In those days we recited Housman backwards

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The Independent Online
WITH MY Christmas Shopping completed (bath salts all round) I have been cogitating, on your behalf, upon two of the most important events to have occurred in 1994. These are topics over which, up to now, I have "kept mum" (dread Freudianism!), but the Arnold lips can no longer remain sealed, for nothing less than our country's future is at stake.

Whither University Challenge? Those unfortunate enough to have "tuned in" to this programme under the chairmanship of the dread Paxman will have noticed that it is far from what it was. I myself was a competitor back in its golden days of 1946, when it was still on the wireless, chaired by the young Enoch Powell. In those days, of course, the standards were infinitely higher than they are now; indeed, the losing team would face a minimum of five days detention, while their fluffy "mascot" would be cerem onially placed in an acid bath by Mr Powell, "pour encourager les autres".

The threat of such punishments ensured that discipline remained tight, and that scholarship was of the highest order. Most contestants would have known the collected poems of AE Housman off pat, and the brighter ones would be able to recite them backwards ("lad, behind home your leave"), often in four or five different languages. The mascots, too, were altogether superior to the assembled teddy bears and "gonks" (dread word!) that are produced today. For my own appearance, I brought with me a life-size bust of Mr Rudyard Kipling and waved it in the air at the end. These days, alas, if the assorted scruffs, loafers and ne'er-do-wells who skulk under the title of "students" were to be asked to name one of Kipling's noble creations, they would no doubt pipe up, "fancy cakes". O tempora! O mores! A little less mollycoddling of these morons by Paxman might work wonders. At the moment, he gives them two points and a silly grin if they so much as manage to remember their own names, plus a further five pointsand a pat on the back if they spell them roughly right. One wonders where this bejeaned riff-raff will end up. Certainly, my own team of Arnold, Wallace (Captain); Thorpe, Jeremy; Dover, Kenneth; and Kagan, Joseph all made names for themselves in the outside world, and without recourse to a single "gonk".

And so to that other great issue of the day, Mr Richard Gott and the KGB. Gott is, of course, every bit the Wykehamist - his beard has Winchester written all over it and the rum formula of Wykehamist + Manchester Guardian + Beard is bound to = KGB informant. Now we hear tell that Mr Oleg Gordievski is hell-bent on releasing the names of all the other friends in high places of the KGB.

I trust he will not confuse the 20-odd luncheons I enjoyed with Colonel Ribov at the Savoy Grill in the mid-to-late 1970s with any form of "spying" activity. Nothing could be further from the truth. I would simply sit there, politely downing the full three courses plus cheese savoury, while Col Ribov quizzed me as to the luncheon arrangements of Mr (as he then was) Peregrine Worsthorne. Where did he like to eat? Was he a messy eater? Did he employ a napkin at all? Did he favour meat over fish? Might he have a free date in March? Needless to say, when he finally got hold of Perry, Ribov dropped me like the proverbial hot potato, and within weeks Perry had been offered the Dining Out in London and Paris column on the prestigious Soviet gourmet magazine, a post he held with distinction for the next 12 years.

I was always more of a CIA man myself, dropping into the London Hilton every couple of weeks to collect my modest retainer in return for placing discreet pro-American propaganda into my copy, so unobtrusive and sophisticated COKE IS IT that few readers would ever have noticed it. But times have changed, and you must take my word that I no longer BEANZ MEANZ HEINZ allow this column to be used by any outside agency, political or commercial without first informing my editor.

By the by, is the dread Paxman a KGB plant? Though ostensibly unbearded (in fact, he puts it back on the moment he gets home), he still has that shifty air about him. How his controllers in the Kremlin must have rejoiced when he landed the plum job of chairing University Challenge! He is perfectly placed to subvert the nation's youth into atrophy by asking them tomfool questions about "pop", "movies" and so forth, leaving other nations to run roughshod over us. Normally, I would end this column by wishing you all a Happy Christmas, but in the circumstances, you will have to excuse me.

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