Monthly Archives: September 2019

A LINK TO THE PAST

Quartet are about to publish a reprint, with a special afterword, of a classic account of Pre-Raphaelite history, Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood by Dr Jan Marsh who incidentally is curating a major exhibition of this uniquely English art movement this Autumn at the National Portrait Gallery. We published this account way back in1985 and it received some splendid reviews and has been unavailable for quite a few years.

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It’s re-issue reminded me of my interview with a man who provided a fascinating link with the late nineteenth century Aesthetic movement and the modern age. Harold Acton was born in 1904, wrote nearly thirty books and lived for many years in a magnificent Renaissance villa in Tuscany.

He had the reputation befitting a grand aesthete. I found him easy-going and charm itself. Our interview took place in Florence over dinner at his home, La Pietra, which was like a domestic museum full of countless objets d’art and priceless paintings collected by his family over the years. I had visited him there many times, mostly for tea or dinner, when he would engage in affectionate gossip about his great friend Tony Lambton, or regale me with the latest scandals making the rounds in the small circle of Florentine society, taking especial delight in any sexual peccadilloes. He considered me an amusing dinner companion – a welcome change from certain other guests, who tended to be academic and whom he labelled stuffy and boring. He often cancelled a dinner date with them in preference for spending an evening of banter with me. Here it is:

REMEMBERING HAROLD…

The current gossip about the dispute around Harold Acton’s reminds me of the often greatly pleasurable times my wife and I spent with Harold in his amazing villa. La Pietra, a Renaissance villa was like a domestic museum full of countless objets d’art and priceless paintings collected by his family over the years. I had visited him there many times, mostly for tea or dinner, when he would engage in affectionate gossip about his great friend Tony Lambton (I had recently published Lambton’s novel and a collection of short stories), or regale me with the latest scandals making the rounds in the small circle of Florentine society, taking especial delight in any sexual peccadilloes. He considered me an amusing dinner companion – a welcome change from certain other guests, who tended to be academic and whom he labelled stuffy and boring. He often cancelled a dinner date with them in preference for spending an evening of banter with me. As a student at Oxford, Harold had been well known for flouting convention and mixing in male undergraduate circles where bisexuality was in vogue. His close friends included Auberon Waugh’s father, Evelyn, who reputedly used him as a model for some of the more outrageous characters in his novels.

I used to tease Harold about girls and enquire if he had ever slept with one. He would put on a show of being greatly shocked at this sudden intrusion into his private life before rolling his eyes and smiling an enigmatic smile. Then he would tap me coyly on the hand as if chastising me for being such a ‘naughty boy’. This only encouraged me to urge him on, and on one occasion he told me about an intimate encounter with a young Chinese girl during the time when he lived in China, teaching English at Peking National University in the 1930s. He described the silky skin of her naked body with obvious relish, but that was as far as he ever went. The mystery of whether he actually slept with any girl remained unsolved.

During one of our conversations, he expressed his regret at the way Oxford University had turned down his offer to bequeath them La Pietra with its collection of priceless art works, forty thousand rare books and fifty-seven acres of grounds in his will. They felt they could not have afforded the cost of repairs and restoration. Instead, after he died in 1994, La Pietra went to New York University as a study and conference centre. Although he had an American mother, he would have preferred the legacy to have gone to a British institution. In the years after his death, the estate became the subject of a long-running counter-claim from the descendants of Harold’s illegitimate half-sister, with a judge giving authority for the exhumation of his father’s body from the family grave in Florence.

Happily, it seems there has been no need to disturb Harold’s remains, though his father’s were reported as confirming the DNA link, and now the dispute seems to be bubbling away once again. Harold entertained well, but he had one curious phobia about electricity consumption. When I needed to visit the cloakroom he would escort me to switch on the light and linger in the vicinity to make sure it was switched off again after I emerged. It was part of his economy drive to maintain his lifestyle without compromising it with waste.

A TRIBUTE TO THE HASHEMITE PRINCESS WHO HAD NO EQUAL

The recent death, aged 91, of Princess Dina Abdel Hamid has been noted by some media sources but we have yet to see the comprehensive coverage which usually follows the passing of a personage of world-ranking importance. She was an exceptional person with remarkable gifts.

Dina Abdel Hamid told a very personal story in Duet for Freedom, which Quartet published in 1988, with an introduction by John Le Carré. As a member of the Hashemite dynasty, Princess Dina had been briefly married to King Hussein of Jordan, but her book gave an epic account of events following the capture of her second husband, Salah Ta’amari, a spokesman for the PLO, during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. By an extraordinary chance, her attempts to contact Salah and free him from the hidden labyrinth of the notorious prison camp of Ansar, opened up the chance of negotiating with the Israelis for the release of thousands of Palestinians and Lebanese in exchange for six captured Israeli soldiers. Duet for Freedom was a true love story with many wider implications. Princess Dina was honorary godmother to my son Ramsay – honorary because of our religious differences, she being of Islamic descent while we belong to the Greek Catholic church.

