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The agreeable world of Wallace Arnold: A literary friendship

AND STILL I grieve for my old friend and quaffing partner Graham Greene, that veritable master of the written word. A true friend, a terrific admirer of my life and works, an obsessive reader of the many letters and books I sent him, his affection for me will live on in my mind.

I have written before of this essentially private man, so wedded to secrecy that he would allow only two journalists at a time into his flat in Antibes for exclusive interviews, and then only on Tuesdays and Thursdays. (It is, incidentally, often reported that Graham did not care to show his face on the dread gogglebox. This is quite wrong: he appeared twice on Juke Box Jury in the mid-Sixties, the first time with Cilla Black, Lonnie Donnegan and Tommy Steele, the second with Peter Noone, Lulu and Bruce Forsyth: once on Criss Cross Quiz in 1963, achieving full marks in the third round; once on Blue Peter in 1964, assisting veteran presenter Christopher Trace as chief stoker on a traction engine; and once on Tonight in 1965, to argue the toss about Communism with the splendid Fyfe Robertson. He also made a fleeting appearance in November 1968 on ATV's long- running Crossroads as the mysterious Lord Mulliver, who claims to be the first husband of the redoubtable Miss Amy Turtle.)

I raise the subject of the great Greene once again as I have been much struck by a distinguished article in this week's Times Literary Supplement entitled, 'The Marginalia of Graham Greene'. It would appear that Greene's library is soon to be sold, and that many of the dusty tomes therein contained, many presented to him by his fellow authors, are furnished with that scrupulous scrivener's own handwritten comments, be they good, bad or indifferent]

I met the great man only once, at a cocktail party thrown by the late 'Bubbles' Rothermere in the late Fifties. From that brief exchanged glance we struck up an immediate rapport, twin souls startled into mutual recognition through the hubbub and banter of a raucous soiree.

The very next day, I placed my newly-published comical riposte to the female of the species, The Unfairer Sex: Birds of the Unfeathered Variety into an envelope, inscribed it, 'To Graham Greene: Friend, Mentor, Quaffing-Partner' and posted it to his modest digs in Nice. The silence that followed spoke volumes: Greene seemed instinctively to recognise me as his natural ally in the world of letters.

Needless to say, when my next book appeared - Ahoy There Me Hearties] The Punch Book of Life on the Ocean Waves edited by Wallace Arnold - I posted it without delay to The Master, inscribing it with an affectionate, not to say wry: 'Saucy salutations to an old Sea Salt, from his Great Friend and Fellow Yarn-Spinner, Wallace A'. Once again, Graham took care not to respond to this presentation with anything so verbose as a card or letter: he was, after all, the master of the unspoken, and between two such soulmates mere words seemed but flimsy things.

From that point on, our friendship secure, I posted the great man each of my tomes as and when they were published, including Pardon My Aspidistra] - Arnold on Gardening (1975), Of Hedgerows and Hyacinths: The Collected Poems of Wallace Arnold (1983), Norman Fowler: The Man and the Myth (biography, 1988), and my recent Pass the Port, Percival: 500 Ice-breaking Anecdotes for the After-Dinner Speaker (1989). I delighted to think of the celebrated author, tired from a hard day's penmanship, relaxing in bed with his favourite Arnold tome, gaining a few chuckles and/or words of wisdom before lights out.

I have the auction catalogue to the library of Graham Greene in front of me. Between 'Amis, K, with marginalia' and 'Austen, J, fully annotated' is listed 'Arnold, W, 15 volumes, 1959-89, all pristine condition, still sealed in original packaging'. Flattering, indeed, that the great man chose not to muddy my tomes with his inky pen, preferring to savour them unread] Those wishing to know more about this subject should consult my new volume, Arnold and Greene: A Literary Friendship (Hutchinson pounds 14.99).