The Agreeable World of Wallace Arnold: The gentleman on the Paddington payphone

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The Independent Online
LAMONT AND I go back literally yonks. I first made his acquaintance, I recall, when he was working in the late Fifties as an assistant window-dresser at what was then Derry and Toms, of which I had the good fortune to be a senior director.

He was being paraded before the board of directors on a charge arising from a complaint by an elderly shopper. This lady had been passing along the Regent Street side of the building at noon on a Friday when young Lamont was busy assembling a display of assorted women's hats on a fragile pyramid of hat-boxes. Alas, the entire display had tumbled down, and Norman with it. Through the thick window the elderly lady claimed to have had heard three wholly obscene swear words emerging in his broad Scottish accent.

Called before the board, the young Lamont emphatically denied the charge, claiming the elderly lady had misquoted him, and, what is more, had taken many of his remarks entirely out of context. The three expressions he had actually used, he said, were 'Hucking Fell' - a reference to a Fell in his beloved Shetland Islands to which he was particularly attached; 'Woody Blankers' - a reference to the doughty marksmen who fire blanks in the woods of his homeland; and 'Hissing Peck' - the sound every keen ornithologist knows is made by a woodpecker when livid.

Needless to say, we fully accepted young Norman's explanation, sent the elderly shopper away with a flea in her ear for wasting our valuable time and - through nods and winks to our friends in Central Office - eagerly supported Norman's search for a safe Conservative seat. This was at a time, long ago, when the Conservative Party was short of window-dressers. Ever since, I have looked upon Norman as a veritable model of candour and veracity, a man who, even in the most trying circumstances, can be relied upon to maintain a very high degree of dignity, with an aura of the utmost integrity. Such is his keen sense of fair play, indeed, that, even as Chancellor of the Exchequer at No 11, he would always insist on 'doing his bit' by providing the cheese straws and party hats for his guests, while the beautifully printed invitations would leave it to their grateful recipients to 'Bring a Bottle and a Bird'.

So one can well understand the trauma Norman suffered the other day at the all-too-female hands of Miss Ginny Dougary (dread words]). As his old friend and quaffing partner, I was not in the least surprised to receive his frantic midnight call from a London payphone. 'Wallace, old man,' he said to me between sips. 'Wallace, you must use your position as our leading commentator to tell the world what I really said to Dougary on that fateful day. You of all people, Wallace, know that I have never ever been rude, either in private or in public, about that weaselly little toad John Major, and I want you to make that crystal clear, okay?'

I advised Norman to take a deep breath and tell me - strictly off the record, you understand - the exact words he had in fact used to Miss (Msssss) Dougary. Had he, for instance, employed the adjective 'nauseating' about Mr Major's 'Family Values' campaign. Of course he had not] 'I didn't say 'nauseating',' he yelled. 'Not at all. Not at all. She completely misheard. I quite clearly said 'naughty eating'. I was tucking into profiteroles at the time, and I have a slight Shetland lilt, you see.'

'And did you really call him 'pathetic', 'weak' and 'hopeless'?'

'Peep-peep-peep-peep.' The telephone pips were going. 'I'm clean out of cash,' he yelled. 'I'll have to ring you back, transfer charge.' The line went dead.

'Tring] Tring]' went my telephone. 'Will you accept a call from a payphone in a Paddington offlicence? The gentleman says he used to be Chancellor of the Exchequer, name of Monty,' asked the young lady. 'Very well,' I sighed.

''So I may have called Major pathetic and weak and hopeless,' continued Norman, back on the line, 'but the wretched girl took it completely out of context. I said, 'Major's pathetic and weak and hopeless, but at least he'll be dead in 50 years,' but Dougary cut that last bit out, making me sound - well, almost bitter. But you'll tell them I'm not a sitter bod, won't you Wallace, won't you?' he added. At least. I think he said sitter bod.

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