In his Introduction, John Le Carré ended with the hope that ‘if there is ever to be a peaceful solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, it will be found not in acts of violent suppression and expulsion, nor in acts of violent retaliation, but in the deliberations of two people who have done so many awful things to one another that they have finally scared themselves sufficiently to give up heroics and talk like men. If that ever happens, they might do worse than have Salah along, with Dina at his side.’

That was written nearly forty years ago and yet its message is still as potent now as it was then. Princess Dina worked ceaselessly for peace and reconciliation. She deserves a proper recognition of her place in history.

THOUGHT FOR THE DAY

David Cameron wakes up at long last after his great silence, admitting his failure to defeat those who told so many lies in order to use Brexit for their own personal glory. He skewers Boris Johnson and Michael Gove as the two main culprits. Johnson, Cameron believes, only backed Brexit as a cynical calculation to achieve more in the palaver to advance his political career by securing the support of the right wing in the Tory party.

In his new autobiography, Cameron cites a number of times when Johnson and Gove behaved appallingly during the Referendum campaign, blatantly exploiting the fictive issue of whether or not we had a veto over the Turkish accession to the EU and spreading nonsense about the issue of the 350 million pounds on the bus. ‘I think’ says Cameron, ‘they left the truth at home.’

However, he still insists he was right to hold the Brexit Referendum, while claiming he is truly sorry at the upset and division it has brought, admitting simply that he had failed. I will certainly buy a copy of his book as I’m certain many Brexit campaigners, led by Johnson and Gove, spread disgusting lies – many with racist overtones – about the disadvantages of remaining as members of the EU and exaggerated the benefits that Britain would reap on leaving. It was certainly a dirty campaign they embarked upon, without any regard whatsoever for the chaos they created.

Whatever the ultimate outcome at the end of it all will reveal, I think it has already tarnished the good name of Britain and our claim to believe in democracy as we used to know it. We seem no longer interested in fair play or truth, or of our standing in the world. Time will tell, of course, and history will catch up eventually with the culprits. It always does.

Michael Grove is perhaps the most dangerous twister of the facts, given his devilish alliance with Boris Johnson, whose fate, despite his popularity, is still precarious to say the least. It was Ambrose Bierce who predicted: ‘The hardest tumble a man can make is to fall over his own bluff.’ Watch this space…

AN INTERNATIONAL INCIDENT

In early June 1991 a lunch took place at the Observer newspaper with Donald Trelford, the editor, at which I was one of the guests. Its after-effect was an international political row that soured Britain’s relationship with France. I had known Donald for a number of years, particularly during the period when the Observer was owned by Tiny Rowland. Our paths crossed periodically in a number of ways, socially and otherwise. When we met we would discuss general topics of the day, including his own remarkable entente with Tiny, who was hard to handle and rather unpredictable in his choice of friends and business associates.

At the time Donald had a television slot on BBC2 in which he appeared in conversation with political leaders. He was contemplating an interview with Edith Cresson, who had recently been appointed prime minister of France by President Mitterand. En passant Donald asked me whether, in my diverse activities, I had ever met her, faintly hoping I might contribute to his research process. As it happened, I had met her, before there was any talk of her becoming prime minister. Some four years earlier I had interviewed her for my book Elles – the French edition of Women – but had never been able to use the interview as I had missed the deadline for its inclusion. The interview had been in French and remained unseen by anyone, having subsequently lain dormant in one of my files. Donald asked whether he could see it, notwithstanding the fact that it was conducted in French. He would have it translated, he said, and return it to me as soon as he had had the chance to read it.

Three days later an excited Donald came on the telephone. The interview, he reckoned, was sensational, and with my permission he proposed to publish it in a world exclusive as the cover story for the ‘Review’ section of the newspaper the following Sunday. At the same time he would negotiate worldwide syndication rights, for which I would receive half the total benefits in addition to a substantial fee for its UK publication. I said yes without hesitation.

The interview had all the impact Donald anticipated and more. The majority of people were appalled by the ill-considered statements Madame Cresson made about Anglo-Saxon men. She tossed statistics into the air without their having the least basis in fact. In my opinion, she had shown herself to be vain, arrogant and full of her own importance. She kept looking at her watch all the time we were talking, warning me my time was up, but then carrying on with her pontifications regardless. Everything to do with her was studied, and she failed to convince of any sincerity. What was beyond doubt was that she came over as an attractive woman in her prime who was highly intelligent and confident. Her movements and gestures were all part of her repertoire. There was no doubt that without much effort she beguiled Mitterand, who was not at all immune to feminine wiles.

Edith Cresson’s sex appeal was of the sort that men would fall for then try to master and subdue. I felt it as I was talking to her. Her delusions of superiority stirred one’s animal instincts sexually, though I would have been far too embarrassed to admit it. In different circumstances I could see myself falling prey to this egocentric woman were it not for her contrived haughtiness, which overrode and negated every other consideration. But before analysing the furore that followed the publication of the interview and making a considered judgement, it is essential to quote the passage that triggered off the whole controversy. I asked her why most men preferred the company of men in Anglo-Saxon countries:

Yes, but the majority of these men are homosexuals – perhaps not the majority – but in the USA there are already 25 per cent of them, and in England and Germany it is much the same. You cannot imagine it in the history of France. Traditionally the image of Frenchmen has been heterosexual, an image given to them by men of power, by the kings, etc. Frenchmen are much more interested in women; Anglo-Saxon men are not interested in women, and this is a problem that needs analysis. I don’t know whether it is cultural or biological but there is something there that isn’t working – that’s obvious. Moreover, I remember from strolling about in London, and girls are making the same observation, that men in the streets don’t look at you. When you do this in Paris, the men look at you; a workman or indeed any man looks at passing women. The Anglo-Saxons are not interested in women as women; for a woman arriving in an AngloSaxon country it is astonishing. She says to herself, ‘What is the matter?’ It is a problem of education and I consider it something of a weakness. A man who isn’t interested in women is in some way a little maimed.

