BARBARA AMIEL on charting a triumphant return from social Siberia

She’s back with a blast! BARBARA AMIEL endured humiliation after her media tycoon husband was jailed and then wrote a memoir skewering her enemies… now she charts a triumphant return from social Siberia

  • Barbara Amiel endured humiliation after her media tycoon husband was jailed
  • She wrote a memoir skewering her enemies and now returns from social Siberia
  • She said: ‘The British sometimes forget how lucky they are to be living in a country with such life and vitality’

I hadn’t a clue what I was in for last month when I made my first trip back to London in seven years.

Sensing apprehension, my Toronto manicurist thought microblade eyebrows would add to my confidence. ‘Eyebrows are the picture frame,’ she said encouragingly, looking at my forehead where no hairs grow. I resisted.

I contemplated the packing. After three years of seclusion writing my memoir, Friends And Enemies, followed by 18 months of intermittent Covid lockdowns, my daily wardrobe consisted of laceless trainers from China with photos of my dogs printed on them and rotating Zara outfits of cargo trousers with mismatched sweaters.

I was British by birth (Watford), childhood and middle age. I had bridled at this because I bridle at anything that disturbs routine, even one I dislike. And I was scared: all roots of my British life had been pulled up and shrivelled in the absence of watering

I was out of practice in everything including dressing and speaking to anyone but my husband and dog.

The impetus for the trip had been an invitation to take part in the Cliveden Literary Festival along with genuine luminaries such as historian Antonia Fraser, political hatchet Sasha Swire (author of ‘Diary Of An MP’s Wife’ with its tell-all look at life in the Tory clique around David Cameron) and smart, promising young women like Emerald Fennell (the Oscar-winning director, actress — Camilla in The Crown — and writer). This all got me very excited when I talked about it — six months ahead of it. Less exciting when you’re facing it.

My husband, Conrad Black, decided to bookend the trip by scheduling our arrival for the launch party for the brilliant and priapic historian Andrew Roberts’ new book George III — a party which, given the range and number of Andrew’s former girlfriends plus present and future close acquaintances, was bound to include a good chunk of London’s smart (and good looking) literati.

The parallel reason was Conrad’s determination to convince me that London was the natural place for us to live AGAIN. After all, I was British by birth (Watford), childhood and middle age. I had bridled at this because I bridle at anything that disturbs routine, even one I dislike. And I was scared: all roots of my British life had been pulled up and shrivelled in the absence of watering.

Before marriage to Conrad in 1992, I had worked successfully at making a few real London friends, not rich, not especially social, but like me keen on music, books — and shoes.

Later, as the wife of a media titan — my husband’s firm published newspapers in America, Canada, Israel and the UK, including the Daily Telegraph — I embarked on a dizzying social life, giving parties for royalty, diplomats, great intellectuals and entertainment figures.

But I hung on like blazes to those first few friends, while trying to bring a couple of New York’s social set into my intimate circle. The New York ladies smiled, told me how much they loved me and when, in 2003, everything collapsed in a whirlwind of criminal charges against my husband, they retreated, never to be heard from throughout the mean years.

Barbara Amiel endured humiliation after her media tycoon husband Conrad Black (right) was jailed

In 2005, I had gone back to Canada, my husband’s birthplace, to be with him through his court battles, leaving friends real and imagined behind.

Would the few people in London I truly cared about have any time for me now?

As I packed, trying to look optimistically on the upcoming venture, I rifled through my La Perla underwear and prized pairs of silk Olivia von Halle and Bernadette PJs, with visions of room service and me prancing delectably about in lace, (I’m delusionary, too) followed by lazy walks with my husband under freshly wet chestnut trees.

‘Let’s be sure and make time for us,’ I said to Conrad in my best advice-to-the-lovelorn voice. (I nearly said ‘quality time’, but even I would choke on that.)

Unfortunately, Conrad has never felt the same enthusiasm about chestnut trees or walks. Within one day of my agreeing to the 19-day trip, he had arranged dinners every night and the luncheon regime was solid as well.

