The Agreeable World of Wallace Arnold: Poor, poor Jonathan (not that he was a friend)

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The Independent Online
I See from my diary that I have, on occasion, found myself at Mr Jonathan Aitken's house in Lord North Street. But my visits have been infrequent: no more than a dozen times a year since the early 1970s, often fewer. Last year, for instance, I visited the building on only 10 occasions, and I have no record of having enjoyed myself at all.

It is important to make it clear - and my solicitor Mr Carter-Ruck will be only too ready to make it even clearer - that my association with Mr Aitken was not based on anything as vulgar as "friendship". Far from it. We were both of the same political persuasion, and, from time to time, he would invite me to participate in a candid philosophical discussion with like-minded folk.

Anyone who was anyone in the world of Conservative Thought would be there: President Nixon, Henry Kissinger, Lord Wyatt of Weevil, Sir Alan Walters, Mad Frankie Fraser, the lot. On one memorable occasion, I remember sharing a silver salver of cashew nuts with a gentleman of foreign extraction. He was clad in shiny silver medals and brightly coloured ribbons galore, so my instincts told me that he was in some way connected to the military. It was only when he attempted to settle an intellectual discussion over the pros and cons of the Exchange Rate Mechanism by pulling out a sawn- off shotgun and threatening to blast Sir Geoffrey Howe's head off that I realised he was none other than the hot-headed General Noriega, the prestigious if occasionally misguided leader of Panama. On the grapevine I hear that the General is now resigning as a Privy Councillor: some in "new" Labour have questioned the validity of an honour acquired with a down-payment of pounds 9,500 and a promise of two Centurion tanks, three dozen missile-launchers and an ejector seat all delivered to a secret address.

Happy days! Yet in retrospect I must make it clear that I long detected something "fishy" about Jonathan, something "not quite right" and "best avoided". This is why I always kept a healthy distance from him, only allowing him to breach my two-to-three feet exclusion zone when he was intent on replenishing my glass of Krug champagne, or introducing me to yet another of his well-tanned associates. Incidentally, I am told that there are photographs circulating in Fleet Street showing my own good self on a sun-soaked holiday with Mr Aitken, while a dusky figure in the background presents us with a complimentary pair of F-11 fighter planes. May I make it quite plain that these photographs are fakes, and that my diary makes it absolutely clear - just above the bit that was unavoidably crossed out by a passing ball-point pen - that on the date in question I was alone in my office, slogging my guts out on behalf of a highly profitable charity enterprise.

It says a lot about the man how few of us who were forced to attend Aitken's parties throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s - often paying for our own taxis, there and back - can now bring ourselves to utter a word in his defence. But that is the sort of shifty and disloyal sort of fellow he always was.

As I implied between the lines in an article I wrote for the Sunday Express 18 months ago ("Why I Back My Pal Aitken's Campaign to Clean Up the Press"), Aitken has long been known as an untrustworthy sort of fellow, the kind of man who would claim to be your firm friend one day and your sworn enemy the next. I hope this was the side I brought out vividly in the follow- up article I penned for last weekend's Sunday Express ("Why I Never Trusted Aitken").

Nevertheless, it is always terribly hard to see an ex-colleague in distress. This is why I have had the maid draw the curtains of my own small flat in Lord North Street for the next few weeks. But one's best-laid plans can still go awry. Shortly after midnight on Friday, with the rain pelting down outside, I answered the door to a thin, bedraggled figure, his rotting shoes falling apart and his wretched suit entirely soaked through.

"Remember me, Wallace, old man?" whined the hapless figure. "Only you once said that if ever I found myself in a spot of bother..."

I could never turn my back on an old colleague, no matter how low he had sunk. That is not the sort of man I am. So I swiftly closed the front door, and proceeded to speak to him through the letter-flap.

"I'd love to help you, old man, but you know how it is," I explained. "And to be honest, I've hardly ever met you, now, have I?" None the less, I was sufficiently moved by the man's plight to open a can of Heinz Cream of Tomato soup and pour it outwards through the letter-flap for him to tuck into in his own time. "Compassion" has become an overworked word in recent times, but we should all of us spare a little room for it, wouldn't you agree?