Like poison , the revenge memoir is a weapon of the weak. A person unlikely to prevail in an open fight will naturally resort to indirect methods. This is often the case for women, whose sex and apparent insignificance has rendered them invisible. During the Second World War it was felt necessary to run a propaganda campaign warning men that women could hear what they were saying. The ‘Keep mum, she’s not so dumb’ poster showed a blonde on a sofa with three men in uniform talking across her. A less famous but more subtle poster showed a woman in a red dress on a bar stool with the slogan: ‘You forget – but she remembers.’ Barbara Amiel and Sasha Swire both have retentive memories. Amiel goes so far as to list her friends and enemies at the back of the book, arranging them by country with a special ‘Borderline’ category within the UK list containing only Max Hastings. Swire is more sweeping in her acknowledgments to ‘all the Cameroons for not mentioning me or barely mentioning me in their memoirs – this is payback!’ But is it? Neither of these dispiriting books makes its author sympathetic. Having at last secured the narrative centre ground, neither succeeds in becoming the hero of her own life.
In Amiel’s case this is anyhow not the intention. The hero is her husband, the former newspaper tycoon Conrad Black, once the owner of the Telegraph group, the Jerusalem Post and the Chicago Sun-Times. He was convicted of fraud in 2007 for siphoning off profits from his companies, although two of the three convictions were later quashed, and served more than three years in prison. In 2018 Black published Donald J. Trump: A President like No Other, which argued that Trump was ‘not, in fact, a racist, sexist, warmonger, hothead, promoter of violence, or a foreign or domestic economic warrior’, but fundamentally shy and misunderstood. The following year he received a presidential pardon due in part, the White House said, to lobbying by the powerful and unlikely duo of Henry Kissinger and Elton John. Nonetheless Amiel remains furious at the way she and Black have been treated and is intent on establishing his innocence on all counts. Her memoir is a bookend to his, A Matter of Principle, published in 2011, in which he praises her ‘constancy, resolve and affection’ and gives vent to his hatred of those who have slighted her on account of her ‘social unease’.
Perhaps in all enduring marriages there is an element of folie à deux, a shared worldview that unites a couple if not against the world, then at a particular angle to it. Black and Amiel’s determination to impose their idealised views of each other on a wider public is entirely counterproductive. The more Amiel compares them to the Romanovs or him to Churchill and herself to Joan of Arc, the less the reader sympathises. Even she has to wonder when her husband, preparing his defence, pulls a piece of paper from his pocket on which he has written Churchill’s response to being asked to form a government in 1940: ‘All my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial.’ Later, appealing against his sentence, Black speaks from the dock ‘flawless and extemporaneous for about twenty minutes’ without pause. ‘It was the Gettysburg Address of court speeches.’ The judge appears ‘radiant’ with admiration but still gives him 42 months on top of the 35 he has already served. Amiel is stunned: ‘I fainted. Plonk. Bang onto the courtroom bench.’ The problem, she concludes, is that the speech was ‘too good’. A great many pages of her rambling and apparently unedited book are devoted to the tortuous details of the case against Black, which played out between Britain, the US and Canada (Black was born in Canada). At times even Amiel seems bored and begins to drift into apparently random reminiscence such as the hair-raising account of a nose job she had in 1968 that went badly wrong. Afterwards ‘no one opened doors for me when I was carrying groceries … no one … asked me out. I was just an ugly girl.’ It took two years and a bone graft from her hip to restore her looks, which she talks about at length. They have sometimes been an advantage – leading to ‘television work and quite a lot else’ – though at the same time they have occasionally meant that her ‘political stuff’ wasn’t taken so seriously. Her looks have also encouraged the ‘glorious sisterhood’ of female journalists and the ‘eco-aboriginal-feminist axis’ who comprise a whole regiment of the enemy to be mean about her appearance. She finds this puzzling and unfair because they ‘pretty much gave a pass’ to other good-looking women writers, even younger ones.
