Could it really be 40 years since one was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature? Borne up the stairs on the shoulders of John Julius Norwich and Sir Roy Strong, I was inducted by Lady Antonia Fraser and the late Paddy Leigh Fermor, resplendent in their ceremonial robes. Meanwhile, I myself was clad in the society’s prestigious tweed ‘posing pouch’, passed down from generation to generation, unscrubbed.
The Society has long been a sanctuary of civilisation, allowing a wide range of authors, from James Lees-Milne to Debo Devonshire, to mix and mingle in a spirit of inky camaraderie. So imagine my horror upon hearing that the RSL plans to change its 200-year-old rule and let the ‘general public’ pick its Fellows! Goodness knows, I am all for diversity (dread word!). I have the greatest respect for Rishi Sunak, to name but one. Nevertheless, I feel sure that ‘gritty’ northern novelists, ‘rap’ poets and the like would, through no fault of their own, feel ill at ease in the company of such distinguished homegrown scriveners as Andrew Roberts and Annie Glenconner. Is it not time to think of these poor outsiders for a change, and to save them from discomfort?
It is too often forgotten that HRH The Duke of York is a highly cultured young man. It may surprise many of his more ‘woke’ (!) detractors to know that he can recite the first few lines of Rudyard Kipling’s ‘If’, virtually off by heart, and a fair bit of the last couple of lines, too.
Earlier this week, I was privileged to have luncheon with the Duke in the discreet private dining room in the basement of the Garrick, where he has been under lock and key for the duration. I am giving nothing away when I say he has been incensed by The Crown, with its ludicrous inaccuracies. Why, he asked, was the Prince of Wales portrayed so sympathetically? And why was his own extraordinary contribution to British business given such short shrift?
We both dutifully remained in face masks throughout our meal, though I found manoeuvring my roast partridge around the corners of the flaps and into my mouth a hit-and-miss affair. But the real trouble began when the Duke and I attempted to take snuff. Why, for all the government’s much-vaunted coronavirus guidelines, have they offered such scant aid to the hard-pressed Snuff Community?
To transport a pinch of snuff around the face mask and up into one’s nostril is a relatively simple process, requiring a minimum of dexterity. But what then? These days, the ‘snuff sneeze’, once so refreshing, is a messy business, particularly when combined with the chewed remnants of partridge and roly-poly pudding. Emerging from the Garrick, HRH and I removed our masks, only to find our faces spattered with assorted gubbins. Needless to say, the Duke rose to the occasion. ‘And if you can do this but not the other, something-something-something, then you’ll probably be a man, my son,’ he announced, entirely unprompted.
Not long to go before we shall have shaken off the chains of our captors, or the ‘European Union’, as they prefer to be known. Oh, happy day! On the stroke of midnight, I plan to celebrate with a plateful of Great British Bangers. For half a century, the bureaucrats of Brussels ensured that our national dish, made to the traditional recipe — one part trachea to two parts ear and one part gristle — was outlawed in its native country. Sad to say, our young people have been denied an earlobe. But now, in our first flush of freedom, we may chew on them to our heart’s content, unfazed by ‘elf’n’safety’ commissars. And there will be other joys aplenty. Whatever happened to motorcars gloriously ablaze by the side of roads, for instance? They were once a much-loved feature of the Great British summer. For too long, we have been forced to motor under the yoke of compulsory fan-belts, leak-proof petrol tanks and so forth. And now the end is nigh!
Incidentally, why has the BBC devoted so little coverage to the Great Festival of Brexit? As a senior member of the Planning Committee, might I make amends?
At the stroke of midnight on 31 January, Boris will lead Dilyn the Dog down Whitehall, both master and dog resplendent in their Union Jack waistcoats. They will lead a brass band, featuring my old mucker Dr Liam Fox on percussion, Michael Gove on tuba, and the estimable Ann Widdecombe out in front, twirling the baton.
Trafalgar Square will host a jaunty medley of British Eurovision showstoppers, including ‘Boom Bang a Bang’ and the immortal ‘Congratulations!’. Then comes a deeply moving scene from Downton Abbey, specially penned by My Lord Fellowes, in which the Earl of Grantham outwits the visiting Duc du Bruxelles, a rapist, to the delight of family and staff alike. The festivities will close with the redoubtable Nigel Farage playing a selection of George Formby songs on his little ukulele. At long last, good old-fashioned British entertainment takes centre-stage. Rejoice!
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Wallace Arnold’s ‘Afore Ye Go’ column ran in The Spectator from 1988 to 1991. He returned to speak to his close friend, Craig Brown.
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