It is an editor, desperate for my services. "Where's the moral, Wallace?" he asks, bringing me the latest news of a new tragedy with full details of numbers killed, injured and maimed. Within minutes, a moral is established, a price agreed, and Arnold is at his desk, a little light music playing in the background, all set to shed much-needed light on the horrors of the 20th Century.
O'er the years, I have, you see, carved myself quite a reputation as the sage of disaster, the boffin of distress. I am now recognised by every editor worth his salt as the only man to turn to to make sense of a recent tragedy in a maximum of 800 well-chosen words.
I took my first stab at the business as long ago as 1953, when there was a 10-car pile-up on the A3 outside Guildford, with many injured and a good few dead. The then editor of the Daily Express was unsure of an angle. He toyed with running an editorial advocating an extra horn in every vehicle, or a think-piece by a popular psychologist suggesting the human brain is rendered unstable at speeds of over 15mph. But finally he settled for something more profound. Turn to Arnold: went up the cry. Within the hour I had turned out a well-rounded essay suggesting that the tragic pile-up was "a telling example of our current get-anywhere- quick madness".
It was a tremendous success, so much so that while I was out celebrating with a few close friends, another call came through, this time from the Daily Mail. There had been another pile-up, this time on the A6 outside Ullswater. With 15 cars involved, the managing editor had calculated that it called for 1,200 words. Result? A hard-hitting piece which, while grieving for the victims, concluded that their most fitting memorial would be a resolution to "produce more and more bright, shiny fast cars for our roads. They would not wish me to surrender to the forces of sloth."
Through the Sixties, motorways were built willy-nilly, and pile-ups were growing ever more frequent, ever more spectacular. My career as a sage flourished. "Time to call a Halt to the Motorway" was my article in the Daily Telegraph after the M3 pile-up of '67. As a memorial to the victims, I urged a return to the smaller B-road network. A month later, news came through of a major pile-up on a small B road outside Castle Cary. The Daily Herald was on to me in a flash. I thought long and hard about the implications. In a jiffy, I had finished penning my open letter to the Prime Minister, headed "Dear Harold, Make More Motorways - NOW".
Come the Seventies (dread decade!), I had extended my remit to cover aeroplane crashes and ferry disasters, always coming up with a suitable moral for a readership hungry for my rough-hewn wisdom in a time of tragedy. When a ship capsized in the Azores killing all 70 foreigners, it was Arnold who offered its victims and their relatives the necessary words of comfort. "Is this the society we have created for ourselves," I wrote, "- a society in which 70 foreigners on a trip round the Azores find themselves below the very water upon which they were meant to be sailing?" In italics below, I set up the Arnold Azores Fund, to which readers could send toy ships, ferries and yachts for the young families of the victims "in heartfelt memory of what their mummies and daddies must have suffered - and to provide a bit of good, clean fun at bath-time".
And so to the Eighties, when my words of comfort invariably concluded that no one in authority was ever to blame. When a loosening of safety procedures caused a coal-shaft to collapse, killing 35, I concluded, "There are no easy answers. But at least the victims and their relatives will be comforted to know that, due to a cutting back on the red-tape governing safety, figures published this week confirm that under government priva- tisation, coal sales to Dar-es-Salaam have increased twofold."
Today, the tide has turned. Arnold's editors always expect him to point the metaphorical finger. The Sixties, Channel 4, Video Nasties, The Sixties, Easy Divorce, Lesbians, The Sixties, Church Leaders, Single Mums, The Sixties: no tragedy can be explained without reference to one or all of these. Nowadays we are all to blame. Or rather, you are all to blame.Reuse content