February half-term in London: the best things to do
Get stuck into London’s many special half-term events with the whole family this 16 to 23 February 2019.
22nd May 2017
Anna Nicholas, Freelance Journalist and Author
One evening many moons ago I popped by the Athenaeum Hotel’s popular bar for a catch up with the irrepressible general manager at the time, Sally Bulloch. Rather distractedly she told me that she’d invited a special guest to meet me who was sitting with his back to us on a stool at the counter.
I’d had a hectic and tiring day so after heavy cajoling on her side, reluctantly headed over to the silver-haired gentleman. As Sally was a practiced prankster I fully expected some sort of chicanery but to my great surprise and delight, a smiling Omar Sharif greeted me. It transpired that the famed actor was staying at the hotel and knowing that he was one of my cinematic idols, Sally kindly arranged for us to share a drink.
As in a Hollywood movie, the silver fox gallantly kissed my hand, ordered two glasses of pink champagne and stared devotedly into my eyes. A good deal younger than him, I was somewhat flustered and inanely began recounting my favourite of his film roles. He nodded appreciatively but asked me instead to tell him about my most cherished poetry. When I mentioned the likes of Charles Baudelaire, he closed his eyes and began reciting from the opener from La Beauté: ’Je suis belle ô mortels, comme un rêve de pierre…’
An hour or two later after sharing many a line of poetry and anecdote – and a few more glasses – I sadly had to make my excuses. The charmer shook his head sadly and tried fervently to invite me to come for dinner with his good chum Peter O’Toole, another of my film heroes. I resisted the urge to abandon a pre-organised dinner appointment, and we said our fond farewells.
But a few days later I returned to the Athenaeum Hotel as I had organised a party for an elderly Irish friend and his wife who were celebrating their 60th wedding anniversary. The husband was a former business associate of mine, and ill with cancer, so Sally and I had collaborated to give him and his extended family an evening to remember.
As the group congregated joyously in the function room, drinks in hand, who should waft in but the wonderful Omar? I had told him about the event and how unwell my old friend was, so very sweetly he had decided to spring a surprise. There were shrieks of delight and excitement as Omar allowed himself to be kissed, feted and photographed, and then he politely withdrew to let the family dine in peace.
As we wandered down to the lobby, I thanked him profusely for such a kindness. Nonchalantly he waved his largesse away, pressing me yet again to join him and his old thespian pal for supper for he knew I was an O’Toole fan. Demurely I turned him down, not because I was a married woman with a young son, but because instinct told me that dinner with these two delightful elderly hellraisers would end at some ungodly hour. Running a busy business I needed an early night.
To my regret I never met Omar again. But now and then when a line from a favourite Baudelaire poem floats through my mind, I think of him and wish I’d not been such a dolt. With the wisdom of hindsight, I should have dined with the two charismatic old rogues. What a blast that would have been and what stories I could have told my son. All the same, I spent magical moments with my idol, thanks to Sally, and forever the Athenaeum Hotel will preserve that happiest of memories for me.
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