What A Minor-TV Celebrity Taught Me About Fear
“Is this seat taken?”
He glances up briefly and then moves his bag so I can sit down. Frazzled from an hour’s sweltering tube journey (where someone ate loose HAM in front of my face – worthy of a story in itself), I park myself, my laptop case and bag next to him, attempting to make myself as small as possible.
I make a joke about First Class being decommissioned and him having to sit next to ‘riff raff’ like me, and he makes some wonderfully British self-deprecating quip in reply. We both smile and turn back to our distractions – me, Instagram, him, a newspaper.
It’s in the next few minutes of silence, when we’ve both unanimously agreed that the polite small talk portion of the journey has ceased, that I realise I know the man sitting next to me. I don’t know him personally, I know him in the same way that we think we know anyone we watch on the TV.
He’s not ‘famous famous’. You might recognise a picture if I showed you, or his name if you were particularly into TV cooking shows. I doubt he gets stopped in the street, or on overfilled train journeys to the midlands often, but the recognition was enough to make me excitedly text my boyfriend about it. And my mum. And my sister.
‘Get his autograph!’ ‘Ask him what his favourite meal is!’ ‘Ask him to judge some food for you!’
I smiled at the thought. Just imagine (not the food tasting part – I didn’t have anything on me, loose ham or otherwise), but having a nice, normal conversation to pass the time. I could start by establishing some common ground – he had recently opened my town’s local food festival and I wanted his take on it – and then I could work my way up. I could ask him for MasterChef gossip. About his favourite food, about the magazine he worked on, about his hatred for eating on anything other than plates. Perhaps I could tell him about my favourite local restaurant and see if he had any similar recommendations.
Maybe he would have been charming and humoured me with a few anecdotes. Maybe he would have been glad to talk to someone to help the uncomfortable journey pass a little quicker. But … But what if he was rude? What if I offended him by interviewing him when he just wanted some peace and quiet after a long day? What if I had to sit there, whilst the rest of the passengers silently judged me for the rest of the journey?
The chance of me making a fool out of myself was way too high.
So I kept my mouth shut, trying to think of a way to bring up a conversation naturally as the minutes ticked by. There were so many times when I could feel the words at the back of my throat but as my stop got closer, the pressure became too much. I’d waited too long now, I told myself. It would be embarrassing for everyone. It was far better to play it cool.
Because isn’t that the whole point? As long as I could get through the journey not impacting anyone else, and being as small as physically possible, I could avoid a potential scene. Nobody would notice me. I would be following the rules.
My fear silenced me. I realised how stupid that sounded the moment I stepped off the train. I’d been scared that I might embarrass myself and a minor TV celebrity by asking a polite question and expressing my admiration of his work. I wasn’t thinking of running through the carriage screaming, or trying to lick his face or anything. I simply wanted to talk to the person sitting next to me.
If other passengers thought I was being rude or breaking the unspoken rule that we all need to pretend no-one else is there, then so what? I’d never see any of them again. If the man in question thought I was nosy for trying to talk to him, then so what? I’d never see him again (in the flesh) either. If he asked to be left alone then I would have absolutely respected that. Sure I might have felt a bit stupid for the next twenty minutes, but at least I’d have tried.
I wouldn’t have this lame, non-anecdote about the time I sat next to a TV food show critic and was too afraid to speak to him. I wouldn’t see him on TV each week and wonder what might have happened if I hadn’t let my fear hold me back.
The even sillier thing is that him being vaguely famous wasn’t the thing that stopped me. When I saw the actual main judge of that show backstage at the Good Food Show a few years back I bounded towards him for a cuddle and a photo without hesitation. I used to interview vaguely famous bands at university, and recently met and interviewed my absolute musical hero without hyperventilating or licking his face (although the struggle was real). But this time, on that crowded train, I silenced myself. Perhaps as we get a little older our embarrassment levels and self-consciousness go up? Perhaps I was too nervous because everyone else on that train seemed not to notice? If someone else, a bit braver, had starting talking to him, would I have chimed in – or felt like I had missed my chance?
In reality, I know I probably didn’t miss out on a life-changing moment by not speaking to him. I know it wouldn’t have led to anything earth-shattering. But if I’m too scared to potentially embarrass myself by asking a stranger for an autograph, what else am I too scared to do?
Do you have that voice? If so, what else is it holding you back from? How many other moments, mundane, life-changing or otherwise are we missing out on by letting that fear win?