by Jennie Erdal

Publish and be charmed

October 28, 2009 | by Jennie Erdal

ARRIVING at Tiger’s publishing house [where she was employed as her boss’s ghostwriter] from Fife for the first time was like turning up in someone else’s dream. It seemed a very long way down the rabbit hole. There were no familiar points of reference, no compass bearings. It felt high-voltage and slightly dangerous. The first thing to notice was that there were abnormally high levels of emotion – lots of spirited laughter, shrieking and embracing. The atmosphere seemed to teeter on the edge of hysteria and it was hard to work out the sounds. Were they angry, or were they just loud? None of it made sense to begin with. It did not seem to accord with any place of work, real or imagined. I suppose I had the mistaken idea that only clever serious people worked with books, and that they probably operated in a quiet, meticulous and, well, bookish, manner.

In fact, the building sizzled with youthful vigour, in the shape of stunning, sophisticated young women. They had patrician accents, exceptional poise and uncommonly long legs. Their skin was not pale but healthy and bronzed. And there wasn’t a man in sight. Indeed the mythical Martian, if he had happened to drop in, could not have imagined that women had ever been oppressed, or that their role had once been secondary or passive. Here, in this office, in 1981, women ruled. Yet there were no bluestockings, only silk stockings.

The premises were in a run-down part of Soho and extended in a ramshackle way over two buildings, separated by an Italian restaurant and a hairdresser’s salon. A faint odour, a mixture of garlic and hair lotion, hung in the air. The offices covered four floors, with staircases slightly aslant and walls off-centre. The furnishings were quite shabby and a layer of black London dust rested on the surfaces. Everywhere there were piles of books and high-rise manuscripts. And, curiously, for a publishing house, there were clothes everywhere, suspended in the doorways and draped from light fittings, as if the premises might actually be shared with a dressmaker. Boas and belts hung on the backs of chairs, and on several doors there were coat-hangers bearing evening gowns and stylish camisole jackets. In the loo, I found underwear, tights and nail varnish.

Tiger’s girls, as he called them, were well-born and highly bred. They included a Heathcot-Amery, a Bonham-Carter, a Sackville-West and a Vane-Tempest-Stewart. There was still a lot of class about in those days. A de Chamberet, a Ferdinando and von Stumm added an exotic touch. Nearly everyone, it turned out, was the daughter of an aristocratic or similarly prominent family. “Famous Englishmen write to me about their daughters,” Tiger had told me when we first met. “What else can I do?” he said, “I have to find a job for them.”

Tiger had a conglomerate of companies connected with publishing, fashion, films and theatre. He had been dubbed “a cultural tycoon” by The Times newspaper and he lived up to his dubbing assiduously. The ethos in the empire was not one of profit and loss, but of name and fame. In the latter, so it became clear, he was greatly assisted by these daughters of famous men, for they  were scarcely ever out of the gossip columns and they always knew somebody who knew somebody. Even when they were not at work they were still working – at dinner parties, fashion shoots and hunt balls. Their most important work, as Tiger himself affirmed, was done out of the office hours, for they ensured that news of his latest exploits was trawled through London’s most fashionable hotspots. The smart outfits hanging from the office doors began to make sense.

I was introduced to Cosima, Selina, Lucinda, Davina, Samantha and two Sophias. There seemed to be a conspicuous homogeneity of Christian names. Surely there ought to be a collective noun for this phenomenon, I thought, this concentration of cognates. An assonance perhaps? An artillery? I then met Andrea (a Baroness) and Sabrina (an heiress) and, in due course, Alethea, Rebecca, Nigella, Eliza, Candida, Mariella, Zelfa, Georgia, Henrietta and Arabella. It was a lot to take in, the sort of list I would have been made to learn by rote at school, like books of the Bible or irregular Latin verbs. When walking around London, I sometimes recited the names to myself, trying to fix them in my head, marvelling at the sound patterns they made.

“Do you like my girls?” Tiger asked not long after I had started my new job. He was wearing crocodile skin shoes and odd socks in purple and yellow. “They are amazing, isn’t it?” We were sitting in a much smarter building a few streets away, in his penthouse with the tiger skin on the wall above his head. Without waiting for an answer, he continued, “And here is my most amazing girl!” At this he grabbed hold of Henrietta, his personal assistant, and tugged her hair. “She looks so soft,” he said, “but underneath she’s a tigress. Only I can tame her!” And as if to make the point, he squeezed her tight and smacked her bottom. Henrietta did not seem to mind.

