WELL, I’ll be blessed: the very words that did NOT spring to my mind the day I pressed a bunch of front and back door keys into the slightly shaky hands of a tiny old lady bent double with age and arthritis and wearing what looked like a tea towel on her head.
This was a property handover: a house ‘completion’ of sorts, dressed up as a tea party on a building site. I was editor of the Daily Mirror; the bent old lady beneath the tea towel was an 82-year-old Roman Catholic nun whose Albanian birth name Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu had disappeared with her into the Indian slums of Kolkata (Calcutta) where she was known, more simply, as Mother Teresa.
Over the years that followed I bragged to whoever would listen that I had met a Nobel Prize winner. Following her canonisation by Pope Francis in the Vatican last week it now seems rather cheap for a former red-top tabloid editor to boast that he once ‘pressed the flesh’ with a living saint. Instead, I will simply record the circumstances.
We met amid the dusty renovation of a formerly grand but crumbling terrace of houses (above) in St George’s Road, Southwark, her charitable peace haven situated, inappropriately enough, not one hundred metres from the Imperial War Museum.
I was representing tens of thousands of Mirror readers whose donations had enabled Mother Teresa and her Missionaries of Charity to open a shelter for homeless men and a soup kitchen on the site, which to this day provides shelter and food for some of the most needy in London.
On that summer’s afternoon in 1993 we shared few words; I was uncharacteristically muted at meeting a woman with her reputation for such extraordinary goodness, she contented herself with praising the kindness and compassion of my newspaper’s readers (who unfailingly stumped up for causes such as that) and insisted on blessing my undeserving tabloid soul and pressing upon me St Christopher medallions for my mother-in-law and for my wife’s godmother, both devout Roman Catholics.
Two memories, both rather disrespectful, from that day: the first, of a rather bumptious VIP who made small talk with one of the future residents of the hostel.
“Do you know who I am?” asked the VIP, eager to impress upon his rather inebriated listener the importance of the occasion.
“I’m afraid not,” replied the unshaven old man with a sad shake of his straggly locks. “But if you ask the matron,” he said, suddenly cheered by the thought, “SHE’LL be able to tell you!”
My comeuppance arrived on the Mirror noticeboard the following morning: a photograph of me bending over the tiny living saint which bore the handwritten caption: “The editor meets his lunch. . .”