King Arthur, my knight in shining armour

With a bellow, Sir Scargill Galahad leapt to his feet, shook his fists and told the audience to shut up
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The Independent Online

Important historic dates that have taken place in one's own lifetime, apart from making a body feel incredible old, always prompts the same question. What were you doing when...? Harold Wilson devaluing the pound, JFK being shot, Princess Diana dying in a car crash, my son James aged 11 being kicked out as a chorister from Temple Church for locking the door of Lambeth Palace lavatory and throwing away the key - I can tell you exactly what I was doing when all these memorable events took place. Sorry, the last example is personal rather than historic but it may well have been the latter had the Archbishop of Canterbury been installed, so to speak, when the heinous crime was perpetrated.

Just say the Primate had collapsed from the exertion of shouting for help for so long and hadn't been found for a week (it was a fairly isolated bog), and had eventually died from shock leaving no one to succeed him but that contentious Dr Jenkins, Bishop of Durham. That really would have been something for the history books and when, on the same day every 10, 20, 50 years after the famous event reporters and cameramen camped out outside my door and yelled: "Mrs Arnold, can you tell us exactly what you were doing when..." I should be able to reply: "I was on my hands and knees in one of the flower beds of Lambeth Palace garden looking for the damn key."

That's all by the by. It's the miners' strike that began precisely 20 years ago that we're concerned with right now, and if I've heard one, I've heard 50 so-called experts vilifying Arthur Scargill's pigheaded leadership of the NUM and crass support for the Yorkshire miners that eventually led, they say, to the end of Britain's coal-mining industry. Someone said that if he had managed the press as well as Joe Gormley it might have been otherwise, but Scargill always hated the media and everyone in it.

Fiddlesticks. To me Arthur Scargill was, and will always be, the knight in shining armour who saved a damsel, me, from a mob of drunken Durham university students whom I had had the temerity to think I could address on the subject of women's lib or press freedom or even the future of the monarchy, I forget. I may have told you the story before - it's a favourite party piece - but this is as good a moment as any to bring it out, dust it down and give it another whirl.

I'd been invited to take part in a Durham University debate and, though I'd never spoken in public before (when I was at Trinity College Dublin women were banned from The Hist, the university debating society), I didn't imagine it could be that difficult. Difficult? It was without doubt the worst ordeal I've ever experienced and that includes childbirth and a weekend in Tenerife.

It was my own fault. I should have done my homework and realised that university debates aren't serious. Students don't want finely honed, reasoned polemic. They want stand-up comics who may or may not refer to the motion but leave them with a lot of good jokes. Ignorant fool that I was, I had typed out a 12-page speech and took my place on the platform opposite Mr Scargill who was opposing the motion.

I rose to speak, but it was impossible. The audience whistled, heckled, catcalled and invited me to get 'em off or show us yer tits. I started to weep, my tears blotching the print, making it impossible to read but in any case there was too much noise. And then suddenly with a bellow Sir Scargill Galahad leapt to his feet, shook his fists at the audience, told them to shut up, that their behaviour was contemptible and that if they'd invited someone to come to their God-awful university they should bloody well have the decency to listen to them. It had the desired effect.

Somehow, oh the shame of it, I got to the end and sat down, whereupon Arthur, having wittily and pithily torn my argument to shreds, went on to do the same for the policies of the Thatcher government. He was brilliant. The audience stood on the chairs to cheer and afterwards, over a drink, he picked up my pecker and gave me a few tips about public speaking. Arthur Scargill is a lovely man, down to earth, brave, warm, funny, kind - you can't say that about many people.

None of this answers the question about what I was doing when the miners' strike started. I was probably changing the nappies of my brand new baby who would eventually become the boy who lost the key to the Archbishop of Canterbury's lavatory. It's a funny old world.

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