In truth everyone loved to please him, and he loved to be pleased. It was fascinating to watch, and it had the feel of a phenomenon,  something bordering on the fantastic. There was a cult of personality in place, and the worshippers came from all over to demonstrate the strength of their veneration. The air thickened with encomia as they vied for a mark of favour, a preferment for a friend, a sister, a beautiful daughter. When he uttered the simple words, “I will see what I can do,” he gave hope to the worshipful and was hailed as a saviour. It was evidently an honour to pay homage at the imperial court. And it was an empire of sorts – not quite Versailles perhaps, but with rules and routines that were in some respects just as precise, and just as remote from ordinary living.

At the palace there was a retinue of attendants – valets, scribes, equerries, foot messengers, maidservants, not to mention a chamberlain figure, who had the difficult job of balancing the books. Things had to be done in a particular way and at a particular time, and the various ceremonies were attended by the modern equivalent of curtsies and bows. The emperor’s exactitude came over as an amazing thing, a glorification of reverent observance. At the touch of a button, a maid on stiletto heels delivered an apple cut into eight segments and carefully arranged on a silver plate. A different signal summoned a beautiful vision bearing a tiny gold-encrusted cup containing black coffee to which, under her master’s gaze, she added two drops of rose water in the manner of a holy rite.

Life at court was ordered in such a way as to delight the emperor. Mastery of detail was ranked highly, and if ever the detail was mismanaged a heavy price was exacted. Even the minutiae of the court were accorded great importance: the way an envelope was sealed, the positioning of the blotting paper on the leather desk, the hanging of an overcoat in the cloakroom – each task was managed with painstaking care. Everything was codified into a precise system on which the smooth running of the empire depended.

The emperor’s personal grooming was also a matter for the most careful attention. Each morning before arriving at work he went first to the barber and then to the hygienist. In those days I was a bit unsure of what a hygienist might do – it is one of those words that sound so very clean that it might actually be dirty. As far as I knew we didn’t have hygienists in Scotland, but so frequently and cheerfully did Tiger say, “I have just come from my hygienist” that I was fairly certain there could be nothing shameful involved. Eventually I asked one of the girls in pearls, who said matter-of-factly, “Oh, it’s teeth. He goes to get his teeth cleaned.”

The barber was an even more important figure in Tiger’s life, a man of near magical powers. Throughout the eighties Tiger had one of the most spectacular cover-ups in the country. He was not yet ready to accept that he was bald on top – that would take another dozen years or so – and the concealment of this fact must have presented a serious challenge. But the challenge was well met: the hair, crinkly and wiry like a pot-scourer, was persuaded to travel from a line just above his ear to be pomaded into place over the crown. It was a substantial thatch, by no means the few lean strands that are combed over many a male pate. People in ancient times used to believe that good and bad spirits entered the body through the hair on one’s head. But Tiger’s canopy was thick enough to prevent any spiritual traffic, good or bad. In fact it looked as if it could be its own biosphere, capable of supporting diverse organisms. In fresh winds it became separated from its base and hovered independently, like a flying saucer preparing to land. In addition to having his hair fixed every day, Tiger had a shave three times a week. He had complete faith in his barber. “He is wonderful,” he would purr. “I adore him. You know, he heats the shaving cream and wraps my face in a warm towel.” Whenever he spoke of his barber, a beatific smile crept on to his lips. “He looks after me so nicely. I feel soothed by him.” Long ago the barber was regarded as the most important man in the tribe – medicine man and priest rolled into one. Some of this belief lived on in Tiger.

It was with Napoleonic thoroughness that Tiger controlled every aspect of the day-to-day running of his empire. He maintained absolute authority in a number of ways: by keeping the court guessing about his next move, by never showing his hand completely to anyone, and by possessing a medieval savoir-faire. There were at least two Tigers: one was the exotic, flamboyant, quixotic, lovable character, defined by his generosity, compassion and energy; the other was a vainglorious dictator. The latter was generally in the shadow of the former, but both versions were real.

