Thursday 19 July 2018

You probably had to be there

Yesterday a random tweet from a total stranger inspired me to respond, because I had already faced this presumably quite rare challenge: being best man to a friend for the second time.

For added complexity and piquancy, as I went on to point out, the bride was also my own ex-fiancée, whom I had met through a lonely hearts ad my PA had begged me to place in Private Eye so that I would stop hassling her for a date.

At the reception afterwards, several people congratulated me on my very unusual speech, which they took as evidence of an amazingly powerful imagination. But, in fact, every word of it was true. I have no imagination whatsoever. I never have had. I often think how different my life might have been if this were not the case.

It is also true, as I reported on Twitter, that one of the other highlights of the day was the experience of two teenage bridesmaid sisters who managed to evade all the measures carefully put in place by the Oxford college hosting the reception to prevent them from consuming alcohol. When the younger began to display clear signs of being the worse for wear, her elder sibling wisely decided to take her for a refreshing walk around the city centre. It was an exceptionally hot day so they ducked into Blackwell's bookshop for a refreshing blast of air conditioning, at which the younger girl immediately fainted. Only to be plucked from the floor by a kindly gentleman with a curiously familiar voice, who was enquiring whether she was OK.

When the girls returned to the reception with their tale of being rescued by none other than Bill Clinton, we naturally treated this as a juvenile fantasy of the highest order. But then we saw the newspapers the next day, and who should have been in town but ...

Since one or two people have expressed a very mild interest, here is the speech I gave that day, 7 July 2001, at Worcester College, Oxford, for the wedding of Richard and Chris:

Ladies and gentlemen

Well, here we are again!

It was borne in upon me in the run-up to this glorious and happy event that it would be extremely tasteless for me to allude to two things: one, that Richard had been married before, and, two, that I had once myself been engaged to his lovely bride. And indeed it would be tasteless in the extreme. But then, I thought, what else did he expect? Does one book Bernard Manning for an evening in the hope that he will give a lovely reading from the collected works of Beatrix Potter? One does not. Unless, of course, one is Richard, whose increasing detachment from the world might well lead him to confuse Bernard with his distant cousin the Cardinal; who might well assume that the latter is still alive; and who might indeed expect an elevating talk on the general theme of Papal infallibility. On that basis, I strongly advise any members of the Governing Body of Worcester College here present not to allow Richard’s already enormous body ...

... of responsibilities to be extended to include organisation of the annual Works Outing, Meat Tea and High Class Entertainment, which I know to be such a highlight of your academic year.

I had thought, if I were ever called upon again to say a few words at one of the rites of passage in Richard’s life, that the chances of heckling and general disruption would be substantially diminished by his enclosure in a stout wooden box. Of course, I did not rate the chances of this very highly because, although I am - and always will be - significantly younger than Richard, a decade ago our relative body masses suggested that he would enjoy an advantage over me in the ancient sport of coffin-dodging.

Since then, I have to say, the contributions of the Worshipful Companies of Pie-makers, Pastry-chefs and Vintners have considerably narrowed the odds.

To confirm this, the other weekend I showed a recent photograph of Richard to an old school contemporary of ours, Andy Bardgett, now the proprietor of Newcastle’s most distinguished firm of funeral directors, and the owner of Tyneside’s only turbo-charged hearse. Complete with go-faster stripes.

Andy felt, obviously without the benefit of deploying his trusty tape measure, that we would be looking at either the Arbuckle, a very fine, roomy fibreboard model with real plastic oak veneer and brass-look plastic fittings, or – for the fatter wallet - the even classier but equally commodious Chesterton in ersatz mahogany. This is, Andy says, ‘a coffin to die for’.

Both are available at very attractive prices on five-year interest-free credit and with a full money-back guarantee in case of disappointment.

He also said that he hoped neither of us were wasting a lot of money paying into a superannuation fund.

Now, you may think I have digressed into an area that is not only tasteless but morbid. On the other hand, when you’ve already written the funeral oration, why let it go to waste? And as for tastelessness, as the world’s greatest entertainer Al Jolson so memorably put it in the very first talkie, ‘You ain’t seen nothing yet!’

So let us get back to the generally recognised duties of the best man. Organising the stag night – no, aborted due to lack of interest. There were some brief discussions about getting the groom drunk last night in the generally approved fashion, though it was finally agreed that keeping him sober for a night would be a more interesting intellectual and physical challenge. And the plans to chain him naked to the Martyrs’ Memorial had to be abandoned owing to our inability to procure a sufficiently long chain. Though Swan Hunter did think they might be able to supply one by mid-2003. Hand over ring at ceremony, tick. Make speech delving back into previous life of groom and causing him serious embarrassment. Ah, yes.

Those of you who were fortunate enough to hear my previous address on this theme may recall that I compared Richard to the then recently deceased Orson Welles – a resemblance that has in some respects increased over the intervening years. Orson, some of his obituarists pointed out, had apparently lived his life backwards – starting, when barely out of his teens, by making one of the most sensational broadcasts in radio history, and following that up with Citizen Kane, generally recognised as one of the half dozen greatest films of all time.

His career had then progressed steadily downwards through a series of B films until he wound up in his old age doing voice-overs in a well-known commercial for ‘probably the best lager in the world’. 

My point was not then, and is not now, that Richard had embarked on a similar pattern of progressive professional failure, but that he had in many respects grown younger with the passing years. When I first met him, as my high-flying academic development in the fast stream of Newcastle Royal Grammar School led to my form being merged with his remedial class, Richard was 15 going on 85.

He pottered around with a malacca cane and panama hat, taking sepia photographs of steam engines, for all the world like a less talented version of John Betjeman.

And I shall now quote directly from my earlier address: ‘Rumour had it that he spent the evenings in the attic of his parents’ house ... wearing a powdered wig and practising the harpsichord while sipping a glass of old sack’.

