The Agreeable World of Wallace Arnold: The Duchess and I

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IT WAS ALL such a long, long time ago. Is there really any point in raking over the embers yet again? I am talking, of course, of the so-called 'Headless Man' affair, which seems to have got the chattering classes (dread words]) in all of a twitter once more. Needless to say, my own telephone has not stopped ringing ever since Her Grace the Duchess of Argyll - whom I encountered in the flesh on only a handful of occasions - breathed her last.

'Mr Arnold,' went a typical call from the 'gentlemen' of the gutter press, 'the name's Rose from the Telegraph - call me Ken - and my readers have earned the right to know if you were indeed the Headless Man. Eh? Eh?'

What can one reply? The whole episode has grown so clouded in the collective mists of misapprehension, untruth and downright fib that I have, up to this moment, chosen to replace the receiver with the utmost speed. But I now feel that the time is right to tell the world what I know about this comparatively innocent episode once and for all, regardless of any harm to my own reputation.

Deep breath, Wallace, deep breath. It was in the June of 1961 - or was it '62, - that I first set eyes on Margaret, Duchess of Argyll. I remember the scene as if it were only yesterday, for there were elements to it which seemed somehow divorced from the mood of the time. Unusually for a member of the aristocracy in the post-war era, the Duchess was sitting stark naked on a billiard table in White's screaming 'Take me]' to an all- male group composed of five hooded cabinet ministers, the entire horn section of Lord Rockingham's XI, a couple of High Court judges clad entirely in elastic bands, three leading sommeliers from two of London's smarter restaurants, the top comedian Mr Arthur 'Buzzy Bee' Askey, one of our most widely read linguistic philosophers dressed as a babe-in-arms, a top-notch delegation of senior bishops compiling a special report for the coming synod, Lord Reith, Mr Freddy 'Parrot Face' Davis, Sir Kenneth Clark and the distinguished television quizmaster Mr Michael Miles, who, it soon emerged, was to be the compere for the evening.

I need hardly assure you that I had entered the room quite by chance, thinking to have left my copy of the latest Gerald Durrell under a cushion in the far corner after a post-prandial snooze. But one thing led to another, and, never a killjoy, before tbe hour was out I found myself drawn into the ensuing festivities when someone - might it have been Dickie Mountbatten? - produced a swanky new American camera from out of his mackintosh pocket and began showing it off to all and sundry.

'Bet you haven't seen a Polaroid before]' he whispered excitedly to me, as the Duchess performed an exotic belly-dance hanging upside-down from a club chandelier.

'Never from this angle,' I whispered back, my mouth agog, blushing to my very roots.

It was at around this juncture, I rather think, that photographs began to be taken, none of which, I am happy to note, have been judged of sufficient quality to merit a place in Mr Anthony Lejeune's recent History of White's.

They were of what would nowadays be called a 'candid' nature, though it should never be forgotten that Her Grace remained throughout a woman of immense class and dignity, and the offending snaps pay testament to the fact that over the course of that long afternoon she maintained a look of marvellous aristocratic hauteur, never once allowing a hair out of place, nor her lipstick to be smudged and being at all times mindful of her position at the very summit of one of Britain's foremost lineages.

And so to the vexed question of the Headless Man. Looking at the snapshot o'er this period of time, I remain convinced that it could not have been me, as I would have known never to remove my necktie in the presence of a person or persons senior to the younger daughter of a Viscount. Was it young Fairbanks - or 'Bare Flanks' as we jocularly termed him? Or might it possibly have been television's Mr Pastry, a man of great high spirits who was enjoying considerable success on the pantomime circuit at the time?

Alas, my lips are sealed, and I fear poor old Douglas would never forgive me were they not]