The party's over, Jeffrey, but loved the books : The Agreeable World of Wallace Arnold

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The Independent Online
IT GRIEVES me greatly to think that my old friend and quacking partner Lord (!) Archer is not throwing his immortal Christmas party this year. For many of us, Jeffrey's is as much a part of the festive season as the holly and the ivy. Indeed, it w ould not surprise me to discover that on that very first Christmas day, while the Wise Men were placing their (to my mind somewhat unsuitable!) presents in the crib, who should have put his head around the stable door but our old friend Jeffrey, bearing a crate of Vintage Krug and a hundredweight of Shepherd's Pie, just to help "break the ice" on an otherwise very sticky occasion.

It must have been in '82 - or was it '83 - that I received my very first invitation to Jeffrey's panoramic Thames-side penthouse. "Vintage Krug, Wallace?" he asked me, steering me through a glittering galaxy of rising political stars, among them David Mellor, Cecil Parkinson, Norman Lamont and John Moore. "Rather!" I replied, sticking to the format suggested on the invitation with: "Loved the last book, Jeffrey."

"Thanks, Wallace," he replied. Then, furrowing his eyebrows, Jeffrey took me to one side. "Now do tell me, Wallace, because I'd value your opinion, which of the characters did you like the very best?"

I played for time, "Excellent champagne, Jeffrey. Vintage Krug, you say?"

"Come on, old man, don't be shy. Tell me, quite frankly, which of the characters you liked the best. It would be a tremendous help to me."

"I - I - I -" I spluttered.

By this time Jeffrey had smelt the proverbial rat.

"Just give me two brief character sketches from the book, please, Wallace, and let's be done with it," he said.

"Well, Jeffrey," I bluffed, "there's one of them who's erm-erm-erm good, yes, that's it, good."

"Hmmm," said Jeffrey. "Right so far. Carry on."

"- and there's another of them who's erm-erm-erm not so good."

"Warm . . ." said Jeffrey.

"In fact - he's bad!" I said.

"Yes!" exclaimed Jeffrey. "And which did you like best, Wallace?"

"The one . . . the one . . . the one who's GOOD!"

"Excellent!" said Jeffrey placing his arm on my shoulder. "Now come and meet an up-and-coming young fellow who's a tremendous admirer of your economic philosophy - name of Portillo." After passing this first test with flying colours, I was never to experience the same trouble again. From then on, I had the procedure off pat: loved the last book, Jeffrey, especially the two main characters, one good, the other bad, particularly liked the good one, a little more Krug, super.

In this way, we were to become firm friends, my fondness for the man ensuring that, for all his various ups and downs, I would never be so disloyal as to withdraw my glass from beneath his bottle of Krug.

But, sad to say, ever since the absurd kerfuffle over his imaginative share dealings earlier this year, Jeffrey's parties have lost something of their old pizazz. The bottles are all there, certainly, and so, too, are the massed silver salvers of Shepherd's Pie. The cherished artworks still hang o'er the penthouse with a small Turner placed just above the coat-pegs, the tasteful italics of its price tag discreetly picked out by a single spotlight. Everything, one might almost say, is still per fect - and yet somehow, the guests are not quite so influential as once they were. Where once one might have spotted the Prime Minister, the Chancellor, various national newspaper editors, the odd artist, half a dozen captains of industry, and perhaps a Nobel prizewinner or two, now the full list of acceptances comprises Mr Geoffrey Dickens MP, Mr Russell Grant, the Sun cartoonist "Franklin", the manager of Texas Homecare (Ealing branch), Miss Barbara Windsor, my own good self and the Deputy Literary Ed itor of Exchange and Mart.

Speaking personally, for Jeffrey's sake I am delighted that he has come to the brave decision to cancel this year's Christmas party. For his own good and for the good of the country, I had already decided to refuse, though it has been strongly rumoured that the distinguished sportsman Mr Bruce Grobbelaar was toying with going. Nevertheless, if Jeffrey would care to send me my share of the Krug, under plain wrapper, I would feel it grossly disloyal to refuse it. But on the other hand, he can ke ep his Shepherd's Pie.