His natural inclination was towards lavish extravagance, and he encouraged immoderation in others. “How much will it cost?” he often asked when a member of staff went to see him about something, usually to do with publicity or marketing. “Two thousand pounds! It that all? Then do it darling! What are you waiting for?” But every so often there would be a crack-down, and he would rail against expenses claims, overuse of the telephone, fringe benefits and sundry perks. “What! Take an author to Bertorelli’s? You must be mad! Where am I supposed to get the money to pay for these bloody authors and their lunches?” Storms broke and storms blew over, always leaving a little wreckage behind, but nothing so devastating as to bring about any radical change.

Whenever Tiger became agitated about something it was noticeable that everyone competed to placate him. If children have tantrums, parents are generally advised to keep calm and ignore them. But Tiger’s tantrums were both heeded and indulged; girls hosed him down with one gush after another as they rushed to pick up his toys and put them back in the pram. They swished their hair back and forth like curtains and drenched him with love till he calmed down. He wallowed in all this. Indeed there seemed to be a degree of self-awareness about the tantrums. “I got hysterical,” he would often say when recalling some incident that had upset him, his voice rising an octave or two in the recollection. And to a sober bystander his behaviour did come over as a kind of hysteria, the sort that in days gone by would have earned a woman a slap in the face and a threat to remove her womb.

In Tiger’s publishing house there were many passions. People often seemed to be in a bad mood, or at least pretended to be – I was never entirely sure about what was real and what was affected. What confused me was the amount of embracing that coexisted with the girls’ rages – a fascinating sequence  of aggressing and caressing. There was also a degree of unsisterly cruelty as they jostled for position and tried to curry favour with Tiger. I say ‘they’, for it was clear that I did not belong to this world. I was looked upon, with some justification, as one of Tiger’s whims: I lived in Scotland after all, and turned up only for editorial meetings, staying for just a few days at any one time. Even then it was clear that I was just passing through this foreign land – I was in it, but not of it. Besides, I didn’t know anyone. Not even anyone who knew anyone.

It was a strange place for me to dip into and out of, and its sheer otherness never lost its impact. At home in Scotland, there were two small children and a baby, the centre of my universe. But in the London office I never mentioned the fact that I was a mother. I was at pains to fit in, and I sensed that talk about children would not be wise. I therefore pretended to be someone else, someone I was not.

There were two others who didn’t belong, at least not in the social élite, but they were both men and usually worked in a separate building. One occupied the role of chamberlain, treasurer of the household, a trusted aide-de-camp and a magician with figures. He was a cultured man, shy and sensitive, as different in character from Tiger as it was possible to be. The other was a member of the Old Guard who had access at all times to the throne. His distinctive Cockney voice was peppered with glottal stops and aspirated aitches, and he always referred to Tiger as The Chairman. In days of old he would have been the chief courtier. As it was, he served as Tiger’s eyes and ears, his spy-master, and though he behaved as if he were one of the gang, his loyalty to the throne was absolute. If ever anyone complained that Tiger was being unreasonable, he would listen for a while, drawing heavily on a cigarette, and then solemnly recite: “Look ’ere, ’e’s The Chairman and wha’ ’e says goes.”

Tiger prized loyalty above all else. Loyalty meant, among other things, plenty of fawning at the feast and not questioning any policy decision. Some members of staff were inefficient and occasionally unprincipled but, provided they were loyal, their jobs were usually safe. Tiger himself would sometimes say “I know she fiddles her expenses, but she’s very loyal”; or perhaps, “She drives me mad – she’s always talking on the telephone, but on the other hand she’s very loyal.” In fact, he tolerated all manner of wild, anarchic behaviour; indeed he seemed to relish it. Tales of wayward conduct amused him and he would often exclaim, in squeals of delight, “My girls are delinquents! They are hooligans!” Once during a party at an exclusive club on Pall Mall, one of Tiger’s girls, something of a free spirit, was caught urinating in a wash-basin in the gents. Despite a grovelling apology to the club, a lifetime ban was  imposed on the publishing house and its staff. Tiger was mortified, or affected to be. For weeks on end he would say to everyone he met, “CAN – YOU – IMAGINE?” He gave the same stress to all three words and thumped them out in turn on the table. “Peeing in the basin! She’s a complete liability. She will ruin us!” But after a perfunctory rant against her character, he always finished by saying, “But, you know, I love her! She’s so loyal!” Unsurprisingly, it was disloyalty – a potent and protean concept – that was the unforgivable sin.

