A Brush with Greatness - The 14th Dalai Lama

Alongside the penning of books – and yes, there is yet another on the way – I have aspired to be a feature writer on occasion. As an avid reader of the weekend papers I have long admired the Observer Magazine’s ‘A Brush with Greatness’ column. Typical topics are ‘The day Van Morrison remembered me’, ‘The day Keith Richard joined us at the Test Match’ and ‘Back in my early 20s, I was a camera assistant for a photographer named Jeff Riedel.’ All good and all really interesting.
I got to thinking that I too must have brushed against some greatness. I have briefly met some Royals, but not intimately, and can claim to have chatted with Russel Grant in the basement of an Aberdeen hotel. Then there was that day when Margaret Thatcher’s limo almost ran me off the road on a return trip from the Isle of Skye.
Which to use? Then it hit me: I had met the Dalai Lama – or at least, I thought that I had met him. For reasons which completely escape me, the Observer Magazine have never used the piece. Their loss I suppose.

So here it is in its entirety: ‘It was 2010 and in a flourish my life changed from sedate to separate. The warnings had been around for a few decades but my refusal to see them for what they were led to shock and awe. A year later, and with much of the awe behind me, I embarked on a voyage of rediscovery.
I had visited the Dalai Lama’s palace in Lhasa some years previously and had even been in his summer house but, for reasons of personal safety, he had not been present to welcome me. My ex had travelled to India to see him in 2007, but for reasons which still escape me, she had failed to check the man’s schedule for that particular week. He had, in fact, left Dharamsala to deliver talks elsewhere in India by the time she arrived.
When the news came that the holy man was to visit Scotland I searched the web for contacts and managed to obtain tickets for his public talk in Dundee. I made a request via his official office for an interview. There was no reply. I tried again and on this second occasion was informed that there would be a photo-opportunity in Dundee or perhaps even at Inverness but that there would be a limit on the number of journalists who would be allowed direct access. Someone would be in touch nearer the time and passes would be available at a later date. A lengthy interview was however unlikely due to the volume of requests from the Scottish press.
I remained hopeful. After all Scotland’s then First Minister Alex Salmond had been in China during December 2011 to strengthen trade, arts and cultural links and the issue of the Dalai Lama’s visit had been raised during First Minister’s Question Time at the Scottish Parliament.
In the event, the politics of the day marred the visit. The Scottish press were largely silent. The tour had fallen foul of the UK’s fear of trade reprisals from China and, perhaps shamefully, many Scottish politicians shied from official participation.
Even the then Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon warned collegues not to politicise what was after all a “pastoral’ visit”; saying that no UK government ministers were meeting the Dalai Lama during his visit.
In Dundee, the 14th Dalai Lama spoke at length at the Caird Hall. Children from the local deaf school were happy to welcome him and the event was well attended. The great man was gifted a locally-made wooden prayer stool – as if he needed one - but there was no official welcome and none of the elected representatives of that great city found the time to make speeches.
The promised interview did not happen and the promised photo-opportunity went the same way. The Tibetan holy man was smuggled out by a back door and he vanished northwards. Seemingly his minders had arranged a helicopter trip over the Moray Firth to view oil installations prior to his final Scottish engagement at Inverness.
Following the Dundee fiasco I returned home dissatisfied. In the late evening, an e-mail arrived inviting me to stand at the back door of the Eden Court Theatre in Inverness the next day. No timings were given and no one was available for comment; but how could I resist the photo-opportunity.
Dutifully I got up at dawn and my new partner Janice drove me the seventy miles or so to join the press lines at Inverness. We arrived at 10am and stood corralled behind a police tape for the remainder of that damp morning.
At around 2pm, the Dalai Lama and his entourage of minders appeared from the back door of the theatre. I recall that it was, by then, raining heavily and that a fellow journalist wiped-off his camera lens with a dirty prayer flag just as the 14th Dalai Lama made his exit. I made up my mind there and then never to purchase pre-owned optics.
In truth I never got that interview with HRH. But, also in truth, I felt that he took the time to make a connection with the assembled press-pack which that day included me. As he exited the building he stood, for just a second or two, and looked me in the eye holding out his newly gifted tartan Kata for me to see.
I could have sworn that I heard him saying something like “I love my cats but I hate what they do.” But I am not sure if I heard correctly. In reality, I was just glad to be in close proximity to the man.
Plus of course, I got the shot.’

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