Hands up for the next sex romp

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I happened to be in London yesterday, worrying, like everyone else, about the Jonathan Aitken question.

(The Jonathan Aitken question, in case you happened to be on Mars at the weekend, is this: if you try to cut out cancer from journalism using only the sword of truth and the trusty shield of British fair play, where would you find an NHS bed for the operation?)

And as I wandered along the byways of dear old London, I happened to find myself in the Soho area, so I directed my feet to the sunny side of the street and into the coffee house known to its owner as Marco's but to everyone else as Hell.

(This is just to make fixing a rendezvous easier. "I'll see you in Hell!" you shout down a phone at a friend and 15 minutes later you arrive together at Marco's Coffee House.)

Anyway, who should I see as I came in the door but my old friend Adrian Wardour-Street, the doyen of the public relations industry, trying to revive himself with a double espresso. He looked up at me wearily, patted the seat beside him, and put his finger to his mouth as if to urge either discretion, or silence in the presence of a hangover - or, knowing him, both.

"How's things?" I asked.

"Oh, for heaven's sake," said Adrian testily, "where do you pick up these dreadful clichs from? Am I likely to know how things are? And if I did know, would I tell you? Am I in PR or am I in PR?"

"All right," I said. "Put it another way. Why are you in such a testy mood and what's on your suspicious little mind?"

He relaxed at this display of honesty and answered obliquely, which is the only way that PR people know how to answer: "What do you make of Jonathan Aitken, then?"

"Well," I said cautiously, not wanting to be trapped into some kind of slanderous statement, "well, obviously I think he is a shining example of Tory philosophy and a linchpin of the present government ..."

My voice trailed away as I realised I had uttered a moderately slanderous statement.

"Put it another way," I said. "I wouldn't trust him farther than the nearest mixed metaphor."

"Meaning?"

"Meaning that if I had cancer and my surgeon said he was going to operate on me with a sword and a rusty shield ..."

"Trusty shield!"

"... I'd get a second opinion."

Adrian stared moodily into space and said nothing. I said nothing. Both of us said nothing. Then, just to change the mood, he said out loud, though half to himself: "Tories in Three-in-a-Bed Arms Romp ... Mmmmm ..."

"Tories in Three-in-a-Bed Arms Romp?" I said, baffled. "What are you talking about?"

"Just thinking out loud," said Adrian, not one whit abashed. "Planning the next story."

"What is an arms romp?" I said. "I thought a romp could only be a sex romp these days. How can you have an arms romp? And why would it be in bed? And how do you mean, planning the next story?"

"Would you believe," said Adrian, "that public relations is not always about painting a good picture of someone? That sometimes you have to concentrate on the warts? There was a time in Italy when the children of rich families were being so regularly kidnapped that millionaires were hiring PR specialists to keep millionaires out of the news. That goes counter to all that we hold dear in the PR business, but they went ahead and did it. I was once approached by a big company that wanted me to blacken the name of a rival ..."

"Airline, was it?" I hazarded. He carried on as if he hadn't heard me, which he hadn't.

"And now the Tories have asked me to fix a disastrous season of sex, sleaze and ..."

He looked around for another word beginning with S.

"Suborning?" I suggested.

"Yes, suborning," he said.

"But why?"

"Because they don't want to win the next election, of course, and they're not entirely confident that they can leave the job to Tony Blair."

"So all these stories and resignations, sex scandals, arms deals, ministers, MPs ..."

"All mine," said Adrian. "And don't forget the Mark Thatcher story. That's coming along nicely, too."

"These are all your own work?"

"Sure. Well, the MPs help. I go to them with an idea like, say, a three- in-a-bed sex romp, and I get volunteers, and, well, we take it from there."

"What's next on the menu?"

"Tories in three-in-a-bed arms romp?" he replied. "Tory MPs paid by Arab money to resign whip? John Major was on KGB payroll bombshell? Incidentally, what does `suborning' mean?"

I told him. He looked impressed.

"Good," he said. "In this business you always need a spare word for that."

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