My packing nightmare was to be solved, I thought, by the ‘capsule wardrobe’. It fits in your one carry-on piece of luggage, preferably a casual Louis Vuitton Keepall duffle and not my Samsonite wheelie.

The clothes list will be familiar to avid readers of fashion magazines: a ‘classic coat, transitional blazer, a few well cut basics’ all spiffed up by the ‘timeless accessory’.

My ‘capsule’ filled two large suitcases while my carry-on was at bursting point with necessities including prescription medicines, masses of marginally illegal painkillers, the only foundation I can wear and what jewellery I had left after my husband’s lawyers had been paid. I wheeled it off the plane into Heathrow’s Terminal 5, where lines of chauffeurs were waiting holding up names. Sadly, not our name.

Our driver had gone AWOL. I found him lounging outside the terminal, a sullen gentleman who drove us to the street abutting our hotel in Covent Garden, where he dumped suitcases onto the pavement and disappeared. In our room, I realised my wheelie had also disappeared. (It turned up in Heathrow’s lost luggage terminal a week later having been to Berlin. Not a pill or earring was missing, miraculously.)

London was a huge shock after Canada. Covid is the defining difference. In Canada, the population has been beaten down to a mass of compliant Covid regulation freaks.

The culture has become something like the bland Muzak one used to hear on lifts. Covid bylaws regulate the decibel count of music in beauty salons (don’t ask what that has to do with Covid), everyone masks up everywhere and contact tracing at restaurants before entry is mandatory. Which, in my case, is pointless.

‘Name?’ asked a woman at the door of a Toronto restaurant. ‘Myra Hindley,’ I replied. ‘Telephone number?’ The week before I was Margot Fonteyn.

If the name is not on a receptionist’s Instagram feed, they don’t know it. By contrast London is alive.

At A party for Joan Collins’s new book of revelations (‘uncensored and unapologetic’), she sat looking super, post-Dynasty with serious shoulders in a short cape swirling with gold embroidery. She casually mentioned she had had Covid and it was ‘very tiring’.

In a splendid display of one-upmanship, Piers Morgan, standing next to her, cheerfully mentioned how he had been ‘double vaccinated and then got it twice. I still can’t taste or smell’.

This was a disappointment since I was wearing my irresistible Santa Maria Novella Pot Pourri cologne.

Covid competitiveness greeted me at every function when people compared the duration of illness and symptoms as if talking about different ways to make risotto.

Still, top prize went to Iceland’s former first lady and British businesswoman Dorrit Moussaieff who, in January 2020, sensing the plague about to come, went to India to deliberately catch Covid.

‘I just wanted to get it over with and get on with life,’ she said. Beat that. Such different attitudes to the same phenomenon bring out the cultural anthropologist in me.

Was this Covid casualness a case of British drollery or the stiff upper lip of a people who historically have been through so much that they dislike ‘fusses’? Canadians, who live in a fuzzy world where no strife has ever shed blood on their pavements, shrink at the mention of getting Covid and seem almost cowardly about it. Whistleblowers abound if your mask drops below the nostrils.

Perhaps the shuffling uniformity of Covid-panicked Canadians is the enervating result of life under PM Justin Trudeau.

Handsome Justin is blessed with his mother Margaret’s youthful good looks — but, unfortunately, her flower-child brains as well. Words fail in describing how desperately boring life in Canada under Trudeau has become.

He disappears on holidays only to pop up to spout some woke doomsday scenario: the apocalypse of climate change and the ‘cultural genocide’ Canadians inflicted on their indigenous population. Flags get hauled to half-mast and we all put on new masks. It didn’t take me long back in London to realise how much I have missed sly and often rude British humour.

After hip surgery, Elton John and his spouse David Furnish gave a small dinner for us with ‘sweats’ as the dress code. Conrad, somewhat deficient in the sweats wardrobe, responded by not wearing a tie.

