The Agreeable World of Wallace Arnold: My old friend Jeffrey, what a tale he can tell

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I DO NOT believe that my dear old friend and quacking partner Jeffrey Archer has been breaching the City's dear old etiquette. Far from it. The idea is preposterous. Who ever heard of a very rich man bothering to become richer? I have no doubt that, when this nasty little business is cleared up, he will emerge without the smallest stain about his person.

Jeffrey and I go back yonks. When first I met him he was plain Jeff Acher, a trainee croupier, already making quite a name for himself on the lucrative Mecca Leisureland circuit. Two short years later, he was sporting the bright cerise and mauve blazer to which he was entitled by his lofty new position as a fully licensed croupier, and he was able to accept stakes up to a cash limit of pounds 33. By this stage, he had, I noted, added an extra 'r' after the capital 'A' of his surname, thus lending himself a new dignity, a new sense of purpose and direction.

Getting to know Jeffrey so well over the years I realised that he was a man of many contacts. 'As Mahatma once said to me . . .' was the familiar opening to many a joyous Archer anecdote, and he would rejoice in telling the tale of how he and Dr Martin Luther King had once hitchhiked from Aldershot to East Horsley in the company of Serge Gainsbourg and Ted Heath, or of the near-fatal escapades he had braved as a rear-gunner in the Royal Air Force in the latter years of the last war. Or I would listen spellbound as he told me of his days as Arthur Askey's straight-man or of the undercover mission he undertook during the Falklands Conflict, keeping up morale among our lads with his cheery impersonations of Sir Winston Churchill.

It was but a short journey from the roulette table to the House of Commons and Jeffrey made it in a single leap. But fate, ever fickle, conspired against him; within a matter of years Jeffrey was at home again, busy at his typewriter, working on the modern best-selling classic whose title, alas, escapes me.

The years rolled by, and to my great regret we rather lost touch with one another, though I was delighted to see him establishing a name for himself as a regular performer on the dread gogglebox, one week reading his autobiography on BBC1's celebrated Jackanory programme, the next week appearing on ATV's highly popular Crossroads as the black sheep brother of Dave Hunter, the deputy manager of the world-famous motel. In retrospect, one can see that it was within the influential world of Crossroads that Jeffrey first managed to establish an effective power base, for the series proved a springboard to success for many of those who were later to become famous as leading figures in the tight-knit world of conservative politics, among them Virginia Bottomley (as Jill), Kenneth Clarke (Benny), Peter Lilley (Sandy) and John Gummer (Amy Turtle), with the veteran Cecil Parkinson as the smooth David Hunter and Norman Tebbit as Jim Baines, the shorttempered car mechanic. But Jeffrey was never in any doubt that his future lay with them, and many was the time when the telephone on the reception desk of Crossroads motel would ring and it would be Jeffrey, wondering whether the rest of the cast were free for a light lunch of Shepherd's Pie and Krug, the exotic new bottled lager from down under.

His contacts were to serve him well, and before long he found himself back in the bosom of the party as Deputy Chairman, the darling of the Constituency Associations. He was, of course, particularly adept at communicating his message in the clearest manner, though some might think that the message itself, which might be loosely translated as 'don't forget to count the spoons', was a little out of kilter with the party's image at the time.

To this day, Jeffrey remains a figure of outstanding largesse, a man whom one could trust to hand over, say, pounds 2,000 to a strange woman he had never met, purely on the off-chance that she might need it sometime in the future. He has a wife of renowned fragrance, a penthouse flat boasting a fine set of Picasso drink-mats, more new friends than money can buy, and a new volume of short stories, each with an expected ending to delight the novice reader. I imagine that his dear old dad, the Grand Duke, must be very proud, and who can blame him? As Jeffrey said to me only the other day, 'Wallace, there's nothing I value more than my gift for accurate precis - at least, that's what my good friend the Queen always says, bless her.'

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