Witty intercourse with the great Gore Vidal

The Agreeable World of Wallace Arnold

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HOW delightful to hear from my old friend and quipping partner Mr Gore Vidal. Mischief-maker and rascal that he is, Gore is also the wittiest and wisest of American ecrivains, and immensely enjoyable company to boot. Needless to say, Gore has not avoided the temptation to reprint his usual untruths about yours truly in his first volume of autobiography, Palimpwrist, published this week.

Yet one must forgive such a fine writer everything. The words "Arnold, Wallace" in the index to the aforesaid volume herald the following entry: "Youthful flirtation with GV, 25; Roars with appreciative laughter at GV's aphorisms, 25-27; secret role in Arms to Iraq, 192; sighting on Grassy Knoll, 242; wholly footling role in the advancement of English letters when measured alongside the towering achievement of GV, 247-252." Let me assure the general reader - and in particular readers of my "Arnold's World of Old-Fashioned British Commonsense in Uniform" column in the Reader's Digest - that not one of Gore's typically wild and flamboyant assertions contains any grounding in fact. Bar one: I have long adored Gore's wicked tongue, my laughter increasing with my knowledge that I am indeed in the presence of a maestro.

To celebrate the launch of Gore's magisterial new tome, a distinguished group of his admirers took him out for an agreeable - if waspish! - luncheon at The Ivy restaurant. The ever-youthful Ned Sherrin was there, along with Sir Roy Strong, the amusing - if a mite leftish! - Mr Christopher Hitchens and that most eminent of anthologists and elder statesman, Mr Kenneth Baker.

We kicked off with oysters, a treat that inevitably prompted a witty - if waspish! - apercu from Ned. "I always say," he chuckled, "that an oyster by any other name is merely - an oyster!!" Needless to say, we all gurgled with pleasure at Ned's effortless bon mot, little realising it would inspire a marvellous tour de force of humour, political insight and honest-to-goodness wisdom from Gore himself.

"Whenever I myself see an oyster, I think of my dear old friend John F Kennedy, that most inveterate and unrepentant of White House womanisers," Gore began with a wry smile, "for whenever I ate oysters with Jack, I would be reminded of how he had risen to power upon my back, in a manner of speaking, and of how he pilfered all his best ideas from his younger and, may I say, rather better-looking Cousin Gore." As Gore smartly wiped the corners of his ever-youthful mouth with the personalised napkin he carries with him everywhere, we prepared for some vintage - if waspish! - Vidalisms.

"For as my dear friend Princess Margaret once remarked to me in a moment of unusual candour: 'Gore, you are positively the cleverest, funniest and best-read man I have ever been lucky enough to meet!' And do you know what I replied? I believe it is in all the standard books of my quotations, but it remains - as dear Jackie O used to say whenever I opened my mouth - always worth repeating. I replied, 'you are astonishingly youthful, ma'am - and most gracious and amusing with it!' "

Bullseye! Gore has a great stock of such gems, all rich in political invective. "This lamb reminds me" he began as our main course arrived, "of the doleful occasion upon which I was forced to remind the - ahem! - Acting President Ronald Reagan that the Pentagon was run by a small cabal of Japanese car-dealers, acting on direct instructions from our old friend, Mr Saddam Hussein, the President of what used to be known as Persia."

While Hitchens busily scribbled down these shimmering insights into our life and times and Ken Baker noted them for his forthcoming Faber Book of Political Satire ("I am happy to say I have included 10 pages of satire against myself by some of the leading lights of the satire movement - one is always so grateful to be mentioned at all," Ken enthused with a delighted grin), Gore continued to charm, bedazzle and amuse us all.

"This creme brulee reminds me," he said, "of my put-down to Norman Mailer in November, 1966. He offered to punch me, and I replied: 'If you follow through your threat, I will tell my good friend Princess Margaret who, I can assure you, Norman, will be most displeased!' "

Delicious! This Sunday morn, pray raise your champagne flutes to the inimitable - if waspish! - Mr Gore Vidal, scourge of the wealthy and famous, and friend of illustrious people, among them Princess Margaret.

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