Welcome to the new Independent website. We hope you enjoy it and we value your feedback. Please contact us here.

Keep the Beach Boys out of politics, I say Why does a Beach Boy care about railways?

The Agreeable World of Wallace Arnold
I SEE my old friend and squash partner Dr Brian Mawhinney has placed his southernmost limb in it again. Did you read the story, perchance? The Good Doc made a formidable speech to Conservative Party members in which he stressed that "the author and director Jonathan Miller" was 100 per cent behind the excellent hereditary system at present operating in the House of Lords. Miller had, he said, declared that the Lords "provided a platform for truly independent thinking".

Whoops! Dr Mawhinney had been quoting the wrong Jonathan Miller: not the batty author and director, but a sensibly right-wing fellow-scrivener for Mr Murdoch's Sunday Times, also called Jonathan Miller. An easy mistake to make, to be sure, for I myself, with what even my enemies describe as a first-rate intellect, experienced some difficulty with the doppelganger names of senior Conservatives.

For instance, in the early 1980s (doughty decade!) I found myself introduced to Kenneth Clarke at a pyjama party in Smith Square. Naturally, I was delighted. "Not THE Kenneth Clarke!" I exclaimed. He looked modestly into his half-pint mug of ale and confirmed that yes, he supposed that he was THE Kenneth Clarke.

"Then DO tell me all you know about Botticelli..." I said. I am justly famous for my ability to "bring people out". "Botticelli? ... Botticelli? Bit of a composer wasn't he? Classical, black tie, flutes and violins and so on, am I right?" he replied.

I'll make no bones about it. I was disappointed. One expected a littlemore from Mr Civilisation himself. It was only much later, in the early 1990s (dread decade!), whilst making a speech to the Conservative Townswomen's Guild congratulating the Prime Minister on his appointment of a distinguished art historian to the post of Chancellor of the Exchequer, that my error was pointed out to me (in a characteristically chip-on-shoulder editorial in the Guardian, I regret to say).

Other mistakes spring to mind. In the late 1980s, I congratulated the then Conservative Party Chairman Mr Peter Brooke on his excellent - if overly experimental - production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. "But I do wish you had washed your hands of that dreadful anti-Vietnam play in the Sixties" I added. Only last week I made a major speech to the Forward with Privatisation group condemning the Labour Railway Spokesman Mr Brian Wilson in no uncertain terms. "Why should we bother to listen to this self-confessed drug addict from California?" I bellowed, "I tell Brian Wilson this now: your tanned lady friend Barbara Ann might like to know what you have to say on the subject of privatising British Rail, but 'God Only Knows' why we should have to be subjected to your clap-trap!" I then launched into a jocular version of his ditty "Do It Again", complete with piano accompaniment. On reflection, I suppose the bemused response from the audience might have alerted me to the error of my ways, but these things are never clear.

Mistakes are easily made. I wonder whether those who would criticise Dr Mawhinney for lack of tact have ever bothered to find out what a very sensitive and thoughtful man he can be. For instance, when I accompanied him on a recent visit to a National Health hospital, he was charm itself. "You don't look all that ill to me, boyo" he exclaimed, setting an elderly patient at his ease. He then whipped a thermometer from his top pocket and stuck it up the old gentleman's posterior. After a minute had passed, he removed the thermometer and studied the results with rapt attention. "Nurse, remove this malingerer immediately. He is taking up valuable space and wasting taxpayers' money," he commanded. And so, owing to the foresight of Dr Mawhinney, the gent was allowed to die in the comfort of his own home, or would have,had he been bothered to have one.

A touching tale, but far from unique. One remembers Dr Mawhinney's visits to children's homes in his constituency dressed as Father Christmas. "Happy Christmas, children!" he would bellow through his frothy white beard. He would then collect all their toys together in his empty bag and exit with a merry "Ho! Ho! Ho!" Needless to say, one left-leaning trouble-maker pointed out that the traditional Father Christmas spent his time distributing gifts rather than removing them. "But haven't you heard?" grinned the Good Doctor, "He's been privatised!"