The recent announcements that Nicholas Coleridge, the Editorial Director of the Conde Nast magazines, and Alexandra Shulman, the legendary editor of British Vogue – one of Conde Nast’s most iconic titles – are to both to leave their jobs, reminds me that Quartet was responsible for publishing both of their very first literary tomes. Here’s what happened.
August 1984 saw the publication of Nicholas Coleridge’s Tunnel Vision, the product of five years’ professional eavesdropping. During this period Nicholas had basked by swimming pools at Tuscan villas, hitchhiked to Yazd, worked as a waiter in San Lorenzo, snooped backstage at both the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Brompton Oratory, run with the paparazzi pack which hounded Lady Diana Spencer, shared dahl with hippies and bull-shots with playboys, and survived to write it all down. Tunnel Vision could be described as a hit-and-run report, which is how we promoted the book in our sales campaign.
Earlier that year, the focus of controversy shifted to another forthcoming Quartet publication, The Dirty Weekend Book. One of the participants in the book, Catherine Ledger, decided to jump ship at the last moment after suddenly finding she had principles. Her fellow contributors, Alexandra Shulman, Charlotte Du Cann, Gillian Greenwood, Emma Duncan and Kathy O’Shaughnessy – a dynamic bunch of aspiring, intelligent young women – were naturally disappointed by this change of heart and the sort of publicity it provoked. Miss Ledger, who worked for Virgin Books, gave her reasons, claiming it was too upper class for her liking. The intention, she said, had been to make it self-mocking and funny, but it turned out to be socially divisive, sexist, old fashioned and full of joyless clichés. She asked for her name to be taken off the cover and title-page. The scheme of the book was to list sixty hotels that would be congenial for an amorous weekend break, mostly in Britain but a few abroad for the more adventurous.
Unfortunately the press attention that followed in the wake of Miss Ledger’s withdrawal endowed the book with an unwelcome hint of turpitude, calculated to stir up spasms of moral outrage. The newspaper headlines varied from ‘The Dirt Flies’ to ‘Fur Flying’, with them all, even such a responsible paper as The Times, reporting the same story from different angles. The claim was put forward that certain ‘respectable’ hotels listed in the book’s pages were threatening injunctions to stop its publication unless all references to them were excised. The Daily Mirror, despite its sensational headline, ‘Lovers Get the Good Sex Guide’, was more sympathetic, quoting Mrs Pamela Neil, of the Highbullen Hotel at Chittlehamholt in Devon, who said commonsensically, ‘Thirty years ago we would never have accepted an unmarried couple. But nowadays who cares?’
Another headline, this time in the Standard, declared ‘No sex, please, we are Scottish’. The hypocrisy in the reaction was becoming too ludicrous for words. Mr Ron Lamb, proprietor of the Balcary Bay Hotel at Auchencairn, had his complaint put on record. He objected to his establishment being included, he said, despite the glowing report it was given. He was extremely annoyed that it had been mentioned without his permission and all reference to his hotel should be removed. Furthermore, unless the publishers acknowledged his letter of protest, the matter would be placed in the hands of his solicitors. ‘An injunction is a possibility,’ he threatened, ‘but the least said the soonest mended. I don’t want to give the publishers cheap publicity,’ he concluded. As always, I was relishing the fight. ‘What kind of a reply did he [Mr Lamb] expect?’ I retorted. ‘People don’t go to hotels for meditation or prayers; as far as I know there are no restrictions on making love in a hotel. If you were to write in your memoirs that on your honeymoon you made love in the Dorchester, is the hotel entitled to sue you?’ It was a storm in a teacup. All the hotels that threatened legal action were ignored and melted away without a murmur. Private Eye remained true to its principle of never missing out on having the last word if it could possibly avoid it. Under ‘Books of the Month’ at the end of June it included this little squib:
the dirty publisher’s guide (Compiled by five young Sloanes who work for Naim Utterlahdisgustin) Utterlahdisgustin comes out tops in this raunchy survey of the world’s dirtiest publishers. (That’s enough books. Ed.)
The book was not in any sense a sex manual. It was a benign attempt to inject some fun into the concept of a dirty weekend and send up the AngloSaxon assumptions behind the phrase. The best way of illustrating the book’s intentions is to quote from its introduction:
Strictly speaking, I suppose we would have to say that a dirty weekend is an occasion lasting one or two nights, where two people, not necessarily of opposite sexes, engage in a disproportionately large amount of sexual activity in a location which will tend to be neither of their homes. Of course, that’s not what it is at all. It is a window of fantasy, out of the bounds of normal life, where you can do things that are out of bounds in normal life: you can make love with someone you’re not supposed to make love with at three in the morning; you can lie in bed and drink Bloody Marys and eat chocolate cake at three in the afternoon; you can lie in a bath pretending you’re Cleopatra whose barge has sunk while Antony very softly strokes the soles of your feet. Or you can, if you insist, simply hold hands over a candlelit dinner table while the maître d’hôtel tries to catch your eye to point out that since it is four in the morning . . . . . . Only a race as unromantic as ours could call it a dirty weekend. It goes with the bar-room snigger that accompanies the mention of sex; or perhaps it comes from the nursery equation of the sexual with the anal. Either way, the British inability to take sex seriously is pitiable. Imagine asking a Frenchman to go on un weekend sale with you. He’d probably take you to feed the pigs on his parents’ farm . . . We’ve selected the places by word of mouth rather than guidebook, generally from mouths that have been on the same errand as ourselves, and had some idea of what we were looking for. We have been highly critical: if the view is lovely but the food rotten, we say so. The perfect hotel doesn’t exist, just as the perfect boiled egg doesn’t: if it’s right for some people, it’s overcooked for others. We liked most things about the ones we’ve chosen. If a description of a place is less than enthusiastic, it is probably because the man didn’t quite live up to the standard of the hotel . . . We also include some Useful Tips for dirty weekends. Not that you need them.
Kathy O’Shaughnessy, the youngest and most disarming collaborator, equipped with lowered eyelids and a devastating blush, according to Stuart Wavell of the Guardian, explained how it had been Emma Duncan’s spiffing idea in the first place. An approach was then made to Naim Attallah, the owner of Quartet, who embraced the project and came up with the expenses. Each girl was given a thousand pounds to cover her particular weekend. Each wanted to discover for herself the joys and pitfalls of such an adventure. It was all innocent fun since the man could be her boyfriend. The project was conceived in a romantic spirit. Kathy was keen to give the whole exercise its proper perspective. The English, she insisted, only call it a dirty weekend because they are so repressed. The French, on the other hand, would say un weekend amoureux. Bravo Kathy! The book was a great success. It was reprinted three times. That was its enduring justification.