Magazine article The Spectator

Thanks for the Memories

Magazine article The Spectator

Thanks for the Memories

Article excerpt

Sir Roy Strong's eyes widened; his nostrils twitched; his pen hovered as though the horror of what confronted him had momentarily robbed him of the power to write.

The offending object was the visitors book of Helmsley Arts Centre in North Yorkshire, where he had just given an eloquent talk about his life, and where I happen to be the part-time director. I sensed the problem immediately: every celebrity signatory on the open page had committed the heinous solecism of adding some witticism or phrase of thanks, instead of doing what toffs do, which is simply to sign and add the shortest possible indication of their address. The hard-left punk poet Atilla, for example, had scrawled 'ROCKIN' GIG'. Most troubling of all, the undoubted über-toff John Julius Norwich -- a viscount, no less -- had written '2nd time, gluttons for punishment that you are!' That exclamation mark must have been especially painful: with a sigh of profound regret for the crumbling of another pillar of the social order, the great aesthete, gardener and museum director slowly inscribed his name -- but not, of course, his knightly title -- adding, after a considered pause, 'Herefordshire'. 'Quite right too, ' said a Spectator colleague of the toff persuasion on whom I tested this anecdote. 'We don't want comments. And we don't want postcodes either.' In castles and country houses of the oldfashioned kind from Bodmin to the Black Isle, the visitors book is a goatskin-bound, gold-tooled artefact of almost biblical sanctity. Its plain pages (no naff little grid of boxes for Date, Name, Address, and Comments, like a seaside B&B) record a solemn procession of names and geographical identifiers. If the house happens to be a holiday home -- a shooting lodge or an Alpine chalet -- even the host signs each time he stays, just as the true gentleman, I'm told, will enter himself neatly in the Game Book before retiring to the billiard room to blow his brains out.

No wonder, then, that a scene like an H.M.

Bateman cartoon awaits the ill-tutored guest who dares deface the visitors book (or should that be 'guest book', as the top people's stationer Smythson of Bond Street has it? ) with a saucy limerick or a smiley face. But I think the toffs have got it wrong. No toff myself, I have a sneaking respect for their arcane rituals; on this one, however, I think they're simply missing the fun. It's time they joined the Norwich-Atilla revolution.

In Helmsley, besides the Arts Centre book, I keep one at home which now runs to more than 700 signatures and accompanying remarks -- it came from Harrods, I notice, and the binding is still in good order after 18 years of use. …

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