How St John Stevas gave a Royal the elbow

The Agreeable World of Wallace Arnold
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The Independent Online
I HAVE known and admired Sarah Bradford for many a long year, ever since the two of us took tea with the Queen Mum - bless her - at Clarence House way back in the late '50s.

Unlike so many authors and "experts" (dread word!) who specialise in writing about the British upper classes, Sarah and I are both very much the "real thing". As for myself, I am not only the fourth cousin of a Knight* but also an alumnus of the famous Basters Academy for Boys ("Baste Up, the Baster, Baste Up, Baste Up and Baste the Ball!").

Meanwhile, Sarah is a Bradford through and through, an aristocrat who knows instinctively what is U and Non-U, without having to read it up in a textbook for two hours every morning, though - who knows? - she may well have done that in the past.

Might I be allowed to prove my point? At that first afternoon tea, we were enjoying a discussion about parts of the body. Half-way through, one of our fellow guests, Norman St John Stevas, as he then was, began to talk to HRH The Queen Mother, bless her - about the elbow. Now, it is well known among those of us who were born of what one might call "blue blood" that the elbow is the one part of the body that is most definitely to be classified "Non-U", particularly at teatime. Yet Norman steamed ahead, regaling the entire table with how he had "grazed" his "elbow" the day before. Elbow this, elbow that: Her Royal Highness began placing a napkin over her face to ward off her embarrassment, while the rest of us tried desperately to think of a way of changing the subject. "Anyone seen any good penises lately?" asked Dr A L Rowse at last, and we all breathed an immense sigh of relief.

At that stage, a great many learned men and women such as myself were writing books about the Royal Family. As trained historians, we were able to offer an objective analysis of the dynasty that had so shaped the life of Britain in the 20th century. My own two serious biographies, Gor Bless Yer, Marm!: The Blessed Life of HRH Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother (1961) and The Most Popular Lady in the World: A Biography of the Queen (1963) were soon joined by my examination of the role of the animal in a monarchical system, Three Woofs For Her Majesty!: Those Loveable Royal Corgis (1966), with an introduction by Mr Rolf Harris. I was an acknowledged authority, too, in the field of historical biography. "Wallace Arnold is the most respectful of Royal biographers," wrote Kenneth Rose of my biography of King Edward VIII, complimenting me on my "stout-hearted refusal to acknowledge the Abdication". Rose further noted that "the name of Wallis Simpson appears nowhere in the index, supporting the noble idea that King Edward VIII was one of the most constant, discreet and trustworthy of monarchs."

Sarah, too, penned some formidable Royal biographies in those years. Her Edward, Prince of Men (1977) was the first serious appraisal of the extraordinary achievements of HRH Prince Edward, while Captain Mark Phillips, The Man, the Myth and the Magic (1978) was a work of exceptional range and scholarship, with a wealth of first-hand material relating to this complex, compelling and in many ways contradictory figure.

There was, of course, a deeply regrettable "sea change" in Royal biography around the late 1980s. Out went the healthy respect, in came the vulgar prurience. I am sorry to say that my old friend and quaffing partner Mr Anthony Holden was in the vanguard of this movement. His authorised biography, Charles, Hero For Our Times (1976), and his portrait of the Royal Marriage, A Princely Coupling (1985), has been hugely popular with the general public, who proved as happy to buy Charles: Knave of Hearts (1990) and his portrait of the Royal Marriage, Rotten to the Core.

Needless to say, Sarah B and I refused to have anything to do with such a dastardly volte-face. You see, rank disloyalty to one's Monarch simply doesn't flow in our blood. And so when Sarah came to write her new biography of Her Majesty, she refused point blank to follow the times and bring up fresh rumour, scandal and innuendo. We reputable historians can only countenance rumour, scandal and innuendo if they are at very least 30 years old, as my next published work, Gagging For It: The Life and Times of Queen Victoria (Weidenfeld, pounds 19.99), with a learned introduction by Roy "Chubby" Brown makes crystal clear.

*Ronald Knight

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