Death, loss and nudist nightclubs
MEMOIR: Vanished Years By Rupert Everett, Little Brown, 326pp. £20
IF YOU WERE to ask book lovers what they thought the literary world really needed right now, it’s highly unlikely that the answer would be “more celebrity memoirs”. Over the past decade or so, it has seemed as though everyone who has appeared on television more than twice has been snapped up by a publishing house and given a vast advance to write the stories of their lives – even if their lives haven’t been particularly long. At the ripe old age of 18 the teen idol Justin Bieber has already written one autobiography, and Katie Price, born in 1978, has already written four. And by written I mean that they seem to have done a few interviews with a ghostwriter who then turned the results into vaguely coherent prose.
But every so often that rare thing comes along: an actor, singer or television star who really can write. Rupert Everett, as his first memoir, Red Carpets and Other Banana Skins, proved, falls firmly into that camp. Like David Niven, another debonair English actor who also just happened to write with great wit and elegance, he has followed his first, more straightforward memoir with a collection of autobiographical vignettes – and, as with Niven before him, the results are irresistible.
Red Carpets documented his journey towards international stardom, seemingly achieved thanks to his scene-stealing turn in My Best Friend’s Wedding. In Vanished Years the Hollywood glory has failed to materialise, partly because of his starring role opposite his then friend Madonna in The Next Best Thing, the film that, he says, tore his career to shreds.
The book’s narrative, such as it is, jumps backwards and forwards in time, from his schooldays at Ampleforth to his first meeting with the renowned fashion stylist Isabella Blow, his disastrous attempts to make a sitcom pilot and his even more disastrous appearance in Comic Relief Does the Apprentice, in 2007. Disasters, both great and small, feature prominently in this book.
For someone who, over the years, has shown himself to be more than a little vain, Everett writes about himself with disarming honesty, whether he’s talking about his backstage histrionics when appearing with Angela Lansbury in a Broadway production of Blithe Spirit (“Save your acting for the show,” is the response of his charismatic dresser Mr Geoffrey), his experiences in a nudist Berlin nightclub where all his clothes go missing (“I am trying to remain calm but there’s very little point. I have already lost all dignity”) or his experiences on Comic Relief Does the Apprentice (“I swallowed hard and raised my eyebrows. Luckily I could that month”).
He is particularly good – and self-aware – when writing about his missed chances at stardom. He writes about a party thrown to celebrate the launch of Tina Brown’s short-lived Talk magazine in 1999, which he attended on the arm of Madonna, who had recently injured her leg (“Madonna is putting on a brave face but I can tell she is frustrated by her crutches. She needs to be able to swoop into downward dog at any given moment, or at least to be a crab, and feels severely compromised if she can’t”).
Guests at this glamorous event include everyone from Henry Kissinger (“Omygod, I think, this is the man who dragged Cambodia into the Vietnam War, but of course I say nothing”) to Kate Moss, and afterwards Everett finds himself invited by Brown to travel on a private jet to a party at the British embassy in Washington DC. There he is struck by what seems like a brilliant idea. “In a blinding flash I see dollars and the future. I must make a sitcom about the British Embassy and play a charming British diplomat, installing myself forever in the minds of America as Mr Ambassador.”
But it’s all downhill from there. The sitcom’s producers aren’t keen on his ideas (he cheerfully admits to planning to rip off Nancy Mitford’s delicious Don’t Tell Alfred, in which the last ambassador’s wife refuses to leave the embassy) and gradually the show he dreamed of is transformed beyond recognition. He even resorts to magic, courtesy of a group of eccentric old women who claim to be good witches, but their vividly described ritual can’t stop Mr Ambassador crashing and burning, and with it Everett’s dream of American fame.
Although Everett is very funny when writing about his own foibles (his adventures on Comic Relief Does the Apprentice are particularly hilarious), he’s both surprisingly tender and bracingly unsentimental when writing about other people. The book includes moving and harrowing accounts of trips he made to Cambodia and Russia during his period as a celebrity ambassador for various charitable funds. (After that, he says, he was no longer famous enough for the job.)
The chapters devoted to the late Isabella Blow manage to be both funny and heartbreaking at the same time, particularly when he visits her in a psychiatric hospital after one of her many suicide attempts. And then there’s his elderly father, whom he accompanies on a trip to Lourdes, where Rupert is beguiled by the spiritual atmosphere while also arguing with a Jesuit friend about the church’s position on homosexuality.
In many ways, behind all the outrageous antics, Vanished Years is a book about death and loss: the loss of friends, of lovers, of family, of fame, of promises. The title comes from Noël Coward’s last poem – “When I have fears, as Keats had fears / Of the moment I’ll cease to be / I console myself with vanished years / Remembered laughter, remembered tears / And the peace of the changing sea.”
Rupert Everett has turned his own vanished years into a hugely entertaining and affecting book.
Anna Carey’s first book, The Real Rebecca, won the Senior Children’s Book of the Year prize at the 2011 Irish Book Awards. Her new novel, Rebecca’s Rules, is published by the O’Brien Press