The Observer of 16 June summarized the interview under a front-page heading: ‘French PM: One-in-four Englishmen gay’:

Continental people have sex, it was once written: the English have hotwater bottles. As if to prove the point, France’s first woman prime minister, Edith Cresson, has bared her soul in a remarkably candid and controversial interview on the subject of men, sex, power, discrimination – and the supposed amorous failings of the Anglo-Saxon male.
The fall-out was immediate and it went round the world. On Monday morning the Daily Telegraph reported:

A certain froideur has befallen Anglo-French relations after a decidedly undiplomatic attack on British manhood by Mme Edith Cresson, the French prime minister. The fifty-seven-year-old mother of two, whose quick temper and sharp tongue are renowned in Paris, has suggested that the Anglo-Saxon male at best lacks the passion of his Gallic counterpart, and in one in four cases is homosexual.

The remarks were made four years ago to the publisher Naim Attallah, but surfaced in yesterday’s Observer to ripple what might be left of any Entente Cordiale . . .

Not since one of Mme Cresson’s predecesors, M. Jacques Chirac, dismissed Mrs Thatcher’s remarks as couillons during a European summit has a French prime minister been quite so disparaging about the British. But as diplomatic rows go it was perhaps somewhat short of the lamb wars or a single European currency. ‘I don’t think we have a position on this one,’ the Foreign Office confessed yesterday.

The Telegraph also included a few ill-informed assumptions of its own, stating that the book Women had ‘featured conversations with more than 150 unsuspecting women, frequently over lunch, and containing remarks they would never have made had they known they were on record’. These women had been furious, alleged the Telegraph, ‘but none more so that Mme Cresson, who was apparently too boring to make the book’. The next day the Telegraph printed an unequivocal apology:

Mr Naim Attallah assures us, and we entirely accept, that all the 289 women he interviewed for his bestselling book Women were aware that their remarks were being tape-recorded for inclusion in his book.

Therefore the statement in yesterday’s Daily Telegraph that they were ‘unsupecting’ and said things they would not have said if they had known they were on the record is without foundation. We also accept his assurance that, contrary to our statement, none complained to him, orally or in writing.

In particular the interview with Mme Edith Cresson, now the French prime minister, was conducted only for the French, not the British, edition and did not appear in the French edition because of the publisher’s schedule. Therefore our statement that she was ‘too boring to make the book’ is unfounded. We apologize sincerely to Mr Attallah for the misrepresentations in our news story and for those reflected in our leading article.

When I met Max Hastings, the editor of the Daily Telegraph, at a Downing Street reception, he greeted me with the words, ‘You are a gentleman. I shall be writing to you a personal letter of appreciation.’ And he did.

For Edith Cresson the whole affaire came to the fore as another diplomatic contretemps was brewing over the campaign of remarks she had been making against the Japanese from the moment she became prime minister a month earlier. These were aimed at Japan’s export policies, despite the fact that one of France’s great success stories in recent years had been its luxury-goods export trade to Japan. Among her accusations were that Japan wanted to conquer the world, and had already taken over the world’s photographic industry, forced its own people to pay high prices at home to finance cheap exports and sealed off the domestic market to foreign competition. According to her, the Japanese were too busy plotting against the American and European economies to be able to sleep at night. They were ‘ants . . . little yellow men who sit up all night thinking how to screw us’. Japan was the ‘aggressor’, she claimed on television, and ‘lived in a universe different from ours, a universe of domination’. In reaction to her pronouncements, far-right groups in Japan were already organizing protests outside the French embassy in Tokyo, but she was showing no sign of backing down. Later in July, on a visit to America, she gave an interview on the ABC network repeating that the Japanese ‘work like ants, live in little flats and take two hours to commute to work’. On 14 July, Bastille Day, the demonstrators in Tokyo guillotined her in effigy.

Her immediate reaction to the publication of the interview was to say she had no recollection of ever meeting me, let alone of being interviewed. An aide denied, moreover, that she had ever made the ‘gay’ remark. This inflamed the situation even further. When the media sought my reaction to the denial, I was able to produce the evidence by exhibiting the tape. The French authorities, having been given ‘not only the date – Wednesday, 27 September 1987 – not only the place – at her then office in the Boulevard St Germain – but also the time of the interview – 11.30 a.m., sought to establish that she had been misrepresented, allegations which did not survive the briefest study of the tape transcript’, as John Sweeney wrote for the Observer from Paris on 23 June. He gave a graphic description of their official disgust:

As slowly and stately as Montgolfier’s gondola, the left eyebrow laboured heavenwards: ‘Disgusting.’ The right eyebrow the same. ‘Evil. Stupide.’ His hair, cut en brosse, bristled with distaste. His stomach, an overwrought shrine to the magnificence of French cuisine, shuddered in pain like a Sumo wrestler with tummy ache.

