Scintillating trifles from Lord Anthony's pen

The Agreeable World of Wallace Arnold
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The Independent Online
HOW agreeable it is to find that my old friend and quaffing partner Sir Anthony Powell (never to be rhymed with "trowel" or - heaven forbid! - "bowel") publishes another volume of his delicious journals this month.

It is widely known that the two of us have been corresponding for simply yonks. In time I trust that the full Arnold/Powell Correspondence 1955- 96 will gain a wider readership. In these past 40-odd years, our letters have touched on a rich variety of subjects, many of them of a most civilised nature. For instance, for over three years we debated that most congenial yet controversial of topics, namely, "Does a True Gentleman Ever Carry a Blancmange in His Top Pocket?". Powell argued that the only true gent of his acquaintance ever to have maintained a blancmange in his top pocket for any decent period of time was the great Lord Curzon. "Though Curzon would never have kept a strawberry or lemon blancmange in his top pocket - only vanilla."

My consequent missive reminded Anthony of the strict rule in the British Army in India that any officer found with a strawberry blancmange in his top pocket was instantly fined 200 rupees, or the full 300 rupees for a raspberry blancmange. "A harsh ruling, I fear - but it had the effect of maintaining fierce personal pride among the officers, and it is worth remembering that during a century of the British Raj not one officer was ever discovered with the offending comestible about his person."

At this juncture, Anthony expanded our correspondence to touch on the subject of blancmange in literature. "There is precious little blancmange in Shakespeare," he pointed out, "but I seem to remember a blackcurrant blancmange poking its nose into one of Conrad's pithier tales. Am I right in thinking that those deathly foreign pilgrims were tucking into a poorly- set blancmange when the ship capsizes at the very beginning of Lord Jim?" All good stuff - and it gave fruit to an equally informative response from Yours Truly, arguing, and I quote, that "It is years since I have found time to attend a performance of Hamlet, but I have always imagined that the Bard wrote his `To be or not to be' soliloquy to be performed while spooning blancmange gently into his mouth. I fear that many of our more - forgive the term! - `kitchen sink' actors are prone to neglect this, thus affording the soliloquy a less comforting air than the playwright intended."

Over the years, our correspondence expanded to touch on the subject of many other sweets and desserts, Apple Crumble and Rice Pudding among them. "It has long been my belief," I wrote to Anthony as recently as 1965, "that puddings have had a major role to play in altering the course of history. I seem to remember that the Cuban Missile Crisis occurred simply because President Kennedy had promised himself an ice-cream sundae just as the telephone call from the Kremlin was put through. His somewhat curt exchange with Khruschev - leading the world to the brink of disaster - might have been averted had the sundae in question found its way to his table a few seconds earlier. Or am I thinking of Macmillan and the Profumo Crisis?"

Fascinating. Powell replied that in his opinion President Kennedy was "a typical little American - over-ambitious and with poorly cut trousers". He revealed that he once met Kennedy, finding him "a wholly unmemorable character". Such insights into the most celebrated men - and women! - of the century come thick and fast when corresponding with Powell. For instance, he found Mahatma Gandhi a "mousey little man, with not much to say for himself and scant knowledge of my books", and General de Gaulle, "a typical little Frenchman, all oui to this and non to that. Alas, for all his airs and graces he revealed a worrying lack of familiarity with my Dance to the Music of Time series".

But I digress. We moved on from Kennedy to the White House. "No gentleman," wrote Powell, "ever lived in a purely white house. But I daresay to the simplistic American mind, the Off-White House would not have quite the same ring to it." I replied that, if memory served, I had once met President Roosevelt in the White House - "Unmemorable man, unmemorable house". I finished by asking Powell whether anyone in the world had made a lasting impression on him. "I daresay one or two were agreeable in their way," he replied, "but no one has ever struck me as particularly out-of-the- ordinary." Three cheers for Sir Anthony! Three cheers for civilisation!

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