The Agreeable World of Wallace Arnold: When a friend arrives at an awkward age

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The Independent Online
I NOTE with my usual wry amusement that my old friend and quaffing partner Mr Melvyn Bragg is undergoing what might best be described as 'a touch of the temper tantrums'. A stalwart of The Garrick Club Fancy Dress Ball Committee (last year, quite pricelessly, he came as a socialist), Melvyn is also a much-valued Member of Lloyd's of London, a broadcaster on the Home Service, a Director of numerous 'media' (dread word]) companies, and I believe he even appears on the dread gogglebox from time to time. Yet with all these comings and goings, I have it on good authority that he somehow still finds time to turn his quill to an annual novel - more often than not, a vivid and heart- rending picture of life in the squalid underclass.

This column has always taken pains to shy away from 'personalities'. It is interested in ideas, not tittle-tattle. Much as one enjoys the type of light-hearted 'frothy' gossip column penned by Messrs Watkins and Ascherson one prefers one's own penmanship to revolve around the great issues of the day, avoiding exaggeration and hyperbole to tackle the very real problems at the heart of society as a whole. One looks, as it were, for the 'larger lesson'. So what is the larger lesson to be learnt from Bragg's overnight change from pussycat to Rottweiler, from the Jemima Puddleduck of the Performing Arts into their Avenging Angel? Let's take a closer look at the phenomenon of which he is but a small part.

O'er the years, I have known many people of distinction who have been through what might be termed 'the snappy stage'. It may console Melvyn, in his present Hour of Darkness, to know, through their example, that he too will 'come through', and after only a few months will be able to take his place once more in London society.

Martyn Lewis, for instance. I remember some time ago Martyn went through an exceedingly touchy stage, leaving behind him a veritable trail of broken chairs and upturned tables wherever he saw fit to parade. Not much 'good news' there, methinks] It was around this period that he penned his immensely entertaining tome Cats in the News, and I have always felt that something of his own personal bitterness may have entered into it, particularly in the two closing sections, 'Cats Squashed Dead by Cars' and 'Loveable Moggies I Have Cooked with Apple Sauce'.

And dear old George Carey is another. It was only a matter of months prior to landing his Archbishopric that he ceased writing letters to the Daily Mail correspondence column calling for the immediate castration of car thieves with no medical supervision. Yet it was only a stage. He is now back to his old self, as happy as Larry as he wields his crozier merrily through the hallowed portals of Canterbury Cathedral.

I myself appeared only the other day on Melvyn's Home Service programme, Snap the Week. It was, I regret to say, a traumatic experience. I had come to talk of English Cheese of which, as you may know, I am a fervent supporter. I am not pretending that I expected an easy ride, as English Cheese is riddled with controversy, but Melvyn is an old chum and fellow Clubman, and so when he turned to me, placed a clothes peg on his nose and asked, 'That pong that's coming off you can't only be the cheese, can it, Wallace?' I must admit to being just a little taken aback. Frankly, our conversation never quite regained its balance, particularly as his follow-up question, 'Would you agree with most people that you're a stuffy old bore?' seemed to me to breach the bounds of journalistic convention. So I was most grateful when he switched his attention to the next guest, Sir Laurens van der Post, and began asking him why on earth he didn't either snip off that little strand of hair or at least wear a toupee. There was then a short interlude while he asked Cardinal Basil Hume who the hell he thought he was staring at. Alas, when Dame Joan Sutherland, volunteered to 'break the ice', as it were, by singing a song, Melvyn barked: 'Not on your nelly', blocked his ears and ran howling from the studio.

I have no doubt that he will make a speedy recovery. The hurly- burly of London life has no doubt been getting to him, but we will have him better in a jiffy. But until then, I fully support the chairman of The Garrick when he asks those dining with Melvyn kindly to refrain from answering back.

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