After a while I discovered that the girls came and went with striking regularity. When I travelled to London to attend monthly meetings, I would find that Cosima had been replaced by Nigella, or Sophia by Candida. There were new arrivals as well as bare survivals. And even occasional revivals, since it was not unknown for a girl to be recalled from the wilderness into which she had been so precipitately cast. Tiger alone had the power to pardon the condemned; no amount of special pleading by anyone else on behalf of the offender had any effect.

In due course Lucinda left to marry an Earl and Sabrina was put in charge of a book club. She claimed never to have read a book – she even confessed this to the press – but it didn’t seem to matter. It was enough that she had been a girlfriend of a member of the royal family. It was clear that Tiger’s appointments policy was full of purpose and intent, and I soon began to notice interesting patterns in the hiring, and also in the firing, a rare but always dramatic occurrence. On these occasions, reason was set aside while emotion did its dirty work. No one understood the specific trigger, but the reaction was extreme. Knives would be sharpened, and over the next day or two the girl in question, often quite oblivious of the offence she was alleged to have committed, would be branded and traduced. Tiger put energy into umbrage; his pique was majestic. And when his pique finally peaked, the most faithful member of the Old Guard would be called upon to do the necessary? Tiger himself was unable to face it.

Every so often he got a gleam in his eye, and we knew he had fallen in love. Again. It was always a coup de foudre followed by a complete infatuation. It had the energy of a natural phenomenon – a typhoon maybe, or a freak storm, Single orchids would sent to the chosen one and French perfume would arrive by special courier. At these times Tiger behaved like a little puppy, rolling over on his back, paws in the air, simpering and slavering, hoping that his tummy might be tickled. Just like the rest of us, this mighty potentate could be made ridiculous by love. The girl so beloved would be designated La Favorita – a recognised position at the imperial court – and a job would usually be found for her in public relations. In the days that followed she would dine in the best restaurants and occupy a box at the Royal Opera House. Previous holders of the position would drop down the pecking order, and for a while there would be furious spitting and pouting. Being La Favorita, however, was generally a short-lived affair. Though the after tremors of it could be felt for some time, Tiger fell in and out of love quickly and decisively.

Now and then I sat at my desk on the top floor of the publishing house and listened to the complex sounds coming from the rest of the building. Telephones rang, kettles boiled, hairdryers wheezed. And some people didn’t just talk, they squawked. They spoke, as it were, in italics, so that perfectly ordinary sentences were brought into prominent relief. Something as simple as “What are you doing?” was invariably “What are you doing? – which gave normal dialogue a theatrical quality. They also spoke in shrill absolutes, so that someone was a total darling or a complete noodle. They would say grotty and golly, they complained of a frightful pong, and they were never just angry, but always absolutely livid. The way they expressed themselves seemed every bit as significant as what they were speaking about; in some strange sense it was indistinguishable from it.

Of course, a lot of time was spent on the telephone, which was used just as much for making social arrangements as for conducting business. The collective sounds of Tiger’s girls on the phone to their friends were not so very different from the whooping at a children’s party. It seemed that if you were out of the top drawer you did a lot of shrieking. At closer range it was impossible to make out the words, the discussion of menus and venues, of the night before and the night to come. And always of what was worn and what to wear. But the language was alien, brimming with chumminess, and there seemed to be no way in for those not born to it. You can come to imitate the way someone speaks, but you cannot take the substance as your own. Theirs wasn’t a private language exactly, more a system of communication that naturally excluded. The vowels were particularly distinctive, springing from a place way down the larynx and travelling up fine swan-like necks before emerging in beautifully modulated tone patterns. The Scots have short, stunted vowels, cut off in their prime, strangled humanely before they get too long and above themselves. They sprout from pinched throats and squat necks. Of course, this is to speak generally, for there are longer shorts in Kirkwall, say, than in Kirkcaldy. Even so, vowels can never be underestimated – they are basic in forming, and sometimes impeding, social contracts. Mercifully, human beings need very little to be able to understand each other’s way of speaking – just a few sounds strung together are usually enough to get the gist. But there is so much to distinguish one kind of speech from another, to separate us one from the other. There’s nothing quite like language for coming between us.

From this Issue

The Skating Minister

by Duncan Thomson

Daring to be adult

by Lindsey Fraser

Letter from elsewhere

by Alasdair Reid

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