Mac's `wind of change' and how I saved the day

The Agreeable World of Wallace Arnold
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The Independent Online
AS YOU know, I rarely find time to watch the dread gogglebox. Three or four hours a day, perhaps a little bit more at weekends, is my absolute limit. I much prefer a halfway-decent book. A shame indeed that there are none written.

But I did manage to catch a programme after dinner last Thursday about my old friend and quaffing partner Harold Macmillan. Did you see it? I trust not, for its allegations were so downright offensive as to be unrepeatable. Pray allow me to list them. The programme-makers not only suggested that Harold was not from what one might describe as the very top drawer of the social wardrobe; it also broadcast the scurrilous allegation that his dear wife Dorothy enjoyed a 20-year "fling" with Bob Boothby.

Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Harold had the most perfect upper-class bearing as well as faultless dress sense and the devil- may-care ease of the true aristocrat. Only the most jaundiced observer of social mores could ever have detected anything untoward in his manner, though - strictly entre nous - I did once notice the great man issue a "thumbs-up" sign when his racing pigeon took second place in the 4.15 at Doncaster, and the oft-overlooked `I LUV MUM' tattoo he had had discreetly emblazoned on his right buttock after a particularly stormy night in the Chamber might be said to indicate a strong and instinctive feel for the working-class tradition of personal warmth.

But in public he never put a foot wrong. Of course, he was expertly advised. As his speech writer for a good three years, I was singularly well-equipped to steer him through any potential minefield, studiously excising the words "ee bah gum" from all his first drafts and making sure he cut down on extraneous references to greyhounds, bobble-hats and chipped potatoes. Most famously, I took my blue pen in the nick of time to the speech he was to deliver in Cape Town on 3 January 1960. "I've had a bit of wind blowing off through this continent," he had originally written, "still, it makes a nice change." Judging that the mood of the country was not yet ready for such vulgar ribaldry, I averted a major diplomatic disaster in the nick of time; the speech has now entered the history books as a model of old-fashion tact and decorum.

May I now turn my attention to the unpleasant aroma surrounding the reputations of Dorothy and Bob? I knew Dorothy Macmillan for 20 years or more. Never once in all that time did I witness the lady "flirting" or "giving the glad eye" to any senior politician worth his salt. I am not saying the lady was without fault. Far from it. It was, I think, somewhat injudicious of her to perform an impromptu "striptease", throwing off one tweed item after another, at the backstage party to celebrate Mr Russ Conway's triumphant tour of the provinces in late '61. And had it been left to me, I would have advised Dorothy with all the authority at my disposal against her ill-considered fling with just over half of Lord Rockingham's XI, and particularly against performing it in so public a location as the Centre Court of Wimbledon during the Men's Final. But to describe her simply as an out-and-out trollop with an insatiable appetite for the sins of the flesh would be very far from the truth. She was also adept at flower arrangement, or would have been, had she found the time.

Bob Boothby, too, was a figure of unblemished character and reputation, not only a friend of Dorothy but a world statesman who would lend the benefit of his experience to any young man dropping by. I well remember knocking on his door late in the summer of '62, only to find a veritable galaxy of intellects foregathered for a political conference, many of them wearing distinctive tight-fitting satin shorts of the Boothbyites.

No snob, Bob. Far from it. He was as interested in rubbing shoulders with, say, a rough, tough East End youth as in entertaining the most refined of philosophers. Rather more so, in fact. And what a melting-pot of talent his house became. At any given party one might bump into Dorothy Macmillan on the stairs clutching her Watneys Party Four, only to discover up-and- coming entrepreneurs Ronald and Reginald Kray sitting at ease in the living- room, discussing the future of Sino-Soviet relations in the decade ahead. Meanwhile, Macmillan himself would be in the lounge, entertaining everyone with his fruity Max Miller take-offs. Golden days indeed, and singularly ill-suited to the sneers that issued from the dread gogglebox on Thursday last.