COLE MORETON has interviewed many of the world’s most famous people. He has also managed to get chucked out of both Desmond Tutu’s limousine and Violet Kray’s funeral.
Clearly, he’s very good at what he does. Lucky, too. His scheduled 15 minutes with Scarlett Johansson extends to more than an hour, on the day before news broke that her marriage had ended. “Maybe it was the knowledge she could end our conversation at any time and just walk away that made it work for her.”
Everything is Extraordinary takes its title from words used to describe the interviewee Clive James’s outlook in his final days, and is a collection of beguiling stories of encounters with celebrities whose names read like a fantasy dinner-party list: Tiger Woods and Vera Lynn, Susan Sarandon and Jacqueline Wilson, Mo Farah and Seamus Heaney, alongside Sherry the enslaved domestic worker and Zahra who arrived in Britain in a small boat. Nelson Mandela and the Queen turn up but don’t get to speak.
Moreton is agreeably star-struck, but it doesn’t stop him taking risks to get through to the human being inside the icon. Not many people would suddenly help themselves to a guitar lying in the room and invite Philip Pullman to jam with them on keyboard.
The author’s patron saint is Simone Weil, who wrote: “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” He calls in aid, too, Martin Buber, in his quest for a momentary I-Thou relationship with his interviewees.
Along the way, we pick up quite a lot about the author himself. An ill-at-ease East End kid who fell into local journalism; the adult who lost the religious certainties that he once had, “but the older I get the less I know and the more I am left with a sense of wonder,” still calling himself a follower of Jesus, and a staunch supporter of the Greenbelt Festival.
Moreton is clear that he writes primarily to entertain, but running beneath is his conviction of the need to make human connections: “beyond my need to get a good quote and [Susan Sarandon’s] need to publicise whatever it was she was doing next, we were just two humans sharing stories, and that’s where it gets really interesting.”
His style has the easy charm of a raconteur who occasionally stands too close — “to be honest with you” — but the stories that he tells are always absorbing, sometimes moving, occasionally sentimental, and very entertaining. He knows how, for all of us, “we make and remake ourselves by sharing our stories and listening to others.”
The Revd Philip Welsh is a retired priest in the diocese of London.
Everything is Extraordinary: True stories about how we live, love and pay attention
Hodder & Stoughton £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.29