William Donaldson's Week: My old chums Tony and Dave

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AS THE Princess of Wales pointed out over high tea at my place on Monday, this scramble to get a piece of the Independent at any price is hardly surprising, right?

'Let's face it, Button,' she said, 'would you, to save 20p, read Bernard Levin rather than James Fenton once a week - to say nothing of the astonishing Thomas Sutcliffe every day? Surely it was Gilbert Adair who said that Levin wrote like an elephant with a wet mouth? Pass the bacon sandwiches.'

'Dennis Potter,' I said.

'Dennis Potter said that Adair wrote like an elephant with a wet mouth?'

'No, dear. It was Dennis Potter who so described Levin's prose style. Adair compared it to farting through trumpets.'

'Be that as it may,' the Princess said, 'your column last week was crap. It was very common of you to boast about how much money you're to be paid next season to commentate on American football for BSkyB. I realise that you Wykehamists become strangely agitated at the sight of fat men running into each other at 20mph, but American football's a frightful bore. Rugger's the game. Have you ever seen anything funnier than those potato-faced Scots blubbing in the tunnel after being stuffed by England?'

I haven't, as it happens, and the Princess's remark gave me the chance to write about my own rugger career; specifically (and very sensibly, you may think) about my extremely close relationship with Dr Tony O'Reilly.

I've described before, I think, how I was pipped for a blue at Cambridge in 1958 by Andy Mulligan, the little Irish scrum-half. All season we'd competed for the No 9 shirt and for the privilege of partnering the incomparable Phil Horrocks-Taylor.

Horrocks-Taylor's sidestep off his right foot was so razor-sharp, you may remember, that he had to change his boots at half-time because the right one was worn clean through to his sock. Nor have I ever seen a fly-half sell a better dummy. Once, against the Harlequins, he dummied a galumphing No 8 so elaborately that the poor fellow had to pay to get back into the stadium.

That's not the point, however. The point is that in the game against Mickey Steele-Bodger's scratch XV some big mother of a lock (Roddy 'The Body' Evans, if memory serves) ran straight into me when I didn't have the ball. My right knee went and Andy Mulligan got his chance a week later against Oxford. (And he probably wished he hadn't, since he spent the afternoon being thrown into the pounds 5 seats by Peter Robbins, Oxford's extravagantly gifted open-side flanker.)

My reward was that Andy introduced me to his pal and fellow British Lion Dr O'Reilly, the best wing three-quarter ever to wear the No 11 shirt for Ireland. Since then, Dr O'Reilly and I have been virtually inseparable and many's the weekend I've spent at his castle, where we scrum down after dinner with his butler as the ball.

Nor was he merely a great three-quarter. Charming, erudite and witty, he's the first newspaper man in the developed world - apart, of course, from the brilliant people currently running the Independent.

'Not only have you eaten the last bacon sandwich,' said the Princess of Wales, 'you're a hitherto unexampled creep.'

'Just covering my back,' I said.

'May I tell an elephant joke?'

'If you must,' I said.

'A chap went to a circus where he saw an elephant whose life he'd saved 30 years before. 'Elephants never forget,' he said to his wife. 'Watch this.' The elephant came over and squashed him flat. It was a different elephant.'

'What was the point of that?' I said. 'Apart from demonstrating that Tommy Cooper told that particular joke rather better.'

'It's your cue to smarm up to David Montgomery,' she said.

Clever girl. It so happens that I once saved Mr Montgomery's life. On holiday in Ibiza 20 years ago, he came for a trip on my glass-bottom boat and fell overboard. Recognising him as a newspaper man with a future as brilliant as Dr O'Reilly's - as brilliant almost as the present owners of the Independent - I fished him out, and I'm sure he's been grateful to me ever since.

'Is that it?' the Princess said. 'What about Conrad Black?'

'A finer man you couldn't meet,' I said. 'Startlingly attractive, straight-dealing, an intellectual giant . . .'

'And Sir David English?'

'He's not a contender, surely?'

'You never know,' the Princess said. 'Better safe than sorry.'

'You're right,' I said. 'Sir David's the best in the business - the best, that is, apart, of course, from the Independent's present owners. When I was the Mail On Sunday's gossip columnist I begged him to fire me. 'I'm crap,' I said. 'It's your duty to Lord Rothermere (another giant) to can me without recompense.' Sir David buried his head in his hands. 'I can't,' he said. 'I've never fired anyone in my life.' I did the decent thing. I walked out, and a week later I received a huge cheque drawn on Sir David's personal account.'

'What a gentleman,' the Princess said.

Which is more than you can say for me. I've just fired old Bill Deedes from El Independo, my satirical soap for BBC 2. He took two days off with 'flu and when he came back he found me sitting at his desk. There's no room for sentiment when you've got to get the curtain up.