The eyebrows climbed ever more upwards and now the lips were brought into play, squeezing together until opening to create a small explosion of compressed air, exactly mimicking the Paris Métro hiss. ‘We would never do a thing like this.’

He paused to work the gondola eyebrows, sumo tummy and Métro door some more. ‘This rubbish. Trash. Garbage. It is always the English that play these games. Always Great Britain.’ He pronounced ‘Great Britain’ as if it were not a country but a particularly nasty form of sheep apoplexy. Jean-Philippe Atger is the French Bernard Ingham, the man charged with handling press relations for the new French prime minister, Madame Edith Cresson.

With delicate disdain, he held a photocopy of a Sun story between finger and thumb; its headline, slotted on page three to the right of a pair of breasts, screamed: BRITS BLAST POOFTER JIBE FROM MRS FROG. It was all the Observer’s fault.

Last week Atger was breathing garlicky bunkum and balderdash at your hapless reporter after our paper brought Anglo-French relations to a new low by disclosing that ‘MRS FROG’, er, Mme Cresson, believes that one in four Englishmen is gay and, more, they lack all interest in women.

Madame Cresson’s fall-back position had subsequently become that the Observer story was not in the tradition of le fair play. ‘If this conversation took place,’ she told the listeners to a French radio programme, ‘I was not only not prime minister, I was not even in the government.’ She claimed she did not remember meeting me, but, ‘Maybe I had a conversation with an English journalist because I had a lot of conversations with English journalists. All I know is that if the conversation took place, and if he found the things I said interesting, he would no doubt have included them in his book. I have nothing to add to this interview that has been taken out of a drawer.’ When pressed about her allegation that a quarter of Englishmen were homosexual, she simply stirred the pot again, saying, ‘It’s difficult to produce a statistic.’ The inference was that she remained unrepentent.

The tabloids, with the Sun in the vanguard, certainly spotted in the story a green light to let fly with a few blasts of chauvinism. Under the headline ‘Britanny Fairies’ the Sun said:

Edith Cresson, France’s first woman PM, claims one in four Englishmen is homosexual. That’s a bit rich coming from the leader of a nation where most men carry handbags and kiss each other in public. They don’t call Paris Gay Paree for nothing, you know.

Julie Burchill in the Mail on Sunday, sharpening up her gift for delivering a provocative insult, asked how it was that, if France was so straight, it had an ‘AIDS rate higher than in most African countries and higher than any Western country apart from the USA (which is really a Third World country anyway)?’ She found Mme Cresson’s claim that British men did not look at women in the street ‘incredible’.

Because back here in dear old Blighty, the problem that personable women have to face is not too little male attention but too much. . . . men who not only look at you in passing but indeed look at you as if they were trying to pick you out of an identity parade of suspects who might have done in their dear old mother . . .

In fact how very pleasant to be as plain and past it as Mme Cresson – an honorary man, no less! And if it is true, as she claims, that Frenchmen still ogle her – well, is it worse for a quarter of men to be homosexuals, or for the majority to be shameless, perverted gerontophiles?

Mr David Jones of Bolton, Greater Manchester, suggested in a letter to the Observer that for Mme Cresson’s next state visit to Britain he could envisage a ‘guard of honour of scaffolders at Heathrow, ready to receive the premier by ceremoniously intoning, “Cor, I bet she does the business.”’

Marjorie Proops, in her column in the Daily Mirror, turned the theme into a case for exhortation:
Maybe it’s not a bad idea to keep your heads up, lads, and take a keener and closer look at the passing talent. Somehow we’ve got to go on breeding good, strong, silent Britons – and it can’t be done without your cooperation.

There was also the inevitable facetious question raised in the House of Commons, which brought a welcome interruption to the business of serious politics and reduced the chamber to hilarity. The Conservative MP Tony Marlow said that, in view of Mrs Cresson having ‘sought to insult the virility of the British male because the last time she was in London she did not get enough admiring glances’, he wished to put down a motion saying: ‘This House does not fancy elderly Frenchwomen’ – but was ruled out of order by the Speaker.

With Mme Cresson’s remarks rebounding in various directions on other matters besides these, it began to seem to many commentators that Mitterand’s judgement in appointing her as prime minister might soon be seriously called into question. Julian Nandy in the Independent on 20 July commented on how her predecessor, Michel Rocard, had been criticized for his reluctance to speak out on current issues during his three years in office, but there had been no such problem for Edith Cresson in the two months she had been in the job.

She talks, what she says gets into print and, more often than not, it boomerangs. It has become known as parler cru, or talking raw. In the meantime her popularity rating has zigzagged, while President François Mitterand – who appointed her – has publicly backed her bluntness.

Last week, however, her popularity, after falling 16 per cent in seven weeks, began to rise. In the weekly L’Express a poll showed that she had picked up seven points . . . The poll was published just as Mrs Cresson made unfashionably frank comments on illegal immigrants, stressing that laws requiring their expulsion should be applied more strictly.

