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 old-fashioned 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. The catalogue of names is an entertainment in itself (as is the progress over the years of my godchildren’s handwriting) but the comments add all sorts of pleasing memory-triggers. If you’ll forgive a bit of name-dropping, the jazzman Kenny Ball wrote ‘Cheese, wine, good drunken conversation, what more could one ask’; the composer Sir Richard Rodney Bennett, a three-times visitor, said ‘It was magic’; and mayor-to-be Boris, on what may well have been his first ever outing to speak to a local Conservative association way back in January 1995, encapsulated our blizzard-hit drive from York to Helmsley — in which I made him lie spreadeagled on the bonnet of the car to give us traction over the hills — with the single word ‘Epic!’
And why not take the free-form visitors book a step further? In a remote cottage on a West Highland sea loch at Hogmanay, I was offered a beautiful, floral-clothbound scrapbook, with big, creamy pages of handmade paper, in which guests were expected to write or sketch full accounts of their visits. In my hideaway in France, I have come up with a new formula: asking each guest to write down a recipe. This seems to work well, on the basis that on French holidays food is a perpetual talking point anyway and even non-cooks like cooking with fresh ingredients bought from the market and limitless quantities of local wine to encourage them.
The prize-winning entries so far are the opera director Stefan Janski’s fruity lamb casserole, into which he seems to have thrown the entire fruit bowl, and my octogenarian uncle Desmond’s rich lemon cream pot. If I ever persuade a publisher to turn this into a coffee-table foodie book (I foresee an award-winning television series to go with it, by the way), we’ll have to road-test all the recipes pretty rigorously to see whether they produce anything edible at all, but as a record of long, happy, hilarious lunches blurring into dinners, it could hardly be bettered.
And it provides a perfect get-out for that agonising social dilemma (perhaps Sir Roy has suffered this one too) when a guest comes into the kitchen and says, ‘If you’ve got some garlic, Tabasco, maple syrup, mustard and Marmite, I’ll make you a jar of my famous salad dressing’. All you have to say is, ‘Oh no, please don’t go to all that trouble. But DO write the recipe in the visitors book.’