The Agreeable World Of Wallace Arnold: The Tintin affair: how I almost made a gingery legend

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The Independent Online
OFFHAND, I can think of many a fellow Fleet Street scrivener who has been immortalised twixt the pages of the novel. One need only point to the estimable Bill Deedes, the original not only for the hilarious figure of Boot in Lyn Waugh's Black Mischief but also for the genial and well-connected if essentially uninteresting Postman Pat in the long-running television series of the same name.

But many others of my colleagues have also been converted into fictitious figures to entertain and enthral a generation of readers. I have often heard it said of Miss (Msssss!) Lynda Lee-Potter with her forceful opinions, pithily expressed, that she was the original inspiration for Violet Elizabeth Bott in the Just William series, and it is certainly true that my old friend and quaffing partner Mr Simon Heffer was the basis for Bilbo Baggins in Tolkein's classic The Hobbit. So it is not without pride that I can reveal that I, too, almost had a hand in the creation of one of the most popular young heroes of the century. At one point, there was even a touch of me in him. But let me expand.

It was way back in the late 1940s, while working out my apprenticeship on the Home News pages of the old Daily Herald (as was!) that I first found myself rubbing shoulders with a Monsieur Herge from Belgium. He was in quite a state, and I sought to enquire the reason. He had, he informed me, invented a colourful character who was, he continued, a young journalist by the name of "Tintin", but for one reason or another this "Tintin" hadn't really caught on with our old friends, the "general public" (dread collective noun!). He then asked me whether I might care to read the works in question and offer him any advice.

Without giving the matter a moment's thought, I agreed. Leafing through the pages of those early Tintins, I felt my heart sink. Both the character and the situations in which he found himself seemed hopelessly far-fetched. First of all, the name of the young journalist in question. Keith Waterhouse, yes; Godfrey Smith, yes; Beverley Nichols, yes. But "Tintin": oh, my deary me, NO! "Tintin: The Voice of Common Sense". "Tintin: The Columnist The Politicians Fear". Such by-lines did not somehow ring true. And though I had no argument with the overall colour of his hair - both Heffer and Johnson are estimable all-round thinkers whose carrot-tops have been emulated the world over by young journalists - I had never set eyes on any journalist of repute with such an obviously pomaded quiff (this was some time, remember, before the arrival of Mr Quentin Crisp in the world of letters).

And all that activity! The young scrivener "Tintin" was a busy little bee, leaping down mountains, elbowing his way through waterfalls and shinning up drainpipes - all in pursuit of a story. This is where poor old Herge had got it wrong - and I had no hesitation in telling him so.

"My dear Herge," I said, over a stiff Scotch at the Coach and Horses, "you've got it all wrong! No journalist worth his salt wastes so much of his spare time and energy in the pursuit of a story! This Tintin of yours must ease up a bit if he aims to remain half-way credible!"

I then produced a five-point plan for the character development of Tintin, and handed it to Herge with a flourish: 1) Cut the quiff. 2) Far too lean. Needs to put on weight, particularly around the stomach. 3) At present, he appears teetotal. Re-draw, placing bottle of Bells in each outstretched hand. 4) Smiles too much. Too full of enthusiasm. A more cynical outlook would be more in keeping (eg "Destination Moon? What's the petrol expenses per mile?"). 5) Move Tintin away from dreary investigative pieces. Believe me, Informed Comment is infinitely more prestigious. Rather than going to all that bother to solve The Calculus Affair, he could be earning twice as much by writing articles ("A Time for Answers") calling for it to be solved.

Herge looked at my 5-point plan and drew in his breath. I had brought the man face to face with his mistakes. But he took what I said to heart, and for the next six months he went away and created "Tintin And The Contrived Opinion", "Tintin In The Public Bar" and "Tintin Goes Steadily Downhill". Alas, his publishers complained they lacked zip, so he went back to his old ways. But what a legend he might have created if only he had remained true to reality!