Full of ruthless one-liners but nakedly free of self-pity

Vanished Years by Rupert Everett Reviewed by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst

A GOOD subtitle for Rupert Everett’s first book of memoirs, published in 2006, might have been How to Succeed in Showbusiness Without Really Trying.

Starting with Another Country (1984), he starred in a string of hit films that climaxed with My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997), all accompanied by as much fun as he could swallow (or sniff). It was far too good to last.

Eventually the escalator turned into a helter-skelter, a downward spiral that reached its nadir with The Next Best Thing (2000), a charmless comedy co-starring Madonna that was even less fun to watch than it was to make. Suddenly the phone calls stopped. His life appeared to have turned into a modern version of Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress.

What distinguished Everett’s first book from other celebrity memoirs was the savage glee of his writing: gloriously camp, blissfully free of self-pity, and full of brilliantly bitchy one-liners – like Oscar Wilde on steroids.

This follow-up volume is equally good at dishing the dirt. Page after page echoes with the hissing sound of giant egos deflating, as Everett’s friends and enemies (it is sometimes hard to tell them apart) are lined up in the crosshairs of his wit.

During a disastrous appearance on The Celebrity Apprentice, he observes that Alan Sugar’s delivery is “sheer Sid James”.

At a reception in Washington, he is mesmerised by Simon Schama’s “huge flapping hands and ears”, and catches sight of “the ghastly Jack Straw” who “grins like a ferret”. He is equally ruthless with himself, a “manic beanpole show-off”.

Anyone who enjoys peeking behind the curtain of celebrity life will love it. However, what really sets this book apart is not so much its brutal energy as its unexpected subtlety.

In the opening pages, Everett refers to the hidden gay self, “coiled and complicated”, that he nurtured at boarding school, and his writing leads a similar double life.

His title is taken 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 … “

If this is a book about loss, especially of loved ones of whom he writes with grim hilarity, it is also about recovery, and the workings of memory.

The chronology hops around like an iPod on shuffle: one minute Everett is naked in a Berlin gay bar, chatting to someone whose idea of flirting is to whack him on the bottom with a table tennis bat. The next he is peering into actress Natasha Richardson’s coffin and noticing her beautiful hands.

The same jokes are replayed in different settings. Even the climax of one story – Derek Jacobi praying that the mirthless TV pilot Everett has wangled into production won’t be picked up by the network – is given in two different versions, as if mimicking how memories slowly solidify into anecdotes.

Reading it is a disorientating experience. Everett’s writing repeatedly slips the gears of genre, moving between scenes of farce, elegy and melodrama, and his own role is equally hard to pin down.

Although he clearly believes that all the world’s a stage – even when telling a television producer: “I loathe the theatre,” he is busy offering him sugar for his tea, like a scene from The Importance of Being Earnest – it is never clear whether he sees himself as a leading man or more like TS Eliot’s ageing Prufrock: “one that will do/To swell a progress, start a scene or two,/ … at times, indeed, almost ridiculous;/Almost, at times, the Fool”.

There are moments, such as deciding to accompany a hobbling Madonna to the launch of Tina Brown’s Talk magazine, when he appears to be both.

What holds all these narrative snapshots together is the quality of his writing. Everett’s last book was compared to everyone from Lord Byron to David Niven. There are moments when this one, with its shudder of Catholic guilt and long recoil of memories, reads more like Brideshead Revisited rewritten by Sebastian Flyte, but the more telling comparisons are probably with what Everett might write next.

It may be no coincidence the final pages see him sitting at the desk in Firefly, the house in Jamaica where Coward died. Coward began his career as an actor and ended as a writer, and one wonders whether Everett will follow the same path. — The Daily Telegraph

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