Sorry Cole, you aren't the top

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The Independent Online
CHALLENGED at a party to find a rhyme for 'conundrum', Cole Porter sat down at a piano and, within seconds, produced a charming little song in which a Mrs S Beach Fitch asks her husband, Mr S Beach Fitch, what the difference is between a riddle and three elephants sitting on a bun. (Enthusiasts of Mr Evelyn Waugh may remember that the novelist had earlier based two characters on this couple in Vile Bodies.)

'One's a conundrum,' sang Mr Porter, in his corncrake, drawing-room tenor, 'and the other's a bun under 'em.'

I know this for a fact, since I happen to have been present on this occasion - a party given by Mr Richard Rodgers to celebrate the opening on Broadway in 1962 of Beyond The Fringe. (Further, and for what it's worth, I'd add that it had been Mr Rodgers himself - much taxed over the years by Mr Porter's constant, teasing queries as to how it could possibly take two people to compose something as trivial as a popular song - who had issued the challenge to Mr Porter. Equally, I might add that meeting Mr Porter, who, racked by the most horrendous pain, had treated the other guests with his customary and selfless courtesy, had been and remains the high point of my life.)

You'll gather from the foregoing - may, equally, not have gathered it - that I have been invited at last to contribute to the feature on 'Heroes and Villains' at the back of the Independent's Saturday magazine.

This request put me in such a tizzy that I have done no work for a week on El Independo, my exciting comic soap opera for BBC 2 - the problem, as I saw it, being whether to put on my thinking cap and, by writing about someone truly great - Leavis, Canetti, Wittgenstein or Thomas Sutcliffe - make a cracking ass of myself, or, after the manner of, say, Mr Auberon Waugh, have about me with a bladder and slapstick, and write a fan letter to a hero of the sort schoolboys pin to their bedroom walls.

Having dismissed the former possibility, I drew up a short-list of the latter types, which ran in the end to Colin Todd, the most cultured centre-back ever to pull on the No 6 shirt for England, Ronnie Lott, the finest free safety ever to grace the National Football League, Rachel Garley, the Princess of Wales, David Gower, Cole Porter and Lord Longford.

In the end, I dismissed the first five for the following reasons: to admit that I ever watched such a yobbish and brainless game as soccer goes against the grain, which rules out Toddy, even though he once made the only funny remark attributable to a footballer. You'll have heard it before, but that's your hard cheese, frankly.

After the Rams stuffed Liverpool 0-4 at Anfield, Emlyn 'The Flying Pig' Hughes approached Toddy in the tunnel and said: 'What would you do if you couldn't play football, Toddy?' 'I'd do what you do, Emlyn,' said Toddy.

I then ruled out Ronnie Lott, with whom I have been in love for many years, at the suggestion of Michael O'Mara, who advised me that free safeties who can bring down 22-stone running backs with the force of a wrecking-ball hitting a municipal toilet don't take kindly to reading that a decrepit little English public schoolboy is in love with them.

I don't want Rachel Garley to come between me and Debbie Mason, whom I think I want to marry; Classy Cressida has told me that it's common to write about one's friends - which rules out the Princess of Wales; and I've decided that David Gower is in any case a bit of a curly-haired pillock, albeit with a lovely off-drive.

That left it as a straight choice between Cole Porter and Lord Longford. Cole Porter was certainly the better lyric writer, in so far at least as it's difficult to imagine Lord Longford coming up with anything as good as:

''You're the basic brand

Of a lady and

A gent.

You're an old Dutch master

You're Mrs Astor,

You're Pepsodent.'

As Philip Larkin might have said - indeed, as Philip Larkin did say (Required Writing, Faber & Faber, 1983) - 'I have tried to imagine, without much success, Mick Jagger singing this.'

Be that as it may, I revere Lord Longford for his goodness and humour more than any man living, but I have to say that he didn't come up with anything as brilliant when I took him out to lunch on Tuesday to audition him, as it were, as my Saturday hero - indeed, he didn't come up with a lyric of any sort. He did, however, produce a joke about Lord Hailsham.

'Hogg accused me one day,' he said, 'of having an adder's tongue.

' 'Hogg,' I said, 'that remark's as unhappy as Dickie Buckle's to the effect that Nijinsky could jump higher than anyone else because he had an extra bone in his foot, like a bird. I had to explain to Buckle that birds don't fly with their feet. Equally adders don't bite with their tongues.' Now, what's all this about Classy Cressida, your beloved?'

'She's gone to Cornwall,' I said.

'Do you know the place?' I said.

'I gather no one has ever survived a weekend there except A L Rowse,' he said. 'It won't last long with him. He can't make much from those dreadful books about cats or from his inferior verses. However, I'll go and have a word with him.'

Before I could stop him, he hailed a taxi and told the driver to take him to Paddington. 'A L Rowse has absconded with Mr Dickenson's beloved, Classy Cressida,' he said. 'We've got to get her back.'

Could anyone seriously have another hero - even Cole Porter, Rachel Garley or Ronnie Lott?