Book Review: Nicholas Coleridge’s Glossy Years

Nicholas Coleridge’s memoir is a rather bracing read: amidst all the gossip and glamour of his life as a magazine supremo, he refers to being molested by a schoolteacher as a young boy, having to identify the body of a colleague who has just died and his father’s Alzheimer’s. This gives the book a rounded sense that it is not a superficial skim through parties and escapades (such as the time he followed the woman who would become his wife, whom he had met once, to India so he could “accidentally” bump into her) that one might expect from the former chairman of Condé Nast. The stories are staggering nonetheless: he gives a funny account of the £100m lawsuit Mohamed Al-Fayed, the then owner of Harrods, brought against Vanity Fair which Coleridge eventually settles with Al-Fayed’s PR man in a steam room (chosen as there was no chance of either of them wearing a wire there). He recounts how the Fashion Director Isabella Blow once took a black cab from London to Liverpool on expenses, claiming not to realise that there was a train station in Liverpool. At lunch with Diana, Princess of Wales (her suit “has something of the Aeroflot air stewardess about it”), she asks him earnestly if he thinks her breasts are too small before posing for the paparazzi she has tipped off (unbeknownst to him) on the way out.

He is game enough to admit how lucky he has been: Tina Brown gives him a job at Tatler on the strength of him coming up with the punning headline Saturday Night Belvoir (pronounced ‘Beaver’) for a set of pictures from a party at Belvoir Castle. His is a very privileged world indeed – from his friend Colin Tennant who, aged five, announces that his father owns an island (Mustique) to the university friend who doesn’t recognise a picture of his own home used in a History of Art exam at Cambridge. (Coleridge actually entered Cambridge reading Theology, as the journalist Charles Moore advised him anyone could get in that way but the only other theologian on his course was Justin Welby, now Archbishop of Canterbury, so Coleridge switched to History of Art.) Coleridge never tries to play down his gilded start in life which is one of the strengths of the book. It is a relentlessly positive romp, fully displaying how Coleridge’s immense confidence and guile have made him so successful. At 23 years old, he is given an Evening Standard column but has nothing to write about with his deadline fast approaching: he hits upon the wheeze of attending Prince Andrew’s 21st birthday ball at Windsor Castle but in the guise of a chauffeur so that he can sneak into the simultaneous party for the guests’ drivers and tempt them into gossiping about their employers.

He is not above mocking himself – he recounts how a date once climbed out of a toilet window rather than endure a whole dinner with him. Most memorably and self-deprecatingly, he admits that he was only released from a Sri Lankan jail (after trying his hand at war reporting) when his mother read about his incarceration whilst at the hairdresser’s in Walton Street.

Although he gives away some tips – when editing copy, he recommends the word “that” can almost always be dispensed with, this is a book light on analysis. One wishes he had revealed a little more about the graft behind the scenes but this is, above all, a book of well-turned out anecdotes not to be pondered but to be wolfed down agreeably instead.

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— Alex Peake-Tomkinson
5th February 2020