The marriage of the Arnolfinis (2)

Subterfuge and sharp elbows are required to reach the bar. Beano’s journalist friends have camped out there. They hang morosely over their glasses of Scotch like a horde of overfed and rather frumpy vultures, dissecting Liz Taylor’s career, arguing over the origins of the words Taifun and Tsunami, and whether the latter are really caused, as an Iranian Ayatollah insists, by illicit sex, of which they all agree the Japanese must be “clearly getting far too much” and they ought to share it out a bit. One of these Fleet Street stalwarts, who will remain nameless, as he works for a Murdoch tabloid I neither wish to cite nor get into trouble with, blames it on Manga culture: “all those skimpy nymphets on motorcycles, all those exploding buildings and people being transformed into power-hungry maniacs by nuclear accidents … they were asking for it really.” Though I’m not quite sure who “they” are, nor what “it” was being asked for, I nod all the same, as if I were a member of this cynical fraternity. It seems a good enough ploy if it will get me closer to the Guinness tap.

Bride and prejudice

With regard to elbows: the brace of power-suited female magazine-owners I mentally associate with Beano’s time in publishing turn out to be just one rather cuddly lady called Cleo Fleetwood (“like the group”) who, although she abstemiously nurses the same small sherry and soda throughout the evening, has a wonderfully convivial and uninhibited laugh. Any fears about Harker and J-M fitting in are also quite unfounded. The former has found allies in Diana, Cleo, Mal and the Rhondda women, with whom she exchanges recipes using pidgin English and a lot of large gestures, and who all find it perfectly natural that she cleans for me (“and the housewife, by this clause, makes drudgery divine” is a very chapel virtue) while also attending the same social function. Meanwhile the latter has met someone he shared a dugout with under live-ammo fire on the Fallingbostel military range as well as an ex-SAS type who has “served” (if that’s the right term for skulduggery) in Malaya. But all that unarmed combat training hasn’t helped them much in breaking through the phalanx of well-oiled journalists guarding the portals of the bar. I have had much better luck, several times over, with my strategy of escalating degrees of social ingratiation.

“No, Mr Spooner, sir”, explains Mr Ahluwahlia-Singh, Manager (according to his badge), “I’m afraid that won’t be possible, sir. The current law does not permit me to set any part of the establishment aside for smokers, as all rooms must be accessible to staff for safety reasons, and they may not be subjected to passive smoke … even though they all smoke like chimneys out in the back by the bins,” he adds, by way of admitting the absurdity of his position. Mr Singh himself is, of course, a non-smoker, as are most of his guests today, but Podger has been lobbied by several tiresome individuals who would like to crack a stogie in honour of the couple. I’m ashamed to admit that one of them is me, as I’m beginning to regret the passing of the last clouds. Then one of life’s little surprises occurs. Hardly have we begun our retreat in the face of Mr Singh and his law, than we literally bump into a haggard, duffle-coated figure in the hallway. It is Uncle Haviland, of all people. “Motored all the way down. Sorry I missed the big moment. Couldn’t miss the knees-up, too.”

I haven’t seen the old beak for years, so you can imagine my astonishment to discover Haviland, not only here at all, but on first name terms with Podger (“Roger, dear boy”), Mandy (“Know her? Of course I know her Edwin. I was at her christening. In fact I was at her father’s christening and best man at his wedding, too, though I couldn’t be on any of the photos, as the shady ops people at the War Office insisted I stay invisible), Beano’s dad (“Cameron was up at Cambridge with me”) and, most surprisingly, Laetitia Bowlby, née Arnolfini (“my German teacher, dear boy”), who immediately begins to “mention the war” in the loudest of tones the moment she claps eyes on him. Fortunately Haviland, by way of knowing half the people in the place manages to find us a solicitor who is not too drunk to draw up an “act of association” on a perfectly clean linen napkin, which document makes several of us members of an exclusive club “whose single goal is the individual and controlled incendiary destruction of cigars and whose safety on the premises is guaranteed by one Jean-Michel Rémacle, security officer, retired.” This brilliant, though entirely spurious, charter satisfies Mr Singh and we are assigned the use of a back-room for a limited period.

Diana’s coterie of research technicians, doctors and assorted paramedical hit-girls have given up trying to understand the Welsh and are now huddled in a corner discussing rare diseases with an avidity quite their own. Their lips smack juicily on the deadly words: metastases, sclerosis, carcinoma, staphylococcus pneumoconiosis etc. between hearty gulps of claret. Meanwhile, the good chapel-goers from the Rhondda, who were having an uneasy time of it trying to maintain their teetotal principles without seeming too stuffy for a wedding feast (a difficult balancing act), are getting along fine now. Some noses look a bit redder than Adam’s ale would normally account for, but no one seems to mind. Ever since Diana’s father included the old chestnut about the Welsh being a “nation of thieves and rugby players” in his speech – “Excuse me, but my auntie was born in Pontypool!” “So sorry, old man, it could happen to anyone … what position does she play?” – yet it “always seems to be the English who steal away with our fairest blooms” – this said with a tear in his eye, as we all sigh and gaze at the bride, everyone has been playing “let’s-be-kind-to-the-Welsh week”.