The spotlight of mutual adoration in which Amiel and Black stand is apparently too bright for them to read the mood of the audience out there in the dark. Amiel is constantly hurt and surprised by the reaction to their difficulties. Neither her much publicised $42,000 birthday party or her appearance with Black in fancy dress as Cardinal Richelieu and Marie-Antoinette prepared her for the fact that when nemesis struck the public reaction ranged from indifference to ecstatic Schadenfreude. Her bids for sympathy in the aftermath are similarly ill-judged. As lawyers’ bills mount up and they have to economise, the question is: ‘Which house to sell first?’ Other difficulties with which the common reader fails to empathise include the problem of the specially woven carpet in her writing room. In the time since she designed it – the names of all the writers she most admires are woven in ‘what looked like dark blue ink handwriting’ against a pale blue background – Henry Kissinger has entered his wilderness years having failed for the moment to support them. Yet there he is, indelibly woven between Milton and Balzac. It’s not a convenient place to put a piece of furniture and it’s a long name so she decides to blot him out with ‘a really huge blot’. There are other insights into things that people with insane money do to pass the time, such as Mrs de Botton’s revolving racks for her clothes, installed in the ‘several heated mews garages’ behind her house in Belgravia, from which she could view her numbered outfits and matching accessories on CCTV while deciding what to wear, but, as Amiel confesses, she is no good at gossip. She can’t fashion an anecdote and she notices little about other people, so mostly the book is boring.
This is a pity because inside it is the kernel of something interesting, Amiel’s own story. Her early life, dismissed briefly as the ‘tedious’ childhood years, had enough drama and pathos to elicit the sympathy she is looking for in all the wrong places. Born in Hendon, North-West London, during the Second World War, she was evacuated to her grandparents’ in Chorley Wood, ‘a safe place for a Jewish child in 1940s Europe’. After the war, her father never came back. The divorce was ‘loud’. Neither parent wanted Barbara and her younger sister, Ruth, so they were made wards of court. Her father later took his own life. Her mother, who had legal custody of the girls, ‘was busy dating’ and her second marriage to a man from ‘a working-class family unfamiliar with Jews and apparently not very fond of them’ meant that Barbara had to take a note to school to say that she was now a Christian. The family then emigrated to Canada where she ‘gave in’, was baptised and confirmed but remained unhappy about what she had done. When she finished school she tried to join a synagogue, but they didn’t believe she was Jewish. Her stepfather made it clear that Barbara’s presence contributed to her mother’s frequent suicide attempts. They went their separate ways until 2004 when, next to a picture of Amiel at the Chelsea Flower Show, the Mail on Sunday ran an interview under the headline: ‘Parents Reveal how Lady Black’s Greed Drove Her’. Her mother and stepfather are nevertheless excused as media ‘innocents’ and are among the small number of the forgiven. Amiel’s book also does a disservice to her as a journalist whose ‘political stuff’ on abortion (she gives a brutally clear-eyed account of her own), #MeToo and Israel is contentious but not irrational. She has put arguments that should be heard and countered, not suppressed. At times her frustration is understandable as when, having published a piece in Maclean’s on the allegations against Bill Cosby, the editor suggests over lunch at the Four Seasons that it might be better if she stuck to features like ‘the one you did on purebred dogs that was so popular’.
