Saddam was a not entirely unclubbable old chap

The Agreeable World of Wallace Arnold
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The Independent Online
LAST week, you will have noticed, the What the Papers Say programme on the dread gogglebox awarded me their first prize for Congenial Prose, the effect of which was blighted only somewhat by the erroneous printing on the citation of a superfluous "t" after the "i".

In my more immodest moments, I like to think that it was an award for topicality, too. My friends, who are many, never cease to praise me for being ever-topical. "Wallace, you are always the first to place your finger on the pulse," is a common response to my oeuvre. And my cuttings-book - bound in exported veal-calf leather and embossed in plutonium - bears testament to my prodigious empathy with The Common Man. For example, as early as 1970, I noted that "I suspect the Duchess of Windsor has failed to gain the whole-hearted support of the British people". Bullseye!

So I wonder if you would allow me to throw caution to the winds and be the first major British commentator to pass judgement on the Scott report? This report, by a little-known member of the judiciary, Sir Richard Scott, has received scant coverage in the media (dread word!), so I regard it as my duty to redress the balance, particularly as I have myself suffered the indignity of being named time and time again in its pages.

I was, of course, a key figure in the events which Sir Richard has so cackhandedly set before the nation. Briefly, in the early-to-mid 1980s, way before anyone regarded him as any sort of threat, I had nominated Saddam Hussein for membership of The Garrick Club. An old friend from way back - and the Spectator Moustache Wearer of the Year 1979 - he had, I felt, just the right mix of forthright male conversation peppered with lusty iconoclasm that would make him, in no time at all, a much-loved member of the Club. And he had one other great virtue; a robust sense of leadership which made him, I felt, the perfect clean sweep for the unruly elements in the downstairs bar, a dive which in recent years had become, let's be frank, a hothouse of dissent and general mischief.

At that time Saddam never went anywhere without his rapid-repeater handgun, and I knew that this, combined with his undoubted charm, might spell an end to the lewd talk that had become the norm in those quarters. With this in mind, I introduced him to my fellow members Sir Nicholas Lyell and William Waldegrave, who took to him, needless to say, like the proverbial ducks to H20.

Saddam was elected a full member in July '84, rising, under my aegis, to Secretary of the Downstairs Bar in November that year. Even Sir Richard in his report acknowledges how very effective Saddam was at injecting discipline into the place: blow-up rubber dolls were outlawed, and women's clothes were not to be worn before l0pm on weekdays. Christmas that year at the Garrick was given over to hugely enjoyable show-trials, and the deportations, executions and so forth were over by February, ready for the decorators to move in by early March.

So when Saddam approached me in the upstairs bar on an exceptionally hot evening in July '95 to ask a favour, the least I could do was to give him a fair hearing. He had, he explained, a little trouble at home, and was in grave need of weapons to kill something in the region of 5 million people, mainly foreigners. As the holiday season was under way, could he possibly use the Club's facilities to manufacture a Supergun or two?

Sir Richard makes it crystal clear in his report that "at this stage, it is not my belief that Wallace Arnold had no choice but not to oblige his old friend", adding "and it is not misleading to not suggest that were it not for Arnold, Saddam would not have not manufactured his arms". Thus the report entirely exonerates myself and my fellow committee members - I refer you to the words on page 1,326: "They are not entirely exonerated."

We are thus cleared of any blame for that shameful episode in the Gulf war which led to over 50 Club members being fired against their wishes by Supergun from the Garrick roof into the very heart of Allied lines, with the consequent boring to death by anecdote of over 400 Allied troops on the ground. A sorry affair, indeed, but, as Sir Richard makes clear, Saddam already faces suspension from full membership of The Garrick until Easter '97, and Rule 165 (b) has now been amended to include a full ban on all unlicensed Superguns employed by Members and Non-Members alike.