It's all replay and little action down at Heseltine Hall

The Agreeable World of Wallace Arnold
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The Independent Online
GOOD to see my old friend and quaffing partner Michael Heseltine so enjoying his retirement. "Rest assured, Wallace - I keep myself busy!" he chuckled over the telephone before inviting me down to spend a delightful weekend at Heseltine Hall, his charming abode.

It is often difficult for a leading politician to adjust to normal life when first he leaves office. For many months, even years, Margaret Thatcher would spend her days simply wandering around the soft furnishings department of Harrods, stroking this fabric and that, looming up to sales assistants and informing them in no uncertain terms that she had once been Prime Minister.

But Michael was never going to fall into that trap: he made this crystal clear to his colleagues and associates from the very start. "Keeping yourself busy, Michael?" I asked him as he greeted me at the front door with a weak gin and tonic.

"The Devil makes work for idle hands, Wallace!" he replied, jovially. He then told me that his position as a major figure behind the Millennium Dome is assured. It appears that Mr Mandelson is always mustard-keen for his input at each of the Dome committee's six-monthly meetings. Not only this, but he has given Michael special responsibility for coming up with a solution to the litter problem in the Body Zone. "It'll need a task force, Wallace," explained Michael, "and we're talking here of a 12-strong team of specially-trained refuse collectors - nothing more, nothing less."

I congratulated him on his appointment. "Twelve men - that's two teams of six, or three teams of four. Or, indeed, four teams of three, or five teams of - what? - two and a half. Which is it to be? These are important decisions with far-reaching implications for the cleanliness of a vitally important section of the Dome, Wallace! In fact, I think I'll put through a call to Peter Mandelson on the matter right now, if you'll excuse me!"

Michael strode purposefully to his study and shut the door. He emerged a good two minutes later, in contemplative mood.

"Mandelson given you the go-ahead?" I said.

But Michael looked uncharacteristically sombre. "Not exactly," he replied.

"No?" I said, trying to "draw him out".

"I asked to speak to him," he explained. "The telephonist asked me for my name. I told her. There was a pause. Then she returned and said Mr Mandelson was tied up and could I put my request in writing, along with the company I work for." Michael looked towards the ground. "Ridiculous!" he cursed. "And me a former prime minister, near as dammit!"

Did I detect a certain ruefulness in the fellow? He brushed past me muttering, "Some of us have got work to do!" and marched purposefully into his grounds, where, to his great credit, he is single-handedly planting the largest arboretum in Western Europe.

He began to dig and dig and dig, planting first one sapling, then another, then another. Attached to his green gardening braces was a personalised mobile telephone on red-alert. "Excellent invention!" he exclaimed. "Means my colleagues in big business and government can reach me within a matter of seconds. I'm expecting a call from Bill Clinton himself any minute, as it happens."

"Bill Clinton?! The President of America?!" I said, a frisson of excitement tingling through my body.

"No," he replied, a touch brusquely, "Bill Clinton of Clinton's Garden Centre on the Henley ring-road. My 25 dozen elms should be in today."

Alas, during his two-and-a-half-hour gardening session, there came just two calls, one from his trusty lieutenant Mr Michael Mates insisting that the leadership of the party could be his for the asking in the year 2009 and inviting him round for a game of bridge with his supporters, the other from a secretary from his publisher, telling him the good news that WH Smith had agreed to take 120 copies of his forthcoming autobiography on a sale-or-return basis. "And they've only taken 110 of Piers Merchant's," she added, encouragingly.

We passed a highly enjoyable Saturday afternoon besides the dread gogglebox watching old video- tapes of the very best of Michael's Conservative Conference speeches. Stop-watch in hand, Michael totted up his scores, and discovered that his standing ovation for the 1983 conference came top at precisely eight minutes 33 seconds, just beating the 1985 conference at seven minutes 29 seconds.

"Michael likes to do this every Saturday," his charming wife, Anne, leaned over and whispered in my ear. "It keeps him occupied."

Happy days!

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