BOOK REVIEW / Down among the philistines: 'Tell Them I'm on My Way' - Arnold Goodman: Chapmans, 20 pounds

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PEOPLE write autobiographies for many reasons, but usually the most important is to change the way in which the world sees them. In this highly entertaining memoir by Lord Goodman - Buddha- like symbol of a forgotten era when public-spirited quangos considered how best to spend taxpayers' money for the general good - the tone is one of studied mildness. In the preface, the author genially maintains that 'I entertain hostility towards nobody' (a remark which brings to mind a stinging volume by the late Lord Shinwell, Conflict Without Malice). Lord Goodman wishes to be seen as a man of loyalties but no partisanship, modest to a fault and of Olympian detachment. In fact, what makes his book so enjoyable is the evidence it provides that he was none of these: of his frequently passionate engagement; his enormous (and often justified) self-regard; his frequently delicious waspishness.

Arnold Goodman was certainly no ordinary member of the great and the good. Part of the difference lay in his ubiquity - at one time, there seemed scarcely to be a cultural pie of any importance without a Goodman finger in it - partly it was his double role as creative chairman and director of public bodies, and active solicitor to the great and litigious; and partly it was his appearance: once seen, Lord Goodman was not easily forgotten.

His awe-inspiring girth he attributes to the nurturing habits of his Jewish mother, who worshipped him and whom he adored. Goodman maintains that his size caused him little difficulty at school or later. However, he makes so many self-deprecating jokes on the subject that one is inclined to think that it was, indeed, a source of childhood pain, and may have been a spur to achievement. It may even have ended up an advantage: fatness can be avuncular and reassuring, and reassurance was an invaluable quality in Goodman's chosen profession.

This he entered in the mid-1930s. His practice had many celebrities among its clients, and early experience of handling the delicate egos of the famous turned out to be useful when, in 1954, he set up his own partnership. 'There is probably no career that gives one a more rounded view of the human race than that of a solicitor,' he claims. One section of humanity for which the author has a healthy suspicion is the rival profession of psychiatry. It contains, he suggests, a number of 'immensely successful charlatans who sometimes produce results by the sheer impact of their bill, when the patient realises that it would be much more to his advantage to effect recovery than to continue with their services'. Yet this method of healing was sometimes favoured by Goodman himself, who on one occasion deflected a would-be suicide by pointing out that it would have been financially prudent to have committed the deed before incurring the cost of an interview. There were also other elements of the therapist's technique in Goodman's style: in particular his capacity, rare among public men, as a listener and

sagacious counsellor.

It was his ability both to molify and to offer practical solutions that commended him to Harold Wilson, a central character in his book. When Hugh Gaitskell died in 1963, Wilson inherited Goodman, who had been engaged in legal work on behalf of Labour Party headquarters, along with the party leadership. Soon he had an established role as Wilson's one key non-Whitehall adviser outside the paid political staff. Goodman would be summoned to No 10 for regular evening sessions, to be used, as he puts it, 'as the wall of a fives court' against which the Prime Minister banged the ball. In retrospect, the author has an ambivalent view of Wilson. He sees him, with Aneurin Bevan, as one of the 'two most potent and significant characters' to have emerged from the post-war Labour Party, and also as an unworldly, generous and immensely intelligent man. But he retains a low view of the former premier's other advisers and regards Wilson himself as 'rather less - by my standards - than half-educated' as far as the arts were concerned.

These became Goodman's allotted sphere. Shortly after Wilson's 1964 victory, Goodman was made an early beneficiary of the new Labour Government's patronage, as a life peer and Chairman of the Arts Council, under Jennie Lee as relevant minister. It was a time of expansion and largesse in the arts administration world, and, since the Arts Council was responsible for most of it, its chairman had exceptional prominence. His reign was paternalistic but also, he reasonably claims, progressive. He was certainly no figurehead. He took a personal (some felt too personal) interest in decisions, with the special advantage of a direct link to Downing Street. He remarks that Wilson was 'a man who could be successfully lobbied without any supreme effort on the part of the lobbyer', which reminds us of the extraordinary position, in an elective dictatorship, of a dictator's favourite.

Goodman's influence was not restricted to cultural matters. He was closely involved in the setting up of the Open University. And in 1968, he was dispatched as a special envoy to Salisbury, on a mission to sort out the Rhodesian problem. It turned out to be the first of five visits, but although Goodman got on well with the white Rhodesian premier, Ian Smith, little came of these trips - except to heighten Goodman's contempt for the 'Bourbon' approach of the Foreign Office. His attitude to British diplomacy was reinforced by a vigorous disagreement with the official line on the Nigerian civil war (Goodman backed the Biafrans). Thereafter, the old intimacy with Wilson faded, and disappeared altogether during the second Wilson administration of 1974-76. Nevertheless, Goodman's impact continued in many spheres. In 1976, he became Master of University College, Oxford, a post Wilson himself had coveted.

This book is not flawless. Goodman is much sharper towards formerly powerful people than about those who are both operative and his clients - Rupert Murdoch, for instance, about whom he is embarrassingly effusive. Better editing would have dealt with stylistic quirks, such as a habit of calling practically everybody 'kindly' before putting the knife in. However, the author is a magnificent raconteur, and it is hard to open the book anywhere without being engaged by the varied experiences of the man described by Barbara Castle (who did not get on with him) as 'a peculiar chap - half high principle and half unashamed pragmatism'.