It is not easy to feel sorry for a woman who once admitted to having 39 bathrooms. Fortunately, Amiel doesn’t want our pity. What this book demands instead is a fair hearing for the man with whom she has been to Hades and back. Under the tormenting layers of subpoenas and repossessions lies a wonderful love story. “I am going to try to enjoy the remaining time left to me,” says Amiel, who will be 80 in December, “And bugger off to the whole damn lot of you! We’re still here.” So they are. The book ends with The Lists, naming all her “Friends” and “Enemies”. It wasn’t necessary. This raging, splendid, defiant, crazy tigress of a book said it all.
Also, I don’t think Amiel, even now, understands what her husband did wrong. There’s certainly no suggestion she was involved. Pretty much all of her ‘friends’ were only too happy to run away screaming from both of them. And yet her very public social execution was, arguably, far worse that anything people who have committed far worse crimes have suffered. Fear not, however, she gets them back exquisitely by listing all the names of her friends and enemies – by continent – in the index. Well, she’s nearly 80 now and if this account is anything to go by, she’s lived one helluva life. Brava to Barbara Amiel I say, and whatever you do, read this brilliant book.
Ebbing funds, social snubs, the prospect of having to sell her favourite ring: Prometheus, by comparison, had it easy. Captain Oates never knew he had it so good. They should have tried being tragic Barbara. While that would be one reading of Friends and Enemies, it would be unfair. There is something magnetic and magnificent about this sustained, occasionally deranged lament... But British society still cops a few ricochets. Charles Douro (now the Duke of Wellington) “eyed every skirt in London”. The Duke of Gloucester asks Amiel what her husband does. “Newspaper proprietor.” The duke: “The lowest form of humanity, rather like the Israelis.” Vivien Duffield is described as having “a streak of cruelty”. That’ll teach her to criticise Barbara’s dining room.
Stabbing at these enemies with her nib, Amiel is superb, furious and, best of all, funny. Say what you like about her — and many have — but the Black Lady can write.
Like her husband, she writes in dense, pompous sentences. Often it feels like thrashing your way through a thick, oversexed jungle. In her first boyfriend’s arms, “the zoetrope flashes of yesteryear were shut out and I felt safe”. Conrad’s mother “died like a prize racehorse”, she reports. But how does a prize racehorse even die? This is nothing in comparison with the half-cock slavering pulp descriptions of how tall and handsome the uniformly dreadful men in her life were. “He bedded me on black satin sheets.” “‘Come to dinner at the Clermont,’ said the caller in a euphonious voice of rich russet.”