The Agreeable World of Wallace Arnold: Three cheers for the Duke, the wisest of men

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The Independent Online
IT MUST have been in the spring of 1963 when first I heard that most memorable of knocks, noble yet strangely belligerent, upon my front door. Only when I heard the distinctive tones of the accompanying statement - 'Bloody let me bloody in]' - did I jump to; for I realised they could be issuing from one man and one man alone: His Royal Highness The Duke of Edinburgh.

'These front doors,' he bellowed as I pulled back the latch to let him in, 'it really is high time they were banned, you know] Infernal nuisance, always shut when you want them open and open when you want them shut] You'd have thought in this day and age someone would have come up with a halfway decent alternative, you really would.'

I had met the Duke only once before - at a greyhound shoot in '58 - and so I was naturally a little overawed by the unexpectedness of his arrival. Was I to understand that his visit was formal or informal? 'Come in] Come in]' I said, performing the most discreet of curtsies. Without a moment's hesitation, he marched in, the mud from his Wellington boots leaving the hall carpet looking much like a domestic Becher's Brook. 'Damned carpets,' he exclaimed, glancing with distaste at the sea of mud he had left behind him. 'Positive dirt traps] Can't think why some people bother with 'em, but then that's the human race for you - completely round the bloody twist]'

Ushering the Duke into the kitchen with due aplomb, I swiftly brewed a cup of tea for this most forthright of men. Within seconds, he had dropped it on the floor, shattering the cup and splashing the tea all over the place. 'These so-called tea-cups are no bloody good at all]' he said, raising his voice. 'No sooner do you get hold of them than they fall to the bloody ground.'

I made great effort to calm the poor fellow down, and he was quick to take up my suggestion that he sat down whilst I poured the remaining tea directly from the teapot into his upturned mouth. 'Now, Arnold,' he said, wiping his mouth on the tablecloth provided, 'I've come to put a proposition to you. And a bloody good proposition it is too, so there's no question whatsoever of you not accepting it, d'y'see?

'You might have noticed I've been getting m'self in a spot of hot water these past few weeks for speaking my mind . . .' he continued. Something told me he was referring to any one of three incidents: in December, on an official visit to Melbourne, he had condemned all Australians as grubby-necked individuals so bloody lazy they can't even be bothered to shoot the few remaining Abos; in February, he had made an outspoken attack on Mother Teresa, referring to her as 'that awful little prune-faced woman who prances about in an unlaundered sheet'; and in April he had gravely upset the entire population of the Isle of Wight by suggesting that it was high time plans were drawn up to sink it, thus providing a much-needed clear shipping lane for ships entering Portsmouth Harbour.

'Well, Arnold,' he went on, 'I'm determined to embark on a spot of what the so-called bloody experts call 'damage limitation'. And that's where you come in. I've decided to make you my speechwriter. What do you think of the idea, Arnold? Eh? EH] Speak up, man, can't hear you.' And so it was that I embarked, 30-odd years ago, on the distinguished employment - more of a hobby, in many respects - that it still delights me to pursue. We have made a good team, the Duke and I. Over that period, I have, though I say it myself, greatly improved the Duke's public image, and he, in his turn, has given me plenty of food for thought. He is now widely regarded as one of the sanest and most sympathetic figures in public life, exhibiting a very real sensitivity to the needs of the underprivileged, and how to avoid them. For this, I must take much of the credit, for he has always looked to me for what one might call the intellectual meat-and-two-veg of his many speeches: he himself provides the jokes.

'Beastly fluttery things best stamped upon,': Duke Lambasts Butterflies (1956); Philip Condemns Foreigners: 'Have they never heard of soap?' (1971); 'Duke eats live deer in front of tots' (1977); 'Prince Philip in Dalai Lama outburst': 'Never trust a chap who wears a dress' (1963); 'Duke rounds on Canadians': 'Dull as ditchwater' (1967). These and many other headlines have helped to keep the Duke's good sense uppermost in our minds over these last three decades. Let us today salute this wisest of gents.