The agreeable world of Wallace Arnold: I shall never forget playing sardines with the Duchess

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The Independent Online
It was last Tuesday (or was it Wednesday?). We were in the snug bar of The Garrick, nursing a very quaffable Pomerol from a halfway decent year, when the news broke like a thunderclap. "I see that the biographer of Margaret, Duchess of Argyll," said Roy Strong, leafing through the latest edition of the Evening Standard, the wafts from each fresh page-turn playing havoc with his freshly-combed whiskers, "is due to blow the cover on the so-called `Headless Man'! Well, just fancy that!"

You could have heard the proverbial pin drop. A leading Peer of the Realm clutched at his breast before succumbing to a heart attack. A distinguished Judge, prominent on the Northern Circuit, fought off an attack of wind. A suffragan bishop knelt at the bar, hanging his head low and whipping himself with a set of gold chains in a fit of - what? - shame; remorse; or perhaps even pride. At the far end of the room, a Tory grandee struggled to open a window, with a view to jumping out. "Don't do it, man! Don't do it!" I yelled. "We're in the basement!"

"Whoop-seeeey!" exclaimed Roy. "Did one say something wrong?"

Within five minutes, a family-sized ambulance had arrived at the back door of the club and up to six members were being discreetly piled in, one on top of the other. Roy Strong had learnt his lesson the hard way: Margaret, Duchess of Argyll, is a name that conjures up many an unhappy memory for members of The Garrick. Few of us will ever forget - or forgive - her performance at our Christmas party in December 1962.

It was somewhere between five and six of the clock. We had exhausted all our usual party games. Douglas Fairbanks Jr had won pass-the-parcel, Mervyn Stockwood musical chairs and, as per usual, Quintin Hogg had carried off the gold cup for pinning the donkey's tail on the most appropriate place of Lord Harewood's body. But things were beginning to lag. There were, of course, the three club jigsaws - The Haywain, Tower Bridge and King George V and family - but they required a steady hand and were in any case missing essential pieces. A little "oomph" was needed.

"I know," I said, picking up the telephone receiver, "let's give Margaret Argyll a blow! She should be free!"

"It'd be perfectly in order for her to charge, particularly with this number of clients," piped up The Marquess of Milford Haven, looking around at the assembled multitudes. "But seeing as it's Christmas..."

"I meant that we should give Margaret a ring on the telephone to see if she is available," I snapped. "You'll never guess what! She can bend a balloon, no hands!"

Within minutes, Margaret had arrived, her tiara askew from an altercation with the taxi-driver. I shepherded her into the Games Room and the gentlemen formed an orderly queue to be presented to her. Let me say at this juncture that there was nothing at all "improper" of "disorderly" about these early proceedings. Quite the opposite: the Duchess handled herself, and others, with the most consummate aplomb.

It was the game of "sardines" that proved our undoing. Having been elected "It" on a show of hands, the Duchess nipped off, ballgown afloat in the winter breeze, and hid in the below-stairs cupboard. Alas, unknown to her, Sir Gerald Nabarro, Chairman of the Garrick Club Amateur Photography Circle, was also in that cupboard, trying out his new Kodak Instamatic for effectiveness in dark or shady conditions.

Well, the game of sardines seemed to go on for donkey's years. First, the Marquess of Milford Haven crept into the cupboard, then Mervyn Stockwood, then Cyril Connolly, then General de Gaulle (on holiday from Paris at the time), then Cecil Beaton, then Gilbert Harding, then "Chips" Channon, then Bob Boothby and finally all but three of Lord Rockingham's X1, the lively dance-combo who had been entertaining those lunching in the Members' Dining Room earlier that day.

Yours truly was, I regret to say, the very last to stumble upon their collective hidey-hole. I had been wandering around in a cloud of unknowing when I had suddenly heard the clear tones of Bob Boothby coming through the cupboard door with ever-increasing vigour: "Cold-warm-warm-oh-my-god- very-warm, hot, hot, hot BOOIIILL- LLIIINNG!" And with that I had opened the door to find ... but some tales, I fear, are better left untold. Suffice it to say that Nabarro's subsequent slide-show was the best-attended in the history of the club, though it resulted in a dozen resignations and at least a couple of suicides. But the question remains. Who was the Headless Man? Or let me phrase that another way: who WASN'T the Headless Man? Well, don't look at ME.