An assessment by Robert Cottrell in the Independent on Sunday of 21 July put more detail on the situation: But to question Mrs Cresson’s wisdom is, in effect, to question that of Mr Mitterand. He put her there. So had he since come to think, as he was asked during his annual 14 July television interview, that this was une fausse bonne idée?

Mr Miterrand insisted not. ‘After fifteen years of technocratic language,’ he said, ‘I find it healthy to have a prime minister who speaks clearly.’ The people of France, he said, ‘have a living language. Mrs Cresson has a living language . . . It is true that Mrs Cresson upsets people. Well, some people are against her. I am for her. She is rather charming, don’t you think?’

Since you cannot say ‘No’ to the president of France on live television, the question was left hanging. Edith Cresson failed to serve a full year as prime minister, though this gave her time to plumb new depths of unpopularity before she resigned after a poor showing by the Socialists in the elections. I have sometimes since wondered whether, in some indirect way, I contributed to her demise as prime minister. The aftermath of the interview showed her, I thought, in a silly light and made it clear she was quite incapable of reining in her loose tongue. There were even persistent rumours that she had formerly been Mitterand’s mistress, leading her to feel the presidential backing she received was his way of appreciating the favours she had bestowed on him over the years; and, this being so, that her vulnerability was well protected.

Under Mitterand’s patronage, she went on to be the European Commissioner for Education, Research and Sciences in Brussels. One of her first actions was to appoint her own dental surgeon, René Berthelot, as her personal adviser on HIV/AIDS, a subject of which he knew little. After two years – though eighty-five thousand pounds the richer – Berthelot had produced a total of twenty-four pages of notes later deemed to be unqualified and grossly deficient. Another project she generated, known as the Leonardo da Vinci Vocational Training Scheme, which she claimed was the bestadministered programme in Brussels, became implicated in massive fraud, and the company she had chosen to run it was stripped of its five-hundredmillion-pound contract. Investigations uncovered a whole nest of falsified contracts, forged handwriting and embezzled funds, leading to the resignation of the entire Santer Commission in 1999. Allegations that she had personally gained from any wrongdoing remained unproven, though the commission inquiry said she had ‘failed to act in response to known, serious and continuing irregularities over several years’. Though the Advocate General of the European Court of Justice recommended that she be stripped of half her forty-seven-thousand-euro pension, she was allowed to escape the imposition of any financial penalty. ‘Maybe I was a little careless,’ was the extent of her public admission.

This was extracted from my book ” Fulfilment & Betrayal ‘‘, which is still available.

TROUBLE IN STORE

I’ve recently re-read my autobiography and feel much of it is still relevant, deserving of a wider readership than it first achieved. As a teaser, I thought I’d reproduce in this blog some of my recollections. Perhaps they might arouse the interest of my readers enough to purchase copies of the book, still in print.

A vital part of my working life involved my relationship with the Asprey family and the iconic Bond Street store that bore the legendary name and reputation for luxury. Indeed, large sections of my autobiography, Fulfilment & Betrayal 1975-1995, covered my triumphs, failures and the lessons I learned during those dynamic twenty years. This extract refers to events that began in the late 1990s.

‘At Asprey worrying events were taking place. I was particularly concerned about a deteriorating relationship between John Asprey and Ronald Lee, of R. A. Lee (Fine Arts) Ltd, which had been precarious at the best of times. John, who was a marvellous salesman, with a charm to match, could nevertheless show a regrettable lack of deference when aroused. He also displayed an impatience with people whose methods of working differed from his own. As a result, he tended to leave behind him a trail of disaffected individuals. Impulsiveness can have its merits, but a pause for reflection may sometimes make a better alternative. Ronald Lee, who was eighty-one, found John very difficult to deal with and there were many occasions when I had to intervene to lower the temperature. They were like chalk and cheese and a parting of the ways seemed likely to occur sooner rather than later. The Antiques Trade Gazette reported the incident that broke the camel’s back on 16 April. It concerned a failed attempt to purchase two historic panel paintings from the thirteenth century for the British Museum. They had come up for sale at the Bristol Auction Rooms, and Ronald was acting as underbidder on the museum’s behalf. To his astonishment, he saw them being ‘knocked down to Asprey (bidding on behalf of an anonymous British-based collector) for £120,000’.

‘The long-established Lee family business was taken over last summer by Naim Attallah’s Asprey Group. Son Charles continued as a director and Ronald was retained on a consultancy basis. Asprey maintain that, so far as they were concerned, Mr Lee was bidding in a private capacity and managing director Timothy Cooper described the incident as ‘an unfortunate misunderstanding’. However, Ronald Lee described his position as ‘untenable’, and the eighty-one-year-old dealer added: ‘I call it “quietly retiring”, but it is a resignation.’

