The Agreeable World of Wallace Arnold: Dr Owen rides again

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The Independent Online
THE PEOPLE of Bosnia have not, of late, been blessed with their fair share of luck. But there will be many a glass of Riesling (dread word]) raised at the appointment of my old freind and quiffing partner Lord Owen as the King Pin in that war-torn country.

David is a born mediator, a bridge-builder par excellence. I first recognised this chummy, almost cosy, streak in the good doctor's character when we found ourselves thrown together in the long, cold winter of '73. It was a bitter November afternoon in Pall Mall, and the rain was positively pelting down like the proverbial four-legged friends. I was emerging from The Travellers' Club after an estimable repast with Monsignor Gilbey and old Mr Albert Steptoe, whom he had successfully converted to the true faith over a delicious entree of smoked salmon pate. At the same time, Dr Owen was striding out of The Reform Club, the slightly flared back-vents of his new sports-jacket blowing hither and thither in the fierce wind. Happily, I managed to hail the first taxi that approached. Imagine my astonishment, then, when who should pitch into it full tilt but Dr Owen, a determined look playing upon his visage.

'My taxi, I think]' I shouted through the window.

'Drive on, cabbie]' I heard the Doctor exclaim, but by this time I was already seated. As luck would have it, at precisely the same moment the other door opened and in popped that most affable of imbibers, Mr Roy Jenkins, now of course Lord Jenkins of Hillhead.

'Stwawdinwy to bump into you both in such circumstances]' Roy chuckled with customary bonhomie. 'Oddly enough I've just been lunching at the RAC with the Duke of Edinburgh. Incidentally , he has all the makings of a first-class socialist - as has Princess Margaret, between ourselves.'

'I'm sorry, gentlemen' interrupted Dr Owen, 'But this is my cab. Let's be realistic. You must both exit at once. The buses around here are both frequent and inexpensive. Away with you.'

'B-b-ut]' Roy and I exclaimed as one.

'To Limehouse, cabbie - and fast]' yelled Dr Owen.

'Surely we can come to some understanding,' I pleaded as the taxi hurtled on . 'Perhaps David,' I added tactfully 'You might act as mediator.'

At the mention of the word 'mediator', his face glowed. This was at a time, you will remember, before he had secured his position as Foreign Secretary, and he was mustard-keen to establish himself as a world-class mediator, believing it would stand him in good stead in years to come.

He thought hard before speaking. 'I have a plan that will prove satisfactory to all parties,' he eventually piped up. 'It's the frank and realistic approach, and I expect an end to hostilities within a matter of minutes.'

'Excellent]' I purred.

'We go first to Limehouse, with you two splitting the cost between you, he said, 'and then you both take the cab on to absolutely wherever you wish. I can't say fairer than that, now, can I?'

'This simply isn't on]' exclaimed Roy, asking the taxi-driver to stop before he clambered out into the pouring rain somewhere in the East End of London.

As Roy's pitiful figure, desperately attempting to hail a dust- cart, receded into the distance, the Good Doctor turned to me and, with a wry smile, said, 'Never believes in compromise, that's Roy's problem. Can't go half-way to meet his opponents. Whereas I cannot see a bridge without stopping to build it. Frankness and realism, that's my motto. Jaw- Jaw, not war-war, eh, Wallace?'

'So true, David' I said, happy to be taken into the cofidence of this most forthright of politicians. At Limehouse, he kindly agreed that I should pay the fare. From that moment on, I knew that here was a future mediator of world status, a statesman capable not only of drawing a party around him and leading it to election victory but, through sheer strength of personality, uniting all warring factions in a common purpose. And few would disagree when I say that, at this moment, there is no one they would prefer to see in the heart of Bosnia than the redoubtable Dr Owen.