Perhaps the reason ‘the feminists’ dislike Amiel is that she exemplifies that wish to have it both ways, of which non-feminists often complain. Despite being professionally established in her own right, she accepted Black’s offer of a column on the Telegraph when he was proprietor. This was naturally embarrassing for Charles Moore, the editor, and annoying for the rest of the staff or, as Amiel puts it, a ‘small but vocal-in-corners group’ of them. Amiel sought the advice of William (Bill) Deedes, a former editor, a ‘seminal figure at the paper’ and all-round representative of the ‘qualities of the British in one package’. He agreed to meet her for tea. ‘Do you think,’ Amiel asked, ‘that it is wise for me to be working at the Telegraph? I do sense some unhappiness about it.’ To which Deedes replied: ‘Yes … I think you should leave.’ Amiel is poleaxed. It comes like a ‘punch in the stomach’. Deedes points out that she has other opportunities. ‘Your columns are well read … I see you’ve been writing for the Evening Standard. Why don’t you go to Veronica Wadley?’ Amiel is speechless with fury at the ‘aura of frosty English integrity hovering over his skeletal face’ as Deedes ‘lifted his glass of water and sipped it’. Thirteen years after his death she is still chewing over this ‘unpleasant’ encounter which she now attributes to Deedes’s own ‘twilight relationship’ with a much younger writer at the paper. In fact, she had simply dealt the wrong card. She played little-girl-seeking-approval-and-reassurance and he countered with taking-you-seriously-as-a-fellow-professional-seeking-advice. Yet again the reader’s flickering sympathy gutters and dies.
The revenge memoir is an intricate weapon, difficult to deploy without kickback. The potential losses – friends, trust, dignity – are obvious, the gains less easy to calculate. For Amiel, who seems to exist in a permanent state of blind fury and to whom the only opinion that matters is her husband’s, the risk was not perhaps so great. Her stepchildren, ‘whose eyes glinted like those in Village of the Damned whenever they looked at me’ and who banged on the bedroom door with ‘horrid little fists’, probably didn’t like her much anyway. Sasha Swire, however, has lived her whole life in the densely interconnected world of Conservative Party politics, and her decision to publish her diaries, as well as transcripts of private text and WhatsApp messages from other people, was either brave or naive and a bit spiteful. Her general tone, a breathless ‘gosh, what am I like?’, suggests the latter.
Swire is the daughter of John Nott, the MP for St Ives from 1966-83, who served as a minister under Heath and Thatcher and was the defence secretary during the Falklands War. Her husband, Hugo Swire, once a director of Sotheby’s, became MP for East Devon in 2001 and a minister of state for Northern Ireland in the coalition government in 2010, retiring from politics after the election last year. Swire was a journalist before her marriage, but gave up her career to support Hugo and to bring up their daughters, Siena and Saffron, while working as his researcher. In this role she did most of his ‘writing work’: newspaper columns, press releases and later the social media posts that appeared under his name. Like Amiel she insists that ‘the hero of this book is absolutely not me’ but her husband, who is ‘renowned in political circles for his charm and his humour’. Many of the diary entries are accounts of what he is doing and what he has said to her about it, so her insistence that she is no mere ‘political wife’ is unconvincing. At their home in Devon, Chaffcombe Manor, bought after the ‘expenses saga’ (in which Swire was criticised for having the joint highest Additional Cost Allowance in the country in 2002) because it ‘no longer made sense to rent’, there is ‘always something to mend, a builder to see’. But she is at a loss when Tony Blair’s former adviser Anji Hunter, who Swire notes nervously is ‘fizzing with character’, asks her point blank what she does. Swire reflects that this is ‘always a weak point for me’ and replies that she is actually ‘a rather solitary figure’, which Hunter finds implausible. Like Amiel, Swire wants it both ways, which in her case means being in on the political action and having her opinions heard, but without the responsibility of an actual job.
