The surface of Joan

Warning: her new memoir may cause a literary migraine
October 19, 2011

There is a mindset I call Expatpolitik. It is an analysis of Britain gleaned chiefly from passing through airport departure lounges, stumbling across Jeremy Kyle on a hotel TV or reading the Daily Mail online from the veranda of your Andalusian/Provençal/Umbrian redoubt. Expatpolitik takes the form of a hell-in-a-handcart outrage, a sentimental yearning for a golden homeland of yore and a belief that all personal rudeness, prejudice and bad behaviour are justified expressions of the fearless truth.

Michael Winner, Cliff Richard, Sean Connery and Michael Caine are leading exponents of this doctrine and, judging from her latest book, “an irreverent and light-hearted look at modern life,” so is Joan Collins.

Although I always enjoy her waspish Spectator diaries, her superb ear for great lines overheard at dinner in the Ivy, 200-odd pages of Joan, OBE, is a literary migraine. I wonder if her editor told her to “Clarkson things up a bit” because the tone is so hectoring. (Yes, Joan, we get it: the secret of your eternal youth is self-discipline and sunscreen.) It’s a shame, because this Golden Globe-winning actress, immortalised by Andy Warhol [above], has hardly led an uneventful existence. Tossed into her stream of fury about British obesity, spoilt children, junk food, yob culture and moral vacuity is the occasional celebrity anecdote. Amid a taxi driver-style rant against the liberal education system you might get “I ‘ad that Marlon Brando in the back of my limo.”

The World According to Joan is a planet where clichés flourish in abundance. In the opening chapter, laying out her personal philosophy, we learn that among her Christmas cracker mantras are “I am what I am,” “my glass is always half full,” “je ne regrette rien,” “don’t cry over spilt milk,” “make the most of each day” and “there’ll be plenty of time to sleep when you’re dead.” I’m only surprised she fails to assert “I did it my way.”

It is impossible to turn a page without tripping over a hilarious and unintentional irony. Take jeans, for example. Joan hates jeans “because their obsequiousness has become terribly boring.” (I think she means “ubiquitousness” unless she is plagued by grovelling trousers.) Well, except for the jeans she wore as a student; the denim brand she launched in the 1970s with Philip Green, now the multibillionare owner of Topshop; the white jeans she wears in St Tropez or the blue jeans she wears out with her grandchildren. Actually Joan just hates your jeans. Yes, you with the fat arse.

She harangues modern young women for failing to be glamorous, but then bangs on about how as a young Hollywood starlet she liked to go bare-faced, hair uncombed. She rails against slutty modern women, she who posed nude for Playboy and filmed a sex party scene in The Stud. But how little self-awareness can she have to write the following: “Long-term relationships seem no longer fashionable and couples break up at the mere hint of a rift. Erstwhile one took the step of marriage with care because it was meant to be a life-long union.” She who has wed five times, and whose first husband, Maxwell Reed, was her schoolgirl crush.

Joan believes modern men are just slobs or effeminate metrosexuals compared to the red-blooded yet gentlemanly hunks of old Hollywood. Except that, until she met the saintly Percy, husband number five, she says these very men caused her nothing but pain.

When she drops the harsh shock-jock persona there are flickers of original insight: “I have never met a rich man,” she writes, “who wasn’t in some way flawed.” Indeed the most enjoyable passages are not her rants against crude TV humour or the world’s customs officials who dare to search her habitual 22 Louis Vuittons as she commutes between continents. What shine are the snatches of memoir where she shows—rather than tells—her toughness and élan. The exquisite Rada-trained actress, newly arrived in Hollywood, sneering at the Beverly Hills playboys who take her racing then call her frigid if she won’t jump into bed; the gutsy starlet who fights off casting couch moguls and pals up with a jaded and persecuted Marilyn Monroe. Insouciant Joan, scandalising the gossip mavens for living with Warren Beatty unwed and bravely announcing in the 1950s to tabloid uproar: “I shall do no cooking and cleaning in my marriage.” Or the older star of Dynasty, resourceful and unembarrassable, so tired of being hounded by paparazzi, she goes shopping in a burka. She has been bold, and canny.Maybe readers should instead seek out her several autobiographies.

When I heard Joan Collins interviewed on Woman’s Hour, she said that—while she considers today’s children indulged and over-praised—if her own father had believed in her, “who knows, maybe I might have been prime minister.” Behind that glamorous mask is a sharp mind, blunted by a life devoted to the surface of things.