The Agreeable World of Wallace Arnold: Steady course to disaster

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The Independent Online
AMONG the greatest of life's pleasures I count settling down to a goodly jar of Best Bitter with my old friend and quaffing partner Lord (if you will]) Rees-Mogg.

I have known William since way back, and for the past two decades I have been a regular summer guest for picnics aboard his delightful yacht, Vesuvius.

William is, as you might imagine, an excellent skipper, though perhaps best when safely in dock. Of course, there is bound to be the occasional mishap, and our last voyage proved no exception. 'My own balance of expectation leads me to veer strongly towards the belief that we shall be sighting land in over four hours,' he intoned just before the yacht went smack into the White Cliffs of Dover. But I am happy to say that William took it on the chin.

'As one who has long held to the belief that the yacht was about to go straight into the White Cliffs of Dover,' he purred, with a knowing smile playing over his fine features, 'I must confess to a little satisfaction that my prophesies have held so steady.'

We imbibe together in a friendly hostelry maybe twice a year, contentedly chewing over the fat of the previous six months. One such quaffing session took place in the mid-Seventies, shortly after William had advanced his career by predicting that the so-called 'Watergate' scandal would soon blow over.

It was a bright summer's day, yet William arrived positively sweltering in three woolly jumpers, an overcoat, ear-muffs, balaclava and sou'wester. 'Though I recognise the strength of the claims of those who maintain that this is a sunny day,' he explained, 'on balance, I find myself more and more convinced that it will end in a fearful blizzard of a type this country has not known for half a century.'

As the sun poured through the window, William explained through his balaclava how he had arrived at this diagnosis. 'When visiting my kitchen, I occasionally find cause to open a cupboard, particularly when the staff are away. You know, of course, what a 'cupboard' is, Wallace? It's a compartment, generally used for storage, often containing shelves. Well, this morning I ventured to open one such cupboard, only to find, to my amazement, that it was quite literally covered in ice and snow. This I understood at once to mean that our civilisation was heading for an imminent ice age. That is why I am so attired.'

'Forgive me, William,' quoth Arnold, 'but might it not have been a refrigerator into which you peered?'

'A what?' replied William. Realising that a 'refrigerator' was not within his frame of reference, I decided to change tack, and he was soon expounding merrily on the absolute impossibility of a woman becoming prime minister before the turn of the century, sweat pouring off his spectacle frames and on to his overcoat.

During another such convivial get-together in early 1966, we found ourselves drawn into a pub conversation concerning the England World Cup squad. As luck would have it, William turned out to be something of an expert on the matter. 'On reflection,' declared William, 'and with the greatest possible regret, for I have a great deal of respect for Mr Robert - 'Bobby' - Moore, I am afraid to say that they are unlikely to make it through the qualifying rounds.'

He then applied himself to an assessment of each member of the squad. Martin Peters, he maintained, had 'a good third-class intellect rather than a lower second-class one', whilst Nobby Stiles, 'though reasonably gifted with the manipulation of a football', had, it pained him to say, 'a mind of no very great profundity, with scant knowledge of Locke or even Mill'.

And so to Tuesday last, when William and I discussed the vexed issue of religion over a dry Martini. 'In my experience,' he said, 'God has no very great knowledge of international affairs, and He is sometimes let down by an unbecoming impulsiveness in matters geographical.' William then took a nibble of a peanut. 'Nevertheless, I would say He has a decent second-class mind: an ideal administrator, if no very great leader.' More of William next week, methinks.