Puffing away on the grand old meaning of life

The Agreeable World of Wallace Arnold
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The Independent Online
LIKE many a distinguished man - and even the odd woman! - I am oft asked to contribute favourite recipes, poems, apercus, after-dinner jokes and humorous anecdotes to charity books. It seems that publishers are all agreed that the name Wallace Arnold emblazoned on a brightly coloured dust-jacket sits well alongside those of Ronnie Corbett, Jilly Cooper, Roy Hattersley, Maureen Lipman, The Duke of Edinburgh, Richard Briers and John Mortimer.

I contributed to my very first such tome way back in 1967. It was, of course, the legendary Simon Dee Book of Celebrity Mishaps, with hilarious pieces from a veritable galaxy of stars including Noel Harrison, John Stonehouse, Diana Dors, Nobby Styles, Hugh Lloyd, The Beverley Sisters and Jeremy Hawk, the presenter of the ingenious Criss Cross Quiz. I remember coming up with a suitably chucklesome anecdote concerning my own good self, a particularly spiky cactus and the late Arnold Goodman - all trapped together for five minutes in a public convenience in the Swiss Cottage district!

From then on, contributions were solicited from me on a regular basis. My entry in Who's Who attests to my growing popularity, with anecdotes from yours truly appearing in such hallowed outlets as The How! Book of Scientific Bloopers (1969), The Robert Morley Book of Bricks (1973), 101 Favourite Celebrity Animal Stories with an introduction by Desmond Morris (1978), Frank Bough's Fireside Book of Sporting Heroes and, most recently, my own The Great Big Wallace Arnold Book of the Very Best Norman Fowler Anecdotes (1993).

I mention all this by way of easing the reader into the subject of today's column, which is the publication this week of a new book in the genre. It is boldy titled, The Meaning of Life and is published by Virgin Books (if you will!) at pounds 9.99. No doubt you will have read about it. A bright young spark had the idea of writing to a variety of public figures asking them the simple question, "What is the meaning of life?"

The results are intriguing. Many of my dearest old friends and quaffing partners have obviously given the matter prolonged thought, from Sir Roy Strong ("Life is a superb dry white wine supped in an exquisite rose garden, properly tended") to the present Archbishop of Canterbury ("Life is a bit like a Cup Final with Arsenal down 2-0, don't you think? You have to put into it what you will, even though you may not be what society likes to call an "overall winner". I was particularly taken with the explanations offered by both Lady Antonia Fraser ("I have long felt that the purpose of life is to discuss issues of national and international importance over an intimate dinner party"), and Harold Pinter ("The matter is in the hands of my solicitor"), and I was entranced, too, by Mr Paul Johnson's forthright response ("In my opinion, the meaning of life for all ordinary, decent Britons must surely be making absolutely certain that that disastrous whining ninny John Major is not re-elected as Prime Minister of this once-great nation of ours").

When I myself received the missive asking me to expound on the aforesaid subject, my first response was to reach to the top shelf for my trusty pipe and Old Shag. Five good, strong sucks found the sacred instrument a-billow, and I then proceeded to sit right back in my favourite armchair and cogitate on the meaning of life. Oddly enough, it was not a matter upon which I had previously expended any thought. I preferred to leave such high-falutin' questions to the egg-heads, the boffins, the "experts"(!) and other assorted charlatans. But as I puffed away, I began to realise that the question "What is the meaning of life?" is, in fact, well worth chewing over for the odd minute or two, and is well up to the standard of many other brain-teasers such as "What is the capital city of Arkansas?" and "Which British batsman scored the most runs in away Test Matches in the 1952/53 season?" and - always a tricky one, this - "Who was the original chairman of University Challenge?"

And so, with my trusty pipe now puffed clean dry, to my conclusion: It seems to me the meaning of life has much to do with keeping oneself well turned out, staying in touch with current affairs via the Spectator, and, above all, for a distinguished columnist such as myself, as EM Forster put it, "only con".