The Agreeable World Of Wallace Arnold: The good doctor saw every man as the sum of his parts

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The Independent Online
ow brief are the memories of journalists! I sometimes think that if one were to ask this or that "distinguished commentator" (dread epithet!) for the name of the last Prime Minister they would be flummoxed, failing dismally to recall the sainted name of Margaret Thatcher!

This phenomenon has become most noticeable over the past week with news reports of Dr Hannibal Lecter, whose recent life has been so vividly if unreliably chronicled by Mr Thomas Harris. (I hold no brief for Mr Harris's methods or integrity: throughout what must have been a most traumatic week, Dr Lecter has maintained a dignified silence, and it is up to us, his former colleagues, to stand by him as these monstrous allegations are hurled at him willy-nilly.)

Sifting through all these recent news reports of Lecter, I can find no reference to his long and invaluable service to the Conservative Party in the 1970s and early 1980s. Yet his loyalty to the Party during those difficult years is well chronicled in the memoirs, diaries and biographies of the time.

For instance, in the first volume of her autobiography, The Path to Power, Margaret pays ample tribute to the man who did so much to pave the way for a far from inevitable Conservative victory in the '79 election: "I am convinced that our majority would have been greatly reduced," she writes, "had it not been for the smooth efficiency of Dr Hannibal Lecter in Smith Square. He knew that an army marches on its stomach, and as chief catering officer, his organisation was quite superb. 'Others come to me with problems, Hannibal,' I had cause to remark to him early in the campaign, 'but you come to me with minced morsels.' "

In his forthcoming memoirs, Dr Brian Mawhinney, who shared digs with Lecter at medical school, is equally full of praise for Lecter's role in swinging the party away from Ted Heath's disastrous Eurocentrism. By this time, Lecter was a senior figure at Central Office, where he displayed a sure hand in staff reductions. "Hannibal's calm was legendary," writes Mawhinney, "and only once did I see it crack. He had always possessed a strong dislike of Brussels red tape. One morning, he was opening his post when he chanced upon a new food hygiene diktat proclaiming that as from 1 May 1981, new regulations would prevent the use of human organs in the manufacture of Scotch eggs. Rarely have I witnessed him so livid. 'Next they will try to stop us placing shepherds in Shepherds Pie!' he exclaimed."

The affable Willie Whitelaw also found Lecter most congenial. In The Whitelaw Memoirs (1989), he describes meeting him with the then-chairman of the 1922 Committee, Sir Edward du Cann. "Du Cann had rolled up his sleeves for a working lunch," he writes. "Throughout an agreeable meal, Dr Lecter's eyes strayed to du Cann's bare arms. I imagine that, as a medical man, he was worried lest du Cann catch a chill. Towards the middle of lunch, Lecter dropped his napkin on the floor and got down on all fours beneath the table in order to pick it up.

"I was continuing to discuss the domestic economy when all of a sudden du Cann let out a yelp and began to hop around the dining-room, trying to stem the flow of blood from his shin. He began to protest that Lecter had bitten him! Obviously, such an accusation could not be tolerated in the Conservative Party, and within weeks du Cann had been persuaded to take a permanent rest from the pressures of high office. Meanwhile, Lecter set about bringing the miners to heel..."

In his diary entry for 9 June 1982, Woodrow Wyatt records throwing a private dinner for the Queen Mother, to which Margaret Thatcher was escorted by Dr Lecter. "We polished off a very decent Grand Cru Chablis," writes Woodrow, "with two magnums of first-class Cantenac '64, much admired by those who know anything about wine. Hannibal was particularly enthusiastic, declaring it had an aftertaste somewhere between primrose and human kidney. Afterwards, Margaret confided in me that she was going to offer him a top job at No 10. 'He's one of us, Woodrow,' she purred, while Lecter discreetly ran his eyes over the Queen Mum's much underrated thighs."

But early in '83, Lecter seemed to disappear from the political scene to pursue private interests. Harris has made a tidy sum bringing his good name into disrepute. Such is the nature of muck-raking. But I for one will stand by Dr Lecter; if only the Conservative Party today had his bite!