A private diary is a self-portrait, the speech delivered to the bathroom mirror, which does not always play so well outside. Swire has a Pooterish tendency to record her own best remarks and other people’s comments about her in a way that doesn’t always strike the reader as it strikes her. Dave really likes her ‘because I am not remotely nervous around him; I’m cheeky, occasionally lewd and sometimes a little bit too challenging’. Sitting next to him at dinner in 2010 she gives him her views: ‘We calculate the next political decade will be defined by the Baby Boomers versus the students [and] mainstream parties will need to get these young voters on side if they are to survive.’ ‘Dave … tells me that I should join his political unit. I groan and say: “Oh God, don’t ask me to do that – I wouldn’t be able to say no.”’ He doesn’t. The Cameron Tories were really, it seems, as cliquish, self-important and devoid of ‘the idea/policy/ vision thing’ as they looked. There is no sense of what Swire describes as the ‘guff about rights without duty’ with which Gove rounded off his speech in the emergency debate after the riots in 2011. By the end of 2010 Dave has already ‘given up on Scotland’ and has ‘no expectations of ever winning more seats there’. As for the EU, he ‘has no idea where this thing’s going’. At the Downing Street Christmas party in 2011 the Swires are among the few MP couples invited, marking them out as part of the inner circle. Among the others are the Goves, possibly regretting their inclusion as Sam has landed Sarah Gove with the cooking and is upstairs having a blow dry while Sarah struggles round the kitchen with enormous fish pies. ‘It was all very Notting Hill but fun.’ Swire congratulates Cameron on his recent ‘Falklands moment’, using his veto to keep Britain out of the EU accord designed to stabilise the Eurozone by imposing new budgetary rules on all members. He laughs and says she’s ‘such a Tory’. This is not a time for girly-swot politics talk. The ‘court of King David’, she observes, feels as if it is ‘actually the government’. ‘They are all here, the ones that eat, drink, party together … We all holiday together … we text each other bypassing the civil servants … it’s enough to repulse the ordinary man.’
The ‘ordinary man’ is one of many ‘thems’ outside the Cameroon ‘us’. Others, at different times, include the public, the electorate (‘the punters’), the constituency party and the backbenchers. Swire’s sense of herself as a bit of a hellraiser within this tiny coterie is particularly misplaced and irritating. Her speech about not being taken for granted as part of a ‘two for the price of one’ deal, expected to wear ‘a long dress and painful heels, to some excruciatingly dull public function, sit next to some God-awful bore, pay for the taxi to get there’ is delivered to the back of the driver’s head as, against the regulations, she is taken home in the ministerial Prius. If the driver said anything in response it is not recorded. Most of Swire’s gleefully noted ‘acts of rebellion’ collapse into bathos. Before a royal garden party in Belfast, to which ladies are required to wear hats, she tells Hugo that ‘this grin-and-curtsey shit does not fall under my job description’. So off she jolly well goes to John Lewis and buys a fascinator because apparently, ‘in hat land, such as Royal Ascot’, these are frowned on. On the day, however, it pours with rain. Rose Paterson, wife of Owen Paterson, the Northern Ireland secretary, whom Swire dislikes because she is an ‘uptight … Cambridge bluestocking’, appears in a sensible tweed suit and makes conversation while Swire squelches back indoors in her unsuitable shoes and drooping fascinator to text her husband. ‘Unbearable … you fucking owe me.’
The person who emerges from the diaries as most nearly likeable is Swire’s on-off friend Amber Rudd. A new MP in 2010 and ‘always a good source for what is going on’, Rudd’s parliamentary career rose, fell and was ultimately wrecked in the upheavals of the decade. She was home secretary then secretary of state for work and pensions, before standing down from Parliament in 2019. For Swire politics are purely ‘tribal’. She can appreciate the case for voting Labour hypothetically – ‘because … of the terrible gap between rich and poor’ – but it is an abstract concept of no practical application to herself. After Rudd is judged to have made a ‘huge error’ in attacking Boris Johnson in a televised Brexit debate, she tells Swire: ‘I believed in what I was saying, I’m cross about all these lies they are peddling: I wanted to do it, no one forced me, Sasha,’ which leaves her friend pondering. Perhaps it is a strategy. ‘It might well be Amber’s breakthrough moment.’ Meanwhile Swire tries to take her ‘politically naive’ friend in hand. She recommends a stylist as Amber’s Hugo Boss suit is ‘a bit bus conductor’ and they have a couple of trips to Swire’s friend Linda Bennett’s ‘L.K. Bennett’ shops, where Swire has a discount card. Rudd, however, now home secretary, appears ‘only half interested’. It is more like ‘buying school uniform’ for a child. They come away with a couple of pairs of shoes and a jacket but the experience clearly lingered somewhere in Rudd’s memory because four months later, in answer to a question from the Financial Times about EU nationals wanting to stay in the UK after Brexit, she replies absent-mindedly that the application process will be ‘as easy to use as … an online account at L.K. Bennett’. The FT and Twitter are outraged. Linda Bennett is thrilled and texts Sasha to say so.
