots of genes in common. Then out of left-field, Jack asked, “Are you a royalist?” I told him I was. He shrugged.

“She is one tough lady,” he replied. I asked him in turn why he thought that, and he recounted a fascinating story to me.

A few years previously, the Queen had toured America, and come to hear a performance by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Lest we forget, not too long before that the IRA had unceremoniously blown up (and killed) the Queen’s cousin Dickie Mountbatten. So being sensitive to the end in such matters, the IRA decided to blockade the BSO performance, and not let anyone out afterwards. This was in the days before 9/11, when Irish Boston’s donations to the IRA were still disgracefully enormous.

Stuck inside the concert arena, Jack found himself standing within a few feet of the British monarch. And never one to stand on ceremony, he ambled over to QE2 to apologise for the behaviour of his fellow Bostonians. The Queen turned to face him, offered a thin smile, and said, “Well, what can you expect from the bloody Irish?”

Jack said to me, “I had two choices: get on the front page of Time magazine, or retreat. I chose the latter.”

I note that today, when the Royals/McGuinness conversations were taking place, all the microphones were switched off. Remembering this anecdote now, I can sort of understand why.


19 thoughts on “Anecdotage

  1. Sounds as if the Duke of Edinburgh may have learned his famed tact in the same school!

    Seriously though, I believe (that is, I want to believe) that the recent royal visit to Ireland did bring about a change of spirit. If that stops the different sorts of Irish from blowing each other up, or steadies them down considerably, many lives will be saved. As a dyed-in-the-wool (non Protestant) unionist, I now think my misgivings were wrong.

    And I don’t think the same sort of gesture from an elected prime minister or president would have had anything like the same effect. The murder of Lord Mountbatten put HM on an equal footing in this respect.


  2. Undoubtedly both parties to the ‘handshake’ will have been invisibly holding noses for their own personal reasons but the mere fact of it being undertaken will have added immensely to the spirit which all serious players are now trying to build in Northern Ireland. It’s not finished yet, there’s a lot of entranched history to overcome, which may take a generation or two, but it’s going the right way.

    Having travelled in and around Belfast at the height of the ‘troubles’ and seen the physical and cultural devastation first-hand, there has been substantial progress since UK governments of both parties made the first covert forays to seeking a peaceful resolution, finally culminating in that treasured ‘hand of history’ soundbite for Blair and the ensuing relative calm.

    You can’t solve 400 years of grief in a decade but if the top players continue to show the way towards reconciliation, they might just get there someday.


  3. It sounds as if Jack was well worth bumping the White House for.

    In the War, Her Maj was in the ATS, and by all accounts did not hold back. A Braemar ghillie told me once that when he first knew her, she could still field strip a Land Rover and a Lee-Enfield both.

    Doubtless the ghillie exaggerated slightly, but I like the story still.


  4. More obsequious royalist garbidge. The oppening sentence could’ve read “Murderer shakes hand of Martin McGuinness”. Recently I had a conversation in France with a polish friend bemused at the existence of the royal familiy “Why do you still have a royal family,” he asked. “Because the British are a bunch of servile C**nts” I responded.


  5. MP, that’s your view. Mine is because I very much prefer her to President Tony and First Lady Cherie. Or any of the other potential candidates.


  6. @Maxi. I wonder if it’s more helpful to view it this way. The Queen is a living, breathing person but at the same time she also plays the role of the physical embodiment of the gestalt that is Britain. In this post, JW is speaking about the former, the person. She is a very accomplished, capable woman, still working every day of her life well into her 80’s. OK she lives in a world of privilege but she pays a heavy price. I think many of us would scream to be let out of the glass prison she inhabits.
    As regards “why do we have a royal family?” Simple. So we avoid having a figurehead who can be bought by big corporations, can be swayed by the sweeping, arrogant opinion of some people.


  7. Sorry. Don’t believe it. My knowledge of H.M leads me to believe she would never have said any such thing. Duke of Edinburgh might have done and he would have been right.


  8. @ MP … both the question and your answer prove that neither your questioner or yourself have the slightest idea about what you are talking about


  9. Being able to read lips the Queen said “Why did you keep me imprisoned at the BSO performance” to which Mr McGuinness replied “They did not play Londonderry Air”


  10. But, of course, Mr McGuinness could never bring himself to say the word ‘Londonderry’ – it’s ‘Derry’ or nothing.


  11. @MP … yes I am a proud Loyal subject, no I don`t curtsy, but I certainly would bow, as indeed would you if you were ever presented to her because you wouldn`t have the guts to do anything different.


  12. you are not real …. just uneducated and rude … politeness and upbringing dictates that one bows to the queen. A real man would understand this and it would not bother him to do so.


  13. Was the Irish ‘war’ not about choice of head of state (i.e who to pay money to for religious rites) Pope or Queen? well, both wear expensive frocks and designer hats and travel first class everywhere and live very comfortable in palaces..from money paid for by the poor and vunerable.which one would Jesus prefer? Hmm tricky one. Anyway, two wrongs do not make a right! and some place in that religious BS The word forgivness is banded about. So seems like a good idea to give that a go. we don’t need a head of state.. just a prime minister would suffice.


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