‘The old boy retired amid some bitterness. I tried to defuse the atmosphere as best I could, but John was beginning to show signs of petulance, another development that caused me unease. Our relationship was the key to the success of the Asprey group. We were different but complementary. Lord Rothermere (Vere), who was my friend, and even a member of the Academy Club, set an example as a very astute operator. A true press baron, well aware of his own limitations, he appointed David English to run his empire. It was a wise move that paid dividends. The secret of their success was that each adhered to his own area of responsibility without encroaching on the territory of the other. The fruits of this cooperation came with the emergence of the Daily Mail and General Trust as one of the most profitable press conglomerates in the United Kingdom. The same principle had so far applied to the Asprey group, John being chairman and the salesman par excellence while I was group chief executive.

‘This pairing worked extremely well until the group grew in size and stature; then cracks began to appear in the fabric of our relationship. At the instigation of his friends, and a number of members of his family, he began to interfere in areas where his competence was perhaps not up to the mark. He started issuing instructions to other sectors of the group, and while these were seldom fully implemented, they set off ripples of discord. None of this went down well with the senior management in the group, who invariably reported John’s aberrations to me with a degree of apprehension. John would then in most cases deny the incidents concerned and matters would stabilize for a while. But these were danger signs portending a more serious situation ahead.

‘To move the focus from Asprey’s internal problems to fashion, Tomasz Starzewski had been actively preparing for British Fashion Week, under the auspices of the Asprey group, as reported in OK magazine, with Baroness Izzy van Ranwyck as one of his patrons. His creations were displayed at the Natural History Museum in the British Fashion Council Tent. ‘Tomasz’s brand-new collection is fashionable, stylish and fun and his show was appreciated by a discerning audience.’ My relationship with Tomasz was also great fun. Within the Asprey group he was directly responsible to me, and we had a close working partnership as a result of this proximity. It was certainly not bereft of its lighter moments. We both, as bon viveurs, liked to escape on occasion from the pressures placed upon us by our different roles. Our sexual orientation might not have been exactly the same, but we both loved women for a variety of reasons. In that domain the disparity worked in ways that were quite complementary and consolidated the relationship further. We undertook a few promotional trips abroad, accompanied by a small entourage of exquisite young ladies, who not only carried out their assignments with immaculate precision, but also brought colour and glamour to the proceedings. Life at the top end was undoubtedly good and we were determined to savour the delights while they lasted.

The Asprey Era

by Tomasz Starzewski

‘I had reached a point in my career when I needed to be part of a large parent company. A friend of mine mentioned Naim. I remember saying to him, ‘I think I’m the wrong sex,’ because Naim had always been known for supporting and encouraging quite a lot of my women friends over the years. But my friend said, ‘He could still be the one, you ought to meet him.’ I can’t remember exactly how the interview was instigated, and unbeknown to me Naim was married to a Polish woman. I think that was a lucky connection and a good omen at that. From Naim’s point of view, another advantage was the innocence of my ways, my unbounded enthusiasm plus an extraordinary clientele, which he reckoned would be a great asset to Asprey.

‘He made it very clear from the outset that we were not going to get oldfashioned management. It became as though we lived in a crazy, spontaneous though not reckless arena of activity; but each of us in the team knew that as far as the group was concerned the question was how Naim had managed to do something so impossible as set us up in this unique situation. We also knew that the way to get to him was through his PA, whoever the PA happened to be at the time. It was important for us to find out his mood and his thoughts, or whether we needed to orchestrate a campaign to win him round. I also knew he had fundamentally banned men from his floor. However, I was quick to work out that my worth would be greatly enhanced by tantalizing him with the latest acquisition of tender young staff with good credentials. Dealing with Naim was an education in itself.

‘Early in our association I told Naim I needed a managing director to look after the commercial aspects of the business and to keep a tight purse. One day I asked him if he remembered a pop/folk duo called Nina & Frederik. ‘Well, their daughter is coming to see me,’ I said. She had been working in Rome for Valentino and had moved to England because she wanted to be near her current beau, the ex-husband of a great friend of Naim’s. I then met this incredibly beautiful, chic girl, Anna Maria van Pallandt, who looked just like her mother, Nina, used to look, but who was also relatively icy and distant. Naim interviewed her as well to see if she’d make part of the team, though it never occurred to me she might be material for a managing director. I may therefore have said something out of order when Naim announced, ‘This is your new managing director.’ Against all expectations, she turned out to be highly efficient and sensible. She took in her stride the responsibility of seeing that money kept coming in. My main concern at that point was to design clothes to sell and not to bother myself with accounts.

‘Eventually my team was headed by this beautiful Dutch girl, Anna Maria. My press attaché was Sophie Hedley and Fiona Sleeman looked after the customers admirably. They were all great girls. With Anna Maria it took time to earn her friendship as she was very reserved. She came from a colourful upbringing, her parents having been very much part of that swinging seventies mad calypso crowd, gravitating between Lisbon and Ibiza on their yacht, the Sir Leonard Lord. Yet their offspring was a very focused and serious young woman, protective and sensible. Soon after the wonderful Sophie Hedley was promoted by Naim to be the new PR of the company, I found a crazy French assistant designer who produced incredibly spectacular illustrations and had learnt English through watching television. It was a time of constant laughter. We were always in fits as we tried to work out how to sneak into Naim’s office to get what we deserved – or thought we deserved. The process would be me saying, ‘I do need a new watch,’ or Sophie saying, ‘I quite like that ring,’ knowing full well Naim’s unbelievable generosity. This always provoked the complete annoyance of the rest of the group, bar Tania Foster-Brown, who was then Naim’s head of marketing and had that same wicked sense of humour. She was the one who taught me the works, because the other young woman belonging to Naim’s inner sanctum at the time was Julia Ogilvy, whom I found completely terrifying.

