Barbara Amiel: My memoir has cost me my best friends

26 September 2020

9:00 AM

26 September 2020

9:00 AM

The only female writers of importance I have personally met are Margaret Atwood and Joan Didion, both of whom are rather short. That, I realise, is an advantage of sorts. You have less height to lose. Didion is 5ft 1in according to her Wiki entry, and Atwood, a tiny powerhouse, is listed optimistically as 5ft 4in, but that I think is like the Hollywood actors who I know are several inches shorter than listed heights, having stood breathlessly when Robert Redford walked passed me outside Bloomingdale’s in New York City. I mention this because after completing my third book, the first two written over 40 years ago when I was almost 5ft 8in, I am now 5ft 6in. I have lost an inch and a half since going into a three-year lockdown hunched at my desk. Of course, women do tend to settle when passing a certain point in life, but male writers by and large are so much taller. I’m not a militant feminist but, as the American left says, I feel like ‘peacefully protesting’.

Having written this book of memoirs, I will deck out in leper’s clothes with a warning bell when I return to London. My Best Friends are social distancing themselves in apparent revulsion or contempt after reading excerpts in the Daily Mail. This is very sad. I have accurately described a difficult situation with a now deceased and brilliant man we all admired and loved but who placed me in an unenviable situation. I believe today aspects of his behaviour would almost be called sexual harassment, were I a player of that particular game, but as I’m prone to reasonable disclosure in these matters and think in a memoir one should explain the bad as well as the good, I’m a goner. Losing best friends at this point in life is awful but I will simply hope they come around when they actually read the book. If they do.

Occasionally I did think about retribution for the troubles some Enemies, particularly judges and lawyers, caused us. Conrad once mentioned encountering a Colonel Moore Cosgrove in the summer of ’71 at the Knowlton, Quebec post office. ‘I’ve a book for you,’ the postmaster said, handing Cosgrove the memoirs of General Joseph Stilwell. Cosgrove had been Canadian representative on the Missouri when General MacArthur accepted the Japanese surrender to the Allies, and Stilwell, who he met, had represented Burma. ‘My weekend reading,’ he told Conrad animatedly, hoping — I expect — for a mention. ‘Vinegar Joe’ lived up to his moniker by acidulously describing Moore as a Canadian ‘elderly masher of the gigolo type’. Cosgrove died that weekend. Sadly, I don’t think my memoirs will have a similar effect.

There is no way to fully convey the god-awful over-the-top Canadian response to Covid. No one I know has actually seen a case except my sister whose grandchild was found to have it after going to hospital for measles. She was asymptomatic and in spite of being shut up in a holiday cottage for days, none of the adults about her were infected. Our politicians and bureaucrats love an emergency, always feel that they should outdo neighbouring USA and never shirk an opportunity to grab more power, especially when the rules they enforce on others have few consequences for their salaried, pensioned selves. When authorities gleefully yellow-taped the small area around a pond down the road where my Kuvasz and I watch Canada geese honking away, it was really the last straw. I put on my favourite cap with the logo ‘I Will Not Comply’ below the outline of a KAC SR-15 and let Arpad rip the tape. I am so old with so many underlying conditions that should I actually get Covid-19, the cull of elderly persons who are a state burden will be helped.

In my youth, I occasionally made an extra dollar by giving talks to Canadian businessmen on how to improve their PR. I told them never ever speak to a journalist unless they had something to sell. I broke that rule when some decades later I gave an interview to Vogue magazine’s Julia Reed, who sadly died a few weeks ago. My memorable line ‘My extravagance knows no bounds’, uttered in self-deprecation but reproduced as a boast, should have taught me to zip up. Now I have a book to sell, and the trouble is that these days the female interviewers are so very nice. Having been deprived of companionship during writing followed by Covid, it’s so pleasant for me to talk to them, and only after I turn the bloody Zoom off do I realise that I’ve done it again and in a moment of warm intimacy given them some ghastly chat on necrophilia (one of the few sexual practices I have not engaged in) that will do me in.

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Barbara Amiel’s memoir, Friends and Enemies, is out on 13 October.

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