The Brexit referendum and its aftermath inevitably dominate the second half of the book and are just as wearing to read about as they were to live through. The Swires start off as Remainers because that’s the Cameron line, though Hugo later wobbles and Sasha becomes a Brexiteer, possibly under the influence of her father. On the night of the vote, however, confident that it will go the government’s way and feeling they ‘deserve some rest and restoration’, the Swires decide to visit Rupert Soames for a long weekend at his West Highland estate. As they travel north on the sleeper train news of the result starts to come through. By morning it’s clear they must go back so they call Soames, CEO of the outsourcing company Serco, which runs not only immigration detention centres but also the ‘dated and grubby’ train they are on. Soames has it stopped, and they get out in the early morning at Blair Atholl, ‘the middle of bloody nowhere’, to head back to London. It is all ‘really sad’. The next day they head off to see Dave who tells them to bring ‘two fat Cohibas (cigars) and plenty of booze’. All the talk is of who is to be the next leader of the party. Dave and Hugo are ‘chomping on cigars’ and dishing out blame. Cameron blames Gove for opposing him, as well as Theresa May and Philip Hammond for their advice on the negotiations with Germany, Theresa Villiers and Priti Patel for not repaying the ‘leg up’ he gave them, Gove’s wife – everyone but himself. Having ‘vented’, however, he gets his first good night’s sleep since it happened. Soon everyone is on their way to living happily ever after. George Osborne, who Swire thinks is really ‘like me’ a frustrated writer, goes to edit the Evening Standard and is nervously looking forward to Elton John’s Oscars party. Sam is busy ‘setting up her new fashion company’. Dave has left Parliament, despite promising not to, and is working on his memoirs though not enjoying it. ‘He seems bored by the whole process of writing.’ Never mind, he is making ‘loads of money’. The Camerons’ house in Notting Hill has been done up with masses of marble and Dave is enjoying chillaxing so much he has ‘no interest in taking on a big public job like Nato’. Kate Fall, Cameron’s deputy chief of staff, has an initial mauvais quart d’heure when all she is offered is the chance to run Comic Relief, but soon finds a berth at Alan Parker’s PR firm, Brunswick, which, Swire notes, really knows ‘how to charge their clients and pay themselves for the pleasure’.
Meanwhile, Hugo is still in Parliament and trying to find out from Soames who to talk to in the whips’ office so that his shooting weekends aren’t interrupted by a summons to return for a vote. Sasha follows the excruciating course of events in Parliament and is relentlessly scathing about ‘old ma May’ and her frustrated attempts to reach some kind of deal. Amber calls on her way back from the Conservative Party conference in 2017 to say that watching May’s frailty on stage during her unfortunate coughing fit was ‘agonising’, but Swire presses on with what she refers to as ‘my conversation’ about Boris Johnson’s leadership chances until Rudd ‘sighs heavily’ and says: ‘Do you know, Sasha, I just can’t talk about him any more … He just dominates everything.’ They agree, however, that his performance at the conference shows that he has no hope of being leader. Two years later when he is prime minister, Rudd resigns the whip because, she says, the government is actively pursuing a no-deal Brexit. Swire is ‘apoplectic with rage’ at the disloyalty. Hugo stands down as planned at the last election, getting out of politics while there is still time to make some real money.