‘It was a heady period. When I look back at it, I appreciate Naim’s acquisition of Tomasz Starzewski even more than I did at the time. It was quite a controversial decision for Asprey. I remember sitting at a dinner party with some great friends of mine, and my hostess taking me aside and saying, ‘I’ve placed you next to this person, because I think you ought to know there are some members of the Asprey family who deeply disapprove of you being part of the group.’ And I remember being sat next to this unbelievably frosty Frenchwoman, who stuck her nose up at me and just said, ‘Who are you?’ then ignored me.

‘Naim showed great courage in bringing me into the fold, which at that point was really about jewellery and applied art, whether watches or pictures. It may be thought that fashion can be a logical extension of all that, but in fact it is quite a distinct sort of proposition. I don’t think we ever realized how protected we were from Bond Street by Naim in Regent Street, who ensured the non-interference of the hierarchy. In the end it seemed the little group of us all working together somehow managed to charm its way through. Ultimately we were able to pacify the parent company, though of course we continued to shock. There was a very concentrated, sexy period when everything seemed to get bigger and greater than it probably was, but it was also a period of immense calm – though that, of course, was only a transient moment in one’s life to be appreciated much later. Then Asprey was sold and the magical group of people who had all been working together disappeared and went elsewhere – but it had been an exhilarating experience.

‘I know there’s a preconceived idea about fashion designers not needing to work hard, but that was never the case with me. I think I gave even slightly more than expected, though my curiosity was not just about what was happening with us in our sector, but what Naim was up to in publishing. Some of it consisted of the most exciting books of the day. I was fortunate to be able to lay my hands very quickly on a copy of anything that took my interest. Naim would send one round straight away. Another thing that made it a very exciting period was flying to New York to do a recce with a view to consolidating and enhancing our international reputation; or, on two or three occasions, travelling with Naim to Milan and to Paris, along with Anna Maria and Sophie, when a great time was had by all.

‘The best way for me to summarize that part of my life is to say it was an indelible era of spontaneity and mischief, though also very naïve and innocent. I’m not sure it could exist in today’s context, because we probably thought we were being naughty and wicked when in fact it was underpinned by good intention and had a rather beautiful quality about it. I consider that says a lot about the people involved. And in a way we were never shaken up or brought to heel. I can recall Naim losing his temper only once, and it wasn’t anything to do with work. We hadn’t actually done anything wrong in the office – it may have been something we never told him. We were given unbelievable trust and that was truly magical. That’s really it.’

Fulfilment & Betrayal
1975-1995
Naim Attallah
Quartet Books ISBN 978 0 70437 121 7

CLASSIC REVIEWS NEVER FADE…

In a long life spent in the midst of Grub Street, I have known many wicked, stupid and dishonest book reviewers. And now, with the Internet, reading-group blogs, even Amazon reviews, perhaps the well written quality review is now a memory, apart from a few in the ‘specialist’ press such as the Literary Review and the TLS. Thinking of this change, I remembered my very favourite review, of my second book of interviews Singular Encounters. It still reads well, thirty years later.

It was a skit, in lieu of a review, penned by the late Humphrey Carpenter for the Sunday Times. It was beyond doubt a send-up, but its wit and hilarity were its saving grace. He constructed it so as to beguile the reader with its originality. I loved it for what it was: a little gem encapsulating the English sense of humour at its best. I wrote to Humphrey, whom I had never met, to tell him how brilliant I thought his piece was and invited him to lunch. It thrilled him that I had taken no offence at his ribbing. I have continued to admire the piece to this day, but to enjoy it means it must be reproduced in its entirety. I hope the reader will appreciate it as much as I have done. It is a joyful piece of writing, skilfully crafted and irresistibly amusing.

Hallowed Be Thy Naim

1. And the Lord created Naim Attallah and sent him from Palestine to London to be chairman of Quartet Books. And the Lord God said to his servant Naim, Increase and multiply.

2. And Naim Attallah published The Joy of Sex and More Joy of Sex, and showed his balance sheet to the Lord, and said, Lord, I have increased and multiplied, and done thy bidding. And the Lord God said, That was not quite what I had in mind.

3. And the Lord God said unto Naim Attallah, If thou art going to be a prominent London publisher, then thou wilt have to get thyself a lot of women, so that people will talk about thee. And Naim said unto the Lord, Lord, I will do thy bidding.

4. And Naim Attallah went into the highways and byways of Sloane Square, and hired a lot of young women with double-barrelled names to work for him, and said Lord, I have done Thy bidding. And the Lord God said, That was not quite what I had in mind.

5. And the Lord God said unto Naim Attallah, If people are are going to talk about thee, and if thou art going to make the gossip columns, thou wilt have to become intimate with a lot of successful members of the opposite sex. And Naim Attallah said unto the Lord, Lord, I understand, and will do Thy bidding.

