The Glossy Years: Magazines, Museums and Selective Memoirs by Nicholas Coleridge - review by Richard Davenport-Hines

Richard Davenport-Hines

Shoulders Have I Rubbed

The Glossy Years: Magazines, Museums and Selective Memoirs


Fig Tree 362pp £25

Nicholas Coleridge was given sound advice as an eighteen-year-old intern at a Cornish newspaper called the Falmouth Packet. ‘Mention as many names as possible in your copy,’ the editor told him. When covering a school sports day, ‘don’t come back with fewer than a hundred names – kids, parents, teachers, all of them.’ When filing a story on Port Pendennis marina, ‘mention every boat – dinghies, yachts, tubs. Remember, every name printed is a sold copy.’ Coleridge hardly needed this reminder. Only a year or so earlier, when still a pupil at Eton, he had co-founded a contemporary arts society with the motto Lumines Nomine Noscere – ‘To get to know the stars by their Christian names’. Brian Eno, Angie Bowie and Elton John were among its first guests.

The names never stop dropping in The Glossy Years. From Roman Abramovich to Catherine Zeta-Jones, from Adrenalin Village and Babington House to Wilton’s and the Wolseley, every tub is mentioned. He gives the guest list of a party thrown in Claridge’s ballroom to mark the tenth anniversary of his appointment as managing director of Condé Nast in Britain: ‘Maurice Saatchi, Tony Snowdon, Terence Conran, Martin Sorrell, Joan Collins and Vivienne Westwood, Mario Testino and John Galliano, Isabella Blow, John Morgan, Nigella Lawson, Nicky Haslam…’ All his PAs during his thirty years at Condé Nast get name-checked, and so does a butler called Vipers.

Coleridge was born in 1957. He gives a loving, grateful, heart-warming account of his parents and of a grandfather who’d lost a leg in the First World War, who took him to the Wallace Collection to admire the Sèvres porcelain. At Eton he was in the same house as Craig Brown. They lived on Nutella, cereal drowned in chocolate Nesquik and brown cows (a pint of Coca-Cola with two scoops of Wall’s vanilla ice cream bobbing in it). Then he read theology and history of art at Cambridge, where he formed friendships that he has cherished for forty years.

After being given his first magazine job by the newly appointed editor of Tatler, Tina Brown, in 1979 he rose inexorably in the glossy magazine world. Ultimately he became president of Condé Nast International, publishing over a hundred magazines, including Tatler, Vogue, Vanity Fair, House & Garden, GQ, Wired and World of Interiors. He chaired Fashion Rocks, a couture and music extravaganza that raised millions for the Prince’s Trust, and is now chair of the Victoria and Albert Museum. In his holidays he writes bestselling novels. The strenuous work involved, which would break most people, is described with the gleeful vim that Coleridge brings to everything in life.

People tell him wonderful things. A young woman whom he meets for a breakfast meeting confides, ‘I find I can’t come properly unless I’m tied up in Lycra rope.’ Margaret Thatcher describes her encounter with an old woman buying a National Lottery ticket in a newsagent. ‘I approached her at once,’ said Thatcher, ‘and urged her not to waste her precious coin. I said, “Don’t waste it, dear, you should invest that pound instead. Invest it in the future of British manufacturing and industry. Watch your savings grow, dear.”’ Wagging her finger at Coleridge and a Greek shipping millionaire, she admonished, ‘I hope neither of you will ever contemplate buying a lottery ticket? It’s not a game, it’s a racket!’

He is never aggrieved or spiteful, though he is mordant about Mohamed Al-Fayed and his entourage, grimaces when mentioning Philip Green and is rather a tease about Conrad Black. His technique for showing up idiots is to quote them. The Department of Trade and Industry had the fatuous idea of making Prince Andrew an ambassador for English couture. As they were being driven at high speed to an event in Hoxton, Coleridge asked the prince about the makeover of Royal Lodge at Windsor, which the prince had recently inherited from the Queen Mother. ‘There’s a devil of a lot to do,’ replied Andrew. ‘I’m stripping out the old rose garden and replacing it with a pitch and putt golf course.’ At a lunch in the Vogue boardroom for the prince to meet the doyennes of London fashion editors, the prince exerted his charm to break the ice. ‘If you were steering an 8,000-ton Daring-class destroyer into harbour, how far in advance of reaching port would you shut down the engine? Now, come on ladies, don’t be shy, I want you all to guess.’ When Alexandra Shulman, editor of Vogue, ventured a brave conjecture, he roared with derisive laughter. ‘Come on, who’s next? … Anyone else, ladies?’

Prudes will claim that The Glossy Years is silly, snobbish and futile. They will be quite wrong. The book has bounding vitality, glorious zest and an uplifting generosity of spirit. It is always playful, sometimes hilarious – but above all it is wise. Like all sensible Englishmen of his class, Coleridge has kept his life compartmentalised. He never brought celebrities home or tried to mix them with his true friends. Somehow a calm, old-fashioned integrity kept him distant from squalid behaviour. Coleridge resembles Rudolf Rassendyll keeping caste in the defiles of the Balkans.

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