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I’ve written fourteen comedies, almost all Sunday Times top ten bestsellers in both hardback and paperback. They range in topic from the crazy world of art (Gallery Girl) to life in a Scottish castle (Bad Heir Day) to competitive parenting (The Wives of Bath). I love and am proud of them all, but have a particularly soft spot for Filthy Rich and Simply Divine. The latter launched my novel-writing career and came about as the result of a very special collaboration. You can read the full story below in A Divine Start, below the picture frames (hover on each one to read more).

A Divine Start

At the time, it didn’t seem life-changing. Being summoned to the editor’s office at the Sunday Times was, all the same, a nerve-wracking experience. Had I done something wrong?

No, I was getting a new columnist. I was deputy editor of the Style section at the time, and in charge of the first-page column slot. We’d tried out various people, all short-term celebrities who, to quote Dickens, were ‘up with the rocket and down with the stick’.

The new writer, Tara Palmer-Tomkinson, who I had seen in gossip columns kissing (the then) Prince Charles on ski slopes, looked less likely than most to hold the reader’s interest, week after week. Little did I suspect what was coming.

The original idea, that Tara would pen her own account of her fabulous partygoing life, soon hit the buffers. While she could write perfectly well, she had a relaxed view of deadlines. We settled on a plan of me ‘talking it out of her’ and writing the results up. This sounds easier than it was. Tracking Tara down was a weekly challenge worthy of M15. I would invoke the help of her mother, her sister and her agent, stopping just short of Interpol, before Tara herself would call (once from a car wash) and announce that she was ready to ‘do the column’.

Like Daisy Buchanan’s in the Great Gatsby, Tara’s voice was full of money. But then, so was her life. At our first meeting she told me how her boyfriend, landing their helicopter in her parents’ garden, had blown all the petals off her mother’s herbaceous borders. “Mummy was furious,” Tara recounted between bites of toast. “So from now on it has to be landed in the orchard.”

I quickly realised that I was dealing with comic gold. And there was much more to come. When flying, Tara’s maxim was that “in Economy you make Enemies, in Club you make Comrades and in First you make Friends”. She warned me that champagne made your breath smell. Her suspicion of canapés – ‘the ones that get dropped on the floor are put back on the trays’ – means it’s been years since I’ve been able to look miniature fish and chips in the eye. I also became expert on Tara-speak, the acronymic argot of the uber-Sloane: eg OPM (Other People’s Money), PJ (private jet), NSIT (Not Safe In Taxis) and QNI (Quiet Night In) – a rare occurrence in those heady days. Tara, by her own admission, barely slept for twenty years.

Well aware of how funny this all sounded, she played up to it. She had a strong self-deprecating streak, happy to let me refer, in one column, to ‘the reader who wrote recently to say that me wearing La Perla underwear was the equivalent of putting Pirelli tyres on a Vauxhall Cavalier.’ This ability to laugh at herself, along with a sequence of unsuccessful romances, was the secret of the column’s success. As big-haired Euro-hunks in gleaming Gucci loafers drifted in and out of her life the theme of her eternal quest for a man became the perfect foil to the enormous envy that Tara’s stratospherically glamorous existence would otherwise provoke in the reader.

And cripes, was it glamorous. Never before or since have I met anyone who had quite such a good time, all the time. Tara’s life, as chronicled through the column, was a succession of supermodel-stuffed parties, fashion show front rows, dinners, premieres and luxury launches. She took PJs like other people take buses, never leaving home without her passport in case lunch in Windsor ended up in Italy (one billionaire host decided English coffee wasn’t up to snuff and flew everyone to Venice). In London she would party with Elton John, Michael Caine and Princess Caroline of Monaco. In LA it would be Richard Gere and Tom Cruise.

I asked her one day whether the glam and glitter ever got boring. Was I joking? “If rich people can be dull, poor people can be duller,” Tara quipped, but both she and I knew she didn’t really mean it. Beneath the glittery party princess was a wellies-and-Labradors girl who loved country walks and log fires.