6. And Naim Attallah went into the highways and byways and found 318 remarkable women whose common denominator was achievement. And Naim Attallah published the interviews in a book called Women, and said unto the Lord, Lord, I have done Thy bidding. And the Lord God sighed and said, That was not quite what I had in mind.

7. And Naim Attallah said unto the Lord, Lord, I am bored and dejected now that the excitement of publishing my book Women is over, so I will go and publish a book on men. And the Lord God said, Naim, my servant, why on earth do you suppose anyone wants to read a book about men?

8. And Naim, the servant of the Lord, said Lord, I will call it Singular Encounters, because then some people will suppose it to be a sequel to More Joy of Sex, but actually, Lord, it will be a book of interviews with twenty-nine remarkable men whose common denominator is achievement.

9. And the Lord said, Naim, didst thou say twenty-nine? Why hast thou not interviewed 318 like last time? And Naim said, Lord, I am not as young as I was, and anyway, I do not like men as much as women, because I was not at an English public school.

10. And anyway, went on Naim, it was very difficult to persuade even twenty-nine men to take part. Most of those I approached, Lord (as I say in my introduction), were over-cautious. But then Richard Ingrams said yes, and encouraged some others, and soon Auberon Waugh agreed too.

11. And the Lord God said, Who is this Richard Ingrams and this Auberon Waugh? And Naim said, Lord, Ingrams is a man whose daughter works for one of my companies, and Waugh is the editor of the Literary Review, of which I am the proprietor. And the Lord God hid a smile and said, I see, I see.

12. And the Lord God said unto Naim his servant, Naim, who are the other twenty-seven that thou hast persuaded to take part? And Naim said, Lord, there is Willie Rushton, Nigel Dempster and A. N. Wilson. And the Lord God said, Who are these people? And Naim said, They have all written for Private Eye, as have Ingrams and Waugh. And the Lord God said, Naim, thou dost not appear to have a very big circle of friends.

13. And Naim said, Lord, there is also Sir Harold Acton and Monsignor Alfred Gilbey. And the Lord God said, Who are they? And Naim said, Acton was a friend of Waugh’s father and Gilbey is well known unto Wilson. And the Lord God said, That leaves twenty-two to go. Thou hast not covered much ground yet.

14. And Naim, the servant of the Lord, said, Lord there is also Michael Aspel, J. K. Galbraith, Yehudi Menuhin and Lord Rees-Mogg. And the Lord God said, And what made you choose these men? And Naim the servant of the Lord said, Lord, they all great and famous men. And the Lord God said, I see. I was beginning to think they were just chaps you just happen to have met at dinner-parties.

15. And the Lord God said, Naim, what questions hast thou asked? And Naim said, I have asked two of my interviewees whether it is true they have long-running feuds with Gore Vidal. And I have asked Willie Rushton whether he has opened a lot of fêtes. And I have asked the Warden of St Anthony’s College, Oxford, what is the secret of his charm. And I have asked . . .

16. And the Lord God interrupted Naim and said, Naim, how on earth did you think of such daft questions? And Naim not listening went on, And I have asked André Deutsch about his disagreement with Tom Rosenthal and I have asked Lord Lambton why young journalists find Margaret Thatcher sexually attractive. And the Lord God said, I do not believe this.

17. And Naim, the servant of the Lord, smiled and said, Maybe, Lord, but I have featured in magazines and have made the front page of the Style section of the Sunday Times, and I have never had such coverage before in my life. So maybe, Lord, I know what I am doing after all.

18. And the Lord God nodded, and said, Naim, my servant, maybe you do.

A MASS EXODUS

One aspect of this Brexit business seems to me already quite obvious yet rarely mentioned; it is almost shameful for me when I meet so many British citizens clamouring to get an EU passport. It’s not only the expat community in France, a country I know well and visit often, but I’m increasingly struck as I meet with professional acquaintances – doctors, solicitors, accountants – just how many are applying for Irish, German, even Slovakian passports. Many of them are doing so in order not to be uprooted by returning to the UK as a result of Brexit.

Unlike our unworthy politicians who claim that leaving the EU will create new wealth and prosperity by our independence from Europe, I fear the absolute opposite. The disintegration of the United Kingdom will start with Scotland – the first to leave the union, followed by Wales, and goodness knows what will happen in Northern Ireland. This fragmentation will continue until England becomes a vassal state; no longer a world power to reckon with, but at the mercy of Donald Trump. And let’s not forget his days of glory will come to a sudden end one day.

The present government is promising a great deal of money to people already, to compensate them or perhaps simply a cynical bribe to maintain an administration already noted for its mediocrity. This continuing process will lead this country, if it were to continue with its policy, into a financial disaster. It will render us semi-crippled in a world where money has come to play a more intrinsic role than ever before.

Make no mistake, our country is being led by a gaggle of opportunists who while claiming the EU is ripping us off, are enjoying EU subsidies, making a fortune off-shore with currency speculation and creating an ever larger gap between the haves and the have-nots. No wonder one of Johnson’s latest policy announcements  has been to increase the prison population and recruit thousands more police. As the great Al Johnson once said: ‘You ain’t seen nothing yet!’