There, jeweller Theo Fennell asked Conrad about the new book he was writing. A Political History Of The World, Conrad replied modestly. (A hell of a project: 900 pages in the first volume and we’re only at 15AD.) ‘At what point in world political history do you begin?’ asked Theo innocently. ‘Biblical times. Noah’s sons Shem and Ham,’ replied Conrad thoughtfully. ‘Not pre-Genesis then?’ said Theo in a flash.

The main event, the Cliveden Literary Festival, required pulling out cocktail dresses I jammed into my luggage. I feared over-dressing. Canada has great writers — Margaret Atwood, Nobel Prize winner Alice Munro — but they are not compelling in their garments. Thus the festival chair, author Natalie Livingstone, was a bit of a shock at the dinner on the Saturday night.

We had not met before and bonded when she spotted the carefully concealed Solpadeine Plus tablets in my clutch bag and recognised the Christian Dior skirt I was wearing as one she also had.

Other shared interests followed but are not suitable for a family newspaper. Natalie was wearing a Stella McCartney dress that defied gravity unless you had a body that did the same.

Hers did. It irked me to discover that this extraordinarily good-looking woman also had a first-class history degree from Cambridge, had written two books at under half my age and came with three children, plus a dog named Tolstoy.

It was too much. I swallowed a Solpadeine Plus and moved into an alternate universe, where I was no longer 80 but a frisky 30-year-old. I watched Natalie and her ‘politburo’ team which included author Catherine Ostler: hawk-eyed, overseeing the dinner.

I didn’t envy them the familiar problems — what to do with the nightmarish guest no one wants to talk to or the tipsy person boring everyone to death. I sat happily watching the trio solve problems no longer mine.

NEVER again, I thought. If I were to write a book on hostessing, it would not be handy tips but nightmarish situations to avoid, like the time I was so insecure about the guest mix at one party that I kept inviting more ‘names’, all of whom accepted.

When it was time to eat, the chairs were so jammed together, guests were unable to lift their elbows up. Staffing was always a horror. I started with under-butlers from Buckingham Palace. Big Mistake!

The Queen has so many staff that each person does only one job. And when Princess Diana was our guest, there would be knife- throwing in the kitchen over who was serving her.

But miss the UK? I should say so. I haven’t lived here for 16 years. In that time, friends have died of age or illness and I was not there to even say goodbye, let alone have them pop over for a quiet meal.

The very few I would love to invite again to dinner, like my hero Tom Stoppard, have had all the dinner parties they’d want. Last time he came to our house, a New York Fifth Avenue socialite of much money and few brains confused Tom with fellow playwright David Hare, and lectured him on his plays’ faults. ‘I was unable to convince her,’ Tom wrote in a thank-you letter.

I miss friends of shared interests. I miss the tidiness of minds and even some especially tidy appearances, like the Commons leader Jacob Rees-Mogg, who took us to dine in Claridge’s and introduced me to what has now become a cliché, ‘the supply chain problem’. I didn’t understand a word.

I miss London, which isn’t stuffed with bien pensants, as is Canada. I miss the abundance of music, opera and theatre.

I miss black cab drivers who know where they are going and who one after another gave me tutorials on why there weren’t enough cabs to go around any more. Which was no comfort when, after yet another dinner, we were left standing in the rain with none to be found.

Fortunately, like the flying car in Harry Potter came the indefatigable Barry Humphries. He and wife Lizzie Spender drove us home.

Humphries is not only an innovative performer and hilarious comedian, but a highly erudite book collector. He gave my husband a copy of his self-published book Poems I Like, dedicated ‘To myself without whom this beautiful book might not have been printed’. I cry over poetry. His selection is exquisite.

The British sometimes forget how lucky they are to be living in a country with such life and vitality, such architectural and natural beauty.

Moan about Brexit, about Boris, but any country that has 90,000 volunteer ‘Hedgehog Helpers’ and can run the gamut of characters from Rees-Mogg and Natalie Livingstone to Barry Humphries is doing something right. I can’t wait to come back.

Source: Read Full Article