Dylan Jones is astonished to find in Sofia that the former communist country has embraced his guide to the mores of modern life — and that not everybody looks like Borat
To Sofia, then, on a ten-seater NetJet Falcon from Farnborough, accompanied by Bryan Ferry and a small coterie of GQ apparatchiks, including the best-dressed man in Shepherd’s Bush, Nick Foulkes.
Some of my friends are big in Japan, some of them are big in America and some of the larger ones are big all over the world. Me, I’m big in Bulgaria. Not as big as government corruption or the drug cartels, but big enough to warrant a mention on the early evening news (bumping Prince Charles’s 60th birthday celebrations into second place, I kid you not).
A few years ago I wrote a moderately successful etiquette book — Mr Jones’ Rules — which kicked up some dust but which didn’t exactly cause Jeremy Clarkson to look over his shoulder (although he did supply a puff for the jacket). In the emerging markets, though, it has gone gangbusters, and there are now editions in Russia, China, Poland, Hungary, Korea and Romania as well as in Greece and the United States. However it is in Bulgaria that I am really big, and this has caused me some reflection.
I was being flown by private jet to Sofia for the launch of the book, at a party at the Kempinski Hotel, where Bryan Ferry was due to play his flat-pack Roxy Music show. Tickets for the event were changing hands for E250 on the secondary (‘black’) market, and for a while I seriously thought about selling my own. There was a TV crew on board the plane who interviewed Bryan and me for the following morning’s Bulgarian equivalent of BBC Breakfast, and who kept asking pointed questions about Gordon Brown’s ability to manage the economy (‘He can’t,’ I said, to their obvious delight).
But why was Bulgaria clasping me to its bosom?
Anyone who has read Misha Glenny’s extraordinary McMafia will have an inkling of the labyrinthine corruption in Bulgaria — the smuggling, the illegal trade routes and the complicit nature of the authorities. No wonder. As Glenny says himself, ‘In the 1970s and 1980s, communist Bulgaria was only topped by Romania and Albania as the most miserably depressing place to live in Europe.’ And while it might now have casinos and nightclubs and regional outposts of Vitra, Vertu and B+B Italia, it still looks like Birmingham, only less, and more corrupt. Headlines like the recent one in the Daily Telegraph, ‘Welcome to Bulgaria, the new wonderland of EU fraud’, are these days the norm, rather than the exception.
Today trade — free and otherwise — is frenetic, and Bulgarians have embraced the West with gusto — did, in truth, even before 1989. And now even the luxury goods companies are moving in, emboldened by men like Spas Roussev. Having made a fortune in telecommunications, Roussev has opened restaurants and clubs at the top end of the market, created a stylish magazine of his own (Ego, which, bizarrely, recently featured me on its cover — Brad Pitt must have been busy that month), and has just secured the rights to launch GQ in Bulgaria too. He is also the man responsible for publishing my book in Bulgaria, which was the principal reason he was holding such a lavish party for le tout Sofia.
He is obviously a great man.
The day before the party I appeared on another breakfast TV chat show (Good Morning Bulgaria, on the bTV channel, owned by Rupert Murdoch), a bewildering experience for me that must have been even worse for the audience, as squeezed between the two hosts and me was an interpreter, turning my bon mots into Balkan nonsense. My appearance seemed to do the trick though, as five minutes after the broadcast a junior minister from the Sofia outpost of Nato called up for tickets to the launch. Or maybe he was simply a fan: for the last two weeks the book had been serialised on Bulgarian radio, meaning that the local denizens had been treated to my advice on how to build an equity portfolio and how to behave at a lap-dancing club. That afternoon I did a further six interviews, for TV, radio, the weekly magazine Capital and the national daily, Dnevnik. And by the time I’d finished it was time to party.
That night, my assistant Svet introduced me to, well, just about everyone. There were Paris Hilton lookalikes, Dimitar Berbatov lookalikes, suave men in extremely expensive suits, and lots of chaps who looked like they had their own security (if you don’t have minders or your own chauffeur-driven black Mercedes jeep here, then you may as well walk around with a giant ‘L’ on your forehead — in fact this may have been a rule added to my book by the local translator).
What had I found most surprising about Sofia? I was asked.
‘That everyone doesn’t look like Borat,’ I replied. ‘Only some of you.’
But my voice was lost in the crash of cymbals as Bryan Ferry took to the stage, and we all prepared to party down and make Cultural Learnings for Make Benefit Great Sexy Clever Magazine of G and Q.
My book is a cathedral of gentlemanliness, a considerable mass of information leavened by a large dose of personal prejudice. But the fact that Mr Jones’ Rules has apparently been so warmly embraced in the emerging world obviously leads me to conclude that if Britain still has exacting standards in regards to dress, work, sex and general decorum, they are standards that are admired by those who have no idea how to implement them, or indeed the means to. And as the book was meant to be a proper etiquette guide for real men — not the sort who spend their life imagining they’re in a Cary Grant movie — I could easily see how a generation brought up without access to such a rapacious consumer culture would like it so much. If society has changed at all in the last few decades, it’s in the way in which style has replaced class as a signifier of success, while the new pagan gods are more likely to be a fancy car or a designer raincoat rather than a private banking account or a golf club membership. And you don’t have to wear a belt made from bailer twine to tell everyone you’re from the wrong side of the fence; all you need do is wear square-toed shoes, fake diamanté cufflinks, a fat footballer’s tie or a four-button suit. And luckily for me, not all Bulgarians know this.
My favourite Sofia moment happened when Svet introduced me to a local dignitary, who I think was the manager of the local football team. ‘Ah, Mr Jones!’ he beamed. ‘You have the royal accent!’
And in Bulgaria, I most certainly do.