I had expected the chapel crew to put up a great show of vocal talent at the ceremony. The old prejudice that grants rhythm to all Africans, also grants a perfect set of vocal chords to anyone born west of Gloucester, but they only knew half the hymns: the Williams family choice of Methodist standards. Some of these hymns, the assembled Anglicans remembered the tunes to, but with different words, which made it all a bit hesitant. When the Welsh contingent sang, it was with a mixture of the expected fine, strong voices and some reedy, wheezy ones that had clearly been too long down the pit. Fortunately the Arnolfini catalogue of Church of England classics (for despite its rather feeble genes, the family had a sufficiently developed survival instinct to merge its Jewish-catholic heritage into the religious mainstream in the second half of the 15th Century to avoid persecution under the Tudors) included “Come down O love divine”, sung to the Ralph Vaughan Williams melody “Down Ampney”, which both the Welsh and English knew well. This made for a strong showing by all, despite, or perhaps because of, its elegant, loopy phrases.

The Beano Republic, or …

Diana entered the church to Mendelssohn and Mr & Mrs Arnolfini left it to Widor, who surely knows what to do with an empty nave. Diana had had the brilliant idea of selling “rice for the bride” at the church gate. For every little bag you bought, a five kilo sack would be sent to help out in Japan. Everyone was understandably enthusiastic about this, so our hair and clothes are full of little pearly grains. It’s even in my shoes and I wasn’t standing anywhere near Beano and Diana as they exited the church and sprinted to the Spooner Rolls. But ten miles away, and several hours later, we are all still unwittingly showering rice across the floor in a tinkling accompaniment to our mostly embarrassing dance moves. I am astonished to see how democratic and untrendy dancing has become since those decades of regimented submission to the jerky motions of the floor’s most current creation. There is nothing you “have” to know any more. No particular style dominates: we jive, we rock, we rattle and roll, we hip and we hop and nobody minds, not even the kids. Later still, Beano’s parents come together briefly for a stiff waltz, merely for form’s sake, and accidentally start a trend among the very young and adventurous, for whom this is something new. The DJ searches desperately for anything in ¾ time that is not Irish folk music.

The actively engaged Spirit of Podger hovers over all these undertakings. Roger Spooner, Conservative Party candidate, financial wizard, unwitting match-maker and best-man is simply everywhere. Someone wants a cigar? Roger will provide. Run out of towels in the gents? Roger whistles up a knave to see to it at once. Need a refill, a pen and paper, a vegan salad, a baby chair or the first name of someone you know but have momentarily forgotten? Roger will obtain these necessary things. He is totally in his element as mover and shaker. Despite my socialist sympathies, I begin to hope that he will serve his nation as assiduously as he serves us now. I know there’s not a chance of him failing to be elected. The seat is a traditional Tory sinecure. The cheerful Spooner smile bears no trace of guile. His halo shimmers on the very cusp of visibility. Saint Podger, a man transformed by sacrifice, has lost the girl he thought he loved, but gained an entire constituency.

… Paradise recalled

I have now been back in the springtime Ardennes for over a week and the Arnolfini wedding is beginning to slide into its appointed slot in the march of time. Harker still enthuses over the bridesmaids, while J-M is still impressed by the organization, the tawny port, the Rolls-Royce and the highly pneumatic maiden from Porto Venere. I have started several emails to Cleo Fleetwood but not yet found the right tone. Writing to Mal has been easier, we exchange scurrilous links and he has confided his growing interest in Miss Crispin after a day spent at the warehouse inventorying the vinyl. Of Beano and Diana there has been not a whisper, which is just as it should be. Podger would not even share their mystery destination with us at breakfast the next day, perhaps for fear the bands might speed off to put toothpaste on their door handles, superglue their zips together or something equally puerile.

It has often been said that the Brits invent or discover things and then either fail to develop them, fall asleep on them or lose them to others. Whether it’s Rugby, Soccer, Cricket, Tennis, the steam engine, the seed drill, the four-wheel synchronized drive-train, rotational printing, radio and television, the reciprocal flat twin and the Stirling engine, the suspension bridge and reality TV, we generally let the best things slip out of our grasp and into the paws of more savvy dealers. Of all the iconic British brands, only Morgan motors are still entirely in British hands. But no matter how much truth there is to the generally held contention that the Germans have won the war, a gathering like Beano & Diana’s wedding is somehow still quintessentially British. No one really gives a toss about how much anyone else earns, what their job is or what their politics are, yet we all seem to inherently understand that to make a wonderfully classless event like the “Republic of Arnolfini” really work, even for a single day, you actually need quite a lot of class.

Edwin Drood

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