RACHEL JOHNSON on remembering conversations and getting a name drop in Vanity Fair
Whenever someone publishes a memoir I am staggered. How do they remember the names of all their siblings, let alone reproduce 50-year-old conversations verbatim?
I am mystified by the neurological mechanics of the genre. How did Gerry remember what Larry said to Margo in Corfu? How did Rose Tremain remember what she felt when she was seven, or what her mother never said to her, for Rosie: Scenes from a Vanished Life (even so, when I read the book I felt every word was – ghastly phrase – ‘her truth’, and that is testament to her writing).
The answer must be that these writers’ superpower is either the ability to remember every day of their lives (I can remember every meal I have ever eaten on holiday in the right order, as can my daughter, but I don’t think that would ever shift stock in Waterstones, somehow), or the ability to make it up.
I keep a diary myself and have done for five years, but that’s not as reliable an aide-mémoire as you might think. For example, someone asked me last week who was agenting the ‘Dacre Papers’ (the former Daily Mail editor is writing an autobiography), thinking I might know, having worked awhile for Associated Newspapers.
‘Erm, could it be Natasha Fairweather?’ I said. Somehow, it all rang a distant bell. When I saw my own agent the next day, who works with Natasha, I asked her, as I thought she might know.
But she didn’t know or – another possibility – she had known once, but had now forgotten.
Then it came back to me. Natasha Fairweather – for it was she – had actually called me and asked me whether I could help ‘put her together’ with Paul Dacre after he stepped down (or up), as she thought he might have a book in him. Typically sharp of her.
‘You must know him well,’ Natasha said, possibly forgetting that Paul himself had unburdened himself as to what he thought of me already in a piece for the Spectator in June. (I was amazed he thought of me at all, to be honest, and rather honoured to get a rare namecheck in one of his deathbed rants, along with Alan Rusbridger and Roy Greenslade). ‘Right idea, but I may be the wrong person to facilitate,’ I had said, and pointed her in the direction of Rog Alton, a Mail Man and loyalist, as a better liaison officer for this undertaking.
The point of this anecdote is not that I seek to be my best self at all times or anything so wet – it’s to demonstrate that I can never remember the casus of any belli and regard this as a huge asset in life and in journalism.
This has all been on my mind as Tina Brown’s Vanity Fair Diaries are out in paperback. I first met Tina Brown when I was at Oxford. She flew over from New York in the summer of 1986 after the daughter of a cabinet minister, Olivia Channon, died after taking heroin in the Christchurch rooms of a friend of mine called Count Gottfried von Bismarck (I know it all sounds like a bad Stephen Poliakoff play but it was a big story at the time). Tina blew into town like a small glittering tornado, went to drinks parties, and took a select group of pushy undergraduates out to lunch at a French restaurant in the hope of juicy copy. When the book landed on my desk I went straight to the index and – yes – she had written up her Oxford drive-by over several pages… ‘Liked the current editor of Isis, a sparky blonde in a very short skirt,’ she wrote in her entry of Monday June 23, 1986.
I was delighted by this and only a bit miffed that I hadn’t made enough of an impact to get an actual namecheck (in the Vanity Fair Diaries advanced narcissism from all concerned is compulsory). Then I read on and discovered Tina had been livid about some skulduggery to do with my brother and his former wife, who had been at Oxford too, who she felt let her down over coverage of l’affaire Channon (it’s too complicated and long ago). ‘But Boris Johnson is an epic shit. I hope he ends badly,’ Tina wrote in her entry of July 3, 1986, from Quogue, Long Island.
Gosh. I like and admire her pep and fizz, but what is it with these people when it comes to revenge and score-settling?
It makes you worry that success, recognition and riches are not enough for some folk.
But oh, to be back in Oxford, 1986, to be not known as a journalist who ‘gives banality a bad name’ (copyright Paul Dacre, the Spectator) but a mystery sparky blonde in a miniskirt again.