The new AbFab movie brings it all back! was deputy editor at Tatler in the late 1990s, under an editor called Jane Procter who had a rather fearsome reputation. Being her number two was a bit like being one of the six wives of Henry VIII. You knew your number would be up sooner or later. But hopefully the fun and glamour would make it all worthwhile.
I joined the magazine from The Sunday Times, which had a few big characters of its own. And so I was fairly relaxed about what might await me. All the same, the Tatler office did not disappoint. Sorry Patsy and Edina, but it made Absolutely Fabulous look positively pedestrian. Where else but Tatler would people greet the prospect of winter with ‘Darlings! Only three more weeks until fun fur!”
Planet Tatler, at that time anyway, was camped in a different solar system to the rest of us. Take the travel editor. She was passionately fond of her dogs (pugs, as I recall). Once, when one of them fell ill, the entire office had to write it a get-well card as it reclined in its private clinic on its own water bed under the care of its own nurse. The social editor, meanwhile, once revealed to me that the secret of her legendary beauty was never taking her bra off. ‘Apart from on gala occasions.’
One could be forgiven for thinking that Tatler staff were hired on the strength of their address books. There were plenty of aristocrats about the place. My assistant’s family home was a famous stately pile complete with butler and ancestral carriage with nodding plumes. She wasn’t the sort of person you felt you could send out for coffee.
No-one was, really. Another person on my desk once rang in to say she’d be late because she’d missed the train. At least that was what I thought she’d said. In fact she’d missed the plane – from Nice. Yet another couldn’t come in because she was trying out lots of different shades of white paint on the wall of her flat. Like a less racy version of E L James, I suppose. And every evening, outside the gleaming revolving doors of the Conde Nast building in ritzy Hanover Square, young men in revving sports cars were waiting to spirit these Tatler girls away.
Despite being not the least bit posh myself, I got on with everyone pretty well, especially Jane. She was a very clever editor who more than anyone dragged the magazine into the modern age. She had strong, original ideas which were always a bit counter-intuitive. As I joined the magazine Princess Diana had just died and Jane’s idea of a tribute was to put together a piece on Di’s famous sense of humour (as I remember, it involved ringing up lots of gym instructors).
Jane it was who relaunched the It Girl phenomenon and made Tara Palmer-Tomkinson famous (yes I know. But we were never in Large Hadron Collider territory at Tatler). She gave Victoria Beckham her first magazine cover. She encouraged the rest of us to think outside the jewellery box too and I remember rather desperately trying to persuade a bunch of peers to take part in an ‘Earls In Pearls’ feature. They didn’t buy it, unfortunately.
One day Jane called me into her office and asked me if I knew the difference between upper and lower class legs. Confessing my ignorance, I was instructed that upper class legs are thin and have a kneebone equidistant between the hipbone and anklebone. Lower class legs, by contrast, were thick with a long thigh and short calf. It’s a Tatler lesson that has stayed with me ever since, along with the folly of wearing flowing silk outfits to parties on Cap Ferrat in summer (much too hot).
Other gems I managed to pick up included that champagne made your breath smell and to avoid canapés at parties as the ones that fall on the floor get put back on the trays. I can’t remember who told me, apropos of air travel, that in Economy you make Enemies, in Club you make Comrades and in First you make Friends, but I’m pretty sure it was someone at Tatler.
Tatler was a positive cornucopia of freebies. If the loos themselves were often occupied by weeping staffers (skins were very thin), the basins in those loos were permanently crammed with bouquets sent to the fashion girls. And all manner of the usual glossy-mag largesse rained down on the other departments, plus a barbecued turkey that one restaurant sent every Christmas.
It mostly passed me by. Despite being deputy ed, the only freebie I ever got sent personally was a small plastic-handled knife which was part of a Eat British Apples promotion. Oh, and a bouquet that someone else didn’t want. For good reasons: about six feet tall, it was made up of thick-stemmed exotic blooms lashed around with kerosene-scented rope. Getting it home on the 73 bus was quite the challenge.
Tatler was a brilliant place to work if you had a sense of the absurd, partly because so few of the other staff members had. Or, if they did, they kept it under wraps. No-one ever giggled in the occasional meetings of the Associate Editors; a bunch of society dames whose mission, should they choose to accept it, was to boldly go and find what was hip and happening among upmarket types. We had perfectly serious discussions about the merits of jewel-festooned ketchup-bottle holders.
There was also the compiling of the annual ‘Little Black Book’, a gazetteer of the young, rich and single in which talents like eating Fruit And Nut bars with a knife and fork or singing Happy Birthday in Chinese were given their due weight. It was hard to put it together without laughing and I’m glad to see, from the latest Tatler, that those standards are being more than maintained.
But all good things must come to an end and eventually I moved on to pastures new. I’d written my first novel by then, Simply Divine, whose heroine works on an upmarket glossy magazine not a million miles, I suppose, from Tatler. It was a huge and instant hit and launched my career as an author. It was even optioned by Warner Bros. The film never got made but the options re-roofed my cottage in Derbyshire. It remains the only building in the village to owe Hollywood for protection from the elements.
I’m now planning a whole new series of glossy-based novels; the first, Laura Lake And The Hipster Weddings, about a hapless magazine journalist, comes out next year. Glossydom has remained my inspiration; I have nothing but gratitude for and fond memories of these amazing institutions where I was for a time privileged to work (although, admittedly, not quite so privileged as my assistant). It really was absolutely fabulous.
P S My latest novel, a delicious rural rom-com called Honeymoon Suite, is out this October, published by Review. I’m really thrilled with it and I hope you will be too. Details to follow!
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JUDGING THE COSTA NOVEL PRIZE
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Zeb Spaw Exhibition
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My Perfect Weekend
From visits to stately homes to my husband's Sunday roast, read all about my perfect weekend, in The Telegraph.