Barbara Amiel is vulgar, greedy, ruthless, cruel, and thrillingly unself-aware, but after devouring every line of her frighteningly, hilariously, gob-smackingly honest book, I’ve got to admit, I like her. We all know the sorry histoire of two pushy status-frenzied parvenus: she was a beautiful right-wing columnist, he was the Chairman of Hollinger (which owned the Telegraph); both had a penchant for obsessive compulsive – demented! social climbing, came to Britain, and spent ten manic years dressing up and giving ostentatious parties for the great and the bad. They had houses and private jets everywhere, were friends with everyone, and then suddenly it turned out – dear God! – Conrad had been cooking the books.
We Brits like to give anyone getting above their station a good kicking, but seldom has anyone received the kind of vitriol and wall-to-wall unremitting, eviscerating, negative press coverage the Blacks received. They became social pariahs overnight, blown to smithereens. Amiel describes what they went through as ‘Hades’. ‘What if I had known’, she asks, ‘that my husband’s name would become a synonym for greed and failure, a cautionary tale for little children, and that at sixty-three years of age, after a lifetime of hard work and apparent success, I would lose every job I held, be accused of taking money for work not done, and be ridiculed in the public eye as a contemporary Marie Antoinette – what then?’
Reading this picaresque tale, as Amiel canters her way through British society gathering scalps and enemies, name-dropping and score-settling as she examines ‘the brutal momentum of downfall’, I can see why she may not be everyone’s glass of Petrus, but two things save her. She had a terrible childhood. Her father, whom she adored, committed suicide, her mother kept attempting suicide too. ‘My sister and I had got into a reasonably synchronized routine after a bout of her sobbing, and when the bathroom door was locked for too long we could push it open with one sharp shove and get her to the local hospital for a quick stomach pump’.At 14, Amiel was told by her stepfather it would be easier for her mother if she left home. Amiel, determined to stay in education, got used to sleeping in cellars and got a job in a canning factory in outdoor sheds. Her hard work paid off. In 1983 she became the first female editor of a Canadian newspaper The Toronto Star. She married three times, moved to London, became a well-known columnist and married Black.
Also, I don’t think Amiel, even now, understands what her husband did wrong. There’s certainly no suggestion she was involved. Pretty much all of her ‘friends’ were only too happy to run away screaming from both of them. And yet her very public social execution was, arguably, far worse that anything people who have committed far worse crimes have suffered. Fear not, however, she gets them back exquisitely by listing all the names of her friends and enemies – by continent – in the index. Well, she’s nearly 80 now and if this account is anything to go by, she’s lived one helluva life. Brava to Barbara Amiel I say, and whatever you do, read this brilliant book.
Friends and Enemies by Barbara Amiel (Constable, £25)