‘Tara Palmer-Tomkinson’s Social Diary’ became amazingly famous with amazing speed. At the height of her fame she was written about in the Wall Street Journal (‘you’ll be able to buy shares in me soon,’ she joked). Everyone read it, and in some unexpected places. The Royal Scots Dragoons in Bosnia plastered their mess with a collage of the articles. A Captain Allison wrote to say Tara brightened up the Balkans for his bomb-disposal unit. She was something of a Forces Sweetheart.

People were desperate to be in the column. “Please mention us,” begged Lord Frederick Windsor and friends when Tara ran into them at a burger bar. Tara duly mentioned them, as well as every shop, restaurant, club and brand of make-up or car with which she came into contact. The column had more plugs than B&Q but Tara’s breezy freeloading was all part of the fun. And fun was the word, looking back on them now I am struck by how jolly and innocent they are. Nothing sleazy or sordid, no hint of what was to come, just Tara rushing from party to premiere like a friendly, designer-clad dog. She completely got it that the whole point was to entertain, and that the column should be as funny as possible.

Being the writer behind all this was an amazing experience. For one day each week I lived Tara’s life by proxy. I too was a jetsetting socialite with (the then) Prince Charles on speed-dial and parents with a butler. For the author I wanted to be, there was no better training. Every week, in the pages of a prestigious, huge-circulation newspaper, I was writing a serial novel. One, moreover, that had become an instant hit.

If I mentioned my role though, people thought I was a fantasist. While ghost-writing was hardly a new idea, everyone was absolutely convinced that Tara wrote every word. Possibly this is a reflection of how close the column was to her actual personality, and the extent to which she had instantly, effortlessly – and, it seems, eternally - embedded herself in the national consciousness. Her blue-blooded bonkersness had something very British about it.

That she was stunning hardly harmed things either; super-glamorous with glossy hair, a year-round tan and a fabulous figure which never gained an ounce despite the horse-like amounts of food she put away. Her favourite lunch was chicken, mash and gravy which she ate so often that the King’s Road restaurant she patronised christened it ‘Chicken Tara’. No Pot Noodles at home for Miss P-T.

Her famous drug problems came to light only after I had left her service, but they certainly explained a few things. And there were signs, even then, that her life was not as much fun as it seemed. As well as ‘lovers’, the column chronicled a revolving door of fair-weather friends. At one of her parties I found her in a corner saying she didn’t have the foggiest who most of the people there were.

When I finally hung up the TPT Louboutins and left Style to become deputy editor of Tatler it was with the germ of a novel inspired by our relationship. Simply Divine had as its main character a column-writing celebrity socialite whose column is actually written by someone else. It was spookily prescient – the socialite, called Champagne D’Vyne, makes an idiot of herself on a chat show and eventually seeks help for her chronic drug problems. Tara had done neither of these things at the time but my inner Nostradamus was obviously on to something. I was nervous that Tara might take umbrage at her portrayal, but with typical generosity she was behind me all the way. She turned up to my launch party in a ski hat and gave me a quote for the book cover: “I’m Absolutely Furious but secretly very flattered”.

People interviewing me during my various book launches never fail to mention the Tara column. It still fascinates people, after all these years. It was clearly something special, although at the time it just seemed like fun.

Tara was special too. She was such a witty, clever and kind-hearted person and there was so much more to her than people imagined. That her once-glittering life ended in such a sad way has the quality of epic tragedy. She certainly won’t be forgotten. She captured the public imagination and enlivened the public stage with her own crazy blend of posh glamour. There were other It Girls around, but Tara easily led the field. She had something none of the others had – personality. In spades. And no-one else looked quite so good in tight white trousers.

All the same, when I first met her, I didn’t think it was a defining moment. But it was, and for Tara too. The success of the column put us both on our way, and for that I will always be grateful.