The Agreeable World of Wallace Arnold: Rees-Mogg and Roy Strong: my neighbours from hell

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The dread gogglebox? I barely watch it, busy man of letters that I am. To be frank, I find there is little space in one's busy schedule for it, particularly when one is forced to spend so much time getting to grips with all those new faces on Channel 5.

But I did find myself "viewing" (dread word!) on Monday last, when they aired a documentary programme called Neighbours from Hell. A number of off-putting types were presented, many sporting precious little in the way of a necktie. Small wonder they caused such horror among those with the misfortune to live next door.

A modest reminiscence about my own neighbours from hell seems in order. Throughout a long and varied life, I have lived in a variety of residences, some grand, others merely intensely desirable. But one's neighbours have a habit of making their presence known, a presence not always, alas, to be welcomed.

As a student at Balliol, I often found myself disturbed by the thump of loud music booming its way in from the next room. This was often accompanied by the whoops and hollers of partygoers, followed by a tell-tale cheer as one of the assembled throng removed an item of clothing. At the time, I was perusing my way through Paradise Lost, that most weighty of English novels, in which the inimitable Captain Grimes chronicles the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. As you may imagine, I was in no mood to be interrupted.

After five successive nights of thump-thump-thump, I finally snapped. "Rees-Mogg!" I screamed through the paper-thin wall. "Rees-Mogg! If you don't call a halt to that infernal racket, I shall summon the warden!" As if by magic, the music stopped at once, to be followed by the sound of scuffling, then tittering. After a minute, there came a knock at my door. I opened it to see the young Rees-Mogg, naked but for a party-hat with lewd inscription, his entire body smeared from head to foot in what appeared to be a combination of fruit salad, gooseberry trifle, sardines- on-toast and whipped cream, an embarrassed smile playing awkwardly upon his face. Behind him leered the sweating faces of our Balliol contemporaries: Norman St John Stevas dressed as Carmen Miranda, Roy Strong already clad in specs-nose-and-whiskers novelty mask and Peter Carrington in his distinctive yellow-and-black striped uniform with wings, as Buzzy Bee, saviour of the world.

This incident is notable for its absence from the Balliol diaries and reminiscences of the time. But I rather think that the distinction of the future careers of Rees-Mogg and his cronies suggests my neighbourly tirade was sufficient to divert them from the road to ruin. From that day, I never once saw Norman in a posing-pouch, whilst Peter forsook his bee-costume for something more in keeping with the elder statesman image. And as to William, his double-breasted suit has remained his constant companion, even when out for a spot of wind-surfing with Lord Whitelaw.

Time moves ever onwards. Two decades later I found myself with a flat in the Albany, just off Piccadilly. All went well until late one evening, just as I was placing my flat-cap in the trouser-press for the night. Suddenly, I was disturbed by a strange sound which went something like this: "Clip, clip, clip; clip, clip, clip".

What on earth was it? At first, I resolved to ignore it, but I was soon to discover that even with Liberty cushions pressed close to my ears the infernal "clip, clip, clip; clip clip, clip" was driving me mad. I thumped on the linking wall, and thumped again, but to no avail. With my ear upon an upturned tumbler pressed close against the wall, I was able to detect sighs of pleasure at every second or third clip: "clip, clip, sigh!; clip, clip, sigh!; clip, clip, sigh".

I could take it no more. Putting my glass to one side, I marched boldly down the corridor and knocked with all my might on the neighbouring door. After much unbolting of chains and turning of keys, who should peer out but Edward Heath, at that time the Leader of the Opposition. "Yes?" he grunted, "YES?!!" Looking down, I spotted a pair of toenail-clippers nestling in his hands. A selection of his toenails lay hither and thither across the red plush carpet. So this was what made the man tick! I had discovered the secret that had eluded political commentators and prominent historians for so very long!

"Keep it down a bit, old man - keep it down," I said, discreetly. He blushed, muttered an apology, and shuffled sheepishly back inside, his toenail clippers his only companion. In retrospect, my memos reminding him of our shared secret may have assured me Heath's backing when the post of President of the English-Speaking Union became available five years later. Once in a while, a neighbour from hell can be made to pay dividends...

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