Now, ladies and gentlemen, there might have been some signs of modernisation and normality in Richard’s life in the late 1980’s, and I cannot comment at all on his harpsichord skills, but let me tell you now: on the matter of that wig, I stand before you astonished at my own prescience. For, as so often in Richard’s life, fantasy is merging with reality.

That wig has moved through the phases of aspiration, ambition and objective to become a veritable King Charles’s head.

Admittedly, certain physical changes wrought by the passing years might make it a slightly – though only slightly – less ludicrous affectation now that it was then. I only realised the seriousness of the situation when Chris told me that Richard had noticed that she had had her hair done (an unusual event in itself – the noticing rather than the hair-do) and had said: ‘I do like your hair. It looks rather like a wig.’

Is there another man in this room – or, for that matter, the world - who could have made that remark expecting to leave the room alive? And, what’s more, to have intended it as a compliment?

The mind quite rightly boggles. But, in a world where, after the regrettably brief interlude of Thatcherism, ‘progress’ has come back to the top of the political agenda, Richard has stood firmly before the clock, pushing the hands backwards with all his might.

Anyone who has wandered innocently into this College, as I have done, to find him in full sail across the quad in square and surplice, cannot fail to imagine that they have stepped back at least a hundred years. Chris, as many of you will know, compares it to living in an episode of that hugely unpopular 1960’s television series Adam Adamant, in which a deep-frozen Edwardian gent found himself brought back to room temperature in swinging London, with all the obvious scope for confusion and complication.

Except that, in Richard’s case, the period of cryogenic suspension seems to have been more like two hundred and fifty years.

But there are, of course, some telling anachronisms. For example, he is prepared to draw freely on the best features, as he sees them, of the subsequent decades. Chris tells me that his total lack of interest in the preparations for this afternoon’s service lifted spectacularly when she told him that she intended to have a train with her wedding dress. And sank back with equal speed when he realised what kind of train she meant.

Many of you may know that Richard recently became the proud owner of a five-inch gauge model of a North Eastern Railway steam locomotive, which is large enough for him to mount and drive. Soon, if my current plans to become a major slum landlord and property owner in Northumberland come to fruition, he will be able to drive his loco around the paddock to the rear of his house, clad in whatever rig might be appropriate for an eighteenth century clerical – perhaps even episcopal – engine driver, with the glorious panorama of the Cheviot Hills spread before him. The epitome of human happiness in Mr Blair’s bold and progressive New Britain.

And what of the rock on which his future happiness will be based? The lady who, much to the surprise of Arthur the Border terrier after all these years, lately consented to be his wife. She will, I am sure, be tolerant and supportive, for it is the only language he understands.

And how, you may be wondering, did these two distinctive individuals come together?

Well, let me tell you a little true story that is all but incredible and takes me back, once again, a number of years. Twelve years ago, not a million miles from here, an old friend of mine got married. So envious was I of the lifetime of married bliss to which he could look forward, that I undertook a radical stocktake of my own position, and decided, for once in my life, to be decisive. So I placed an advert in the lonely hearts column of Private Eye¸ a copy of which I have here. ‘Educated Englishman ...’ it began ‘remarkably still single at 35’.

Ah, as I think Shakespeare once observed, if one could but look into the future one would top oneself straight away and avoid a whole lot of unnecessary trouble.

Ladies and gentlemen, Chris was the least insane – or I should say, in the interests of accuracy, the least obviously insane – of the many respondents to that advertisement. And, long after our own paths diverged owing for reasons which it would indeed be tasteless to explore – since it might reflect badly on me - Richard nobly stepped in and took her from her life of seclusion in rural Northumberland to the glittering heights of academic life here in Oxford.

And how entirely typical and appropriate, I thought, that Richard should have founded a whole new category for the social scientists here to investigate. Not a man who found his wife through a lonely hearts ad – for they are many in the ever busier and more disjointed world in which most of us live.

But a man who found his wife through someone else’s lonely hearts ad, thereby saving himself £46.25 – which would have bought a pretty decent case of wine in 1989. I will accept a cheque by way of reimbursement.

Ladies and gentlemen, before I move on to reading out the fictitious telegrams which are such a highlight of these occasions, I cannot fail to remark on the sad absence from this occasion of one of Richard’s and my closest friends from our schooldays, the legendary Fat Ted.

Once again, he is sadly unable to be present today owing to the fact that he hasn’t been invited, but I am sure that if he were here he would like to say ‘Weff!’ to you both, and to give Richard some sound advice for his wedding night which would lead to the early involvement of at least two branches of the emergency services.

For if it had not been for the wise advice on how to handle the opposite sex that Fat Ted so freely dispensed to Richard and me when we were in our early teens, I am sure that none of us – for I include Fat Ted himself within this group – would have endured so many fruitless years of social dysfunction and non-fulfilment in the general field of human relationships. A non-fulfilment now, thankfully, in Richard’s case, coming finally and triumphantly to a conclusion.

And now, the moment you have all been waiting for, apart from me shutting up and sitting down. The telegrams:



TOP TIP FOR YOUR WEDDING NIGHT, STOP. DON’T, STOP. No, I’m sorry, that should be DON’T STOP, STOP. And that, inevitably, is from FAT TED.

Ladies and gentlemen, I am sure that, given goodwill and tolerance on both sides, a marriage across the centuries such as that we have witnessed today, can be a source of lasting joy to the participants and of inspiration as well as entertainment to the broader world outside. And so, with pleasure in my heart and – no doubt – relief in yours, I ask you to raise your glasses and drink a toast to whatever we are supposed to be drinking a toast to.

In the absence of any better suggestions, may I propose: ‘Chris and Richard. At least they won’t spoil two houses.’