Something I wrote about visitors books, from April’s Tatler18th March 2015
We are all for tradition, but some rules are too stuffy to bear. Which is why Tatler has decreed that no longer must you limit yourself to writing your name in a visitors book. Henceforth you may doodle, compose ditties and celebrate all your creative urges upon these thick white pages. By Sophia Money-Coutts
Every few months, I go to stay with a family in Oxfordshire who have the most gigantic visitors’ book I have ever seen. It sits, constantly open, on a trunk in their hall, waiting to be signed on Sundays as guests drift past it on their way out. It is green leather, I think, though I have never seen it closed (it’s bad form to close a visitors’ book – it means you don’t want to come back), and it has thick, unlined cream pages and three columns. One for the date, one for your name and one for your comment.
The comments are always effusive because the hosts are generous sorts. ‘Best weekend EVER!!’ says one. ‘Bloody marvellous game of Articulate X,’ says another. ‘So sorry I ended up in the dog bed…!’ says a guest who once got so drunk that he couldn’t make it upstairs and passed out in the kitchen with the pugs. It’s like a collective diary, offering up little snapshots of blurry weekends past.
But I am a silent contributor, because when it comes to my turn, I solemnly write out the date and my name, and then I become paralysed, pen in hand. I’d love to say something witty and charming about getting pissed on St-Germain in the garden or being beaten at tennis yet again. But I can’t. All my life I’ve been told it’s vulgar to write comments in visitors’ books. All my life I’ve been told I mustn’t do it. I have been brainwashed.
What you are supposed to do, I have always been told, is write the date and your name AND NOTHING ELSE, just as seriously as if you were signing your will. Some people add part of their address, but never the whole thing because that suggests you might live on something as common as a street with lots of other people. Just ‘London, SW6’ would do, for example. Or preferably ‘Blenheim’ or ‘Alnwick’.
It’s madness, I know, but these are the visitors’ book rules. It has been thus ever since visitors’ books were invented. One story goes that this was in 1753 by the 4th Earl of Frodsham, a playboy who wanted to keep track of which mistress had been to stay on which weekend so he didn’t muddle them up.
The leather-bound book duly became fashionable in big houses across the country. Leaf back through the yellowing pages of the visitors’ book at Highclere and you will find the names of leading Egyptologists in the Twenties whom the Tutankhamun-obsessed 5th Earl of Carnarvon liked to invite to stay, as well as the signatures of Lewis Carroll and Henry James. At Villa Cetinale in Tuscany, which belongs to the Earl of Durham, the visitors’ book boasts glamorous names – but no comments – from the likes of Andy Warhol and Mick Jagger. One British hostess in the Seventies even took to sticking gaffer tape over the comments section of her visitors’ book, lest her guests tried to detail what a jolly time they’d had.
But then – hurrah! – people did start loosening up a bit and daring to buck the system. So what if you’re not supposed to write anything, they thought. If we have had a lovely weekend, sleeping in perfectly sprung beds and eating delicious pheasant, we want to say so.
And do you know what, Mum, Dad, Stepmum, Granny, all of you, the rebels are right. Life is more joyous when you can sing to the rafters about what fun you have had. The old ways are not always the best, and this is one rule that we at Tatler have decided is now defunct. If you want to write a comment, go right ahead. And not only comments but little drawings too. Maybe a jaunty limerick.
This movement has been given the stamp of approval by Samantha Cameron, who must be right because she’s a creative consultant for Smythson, home to the sort of weighty, embossed visitors’ book you’ll find in all the best houses. ‘Be creative with visitors’ books,’ she has said. ‘While visiting the country house of a family friend, I was delighted to find one with all sorts of cartoons, poems and watercolour paintings.’
And even the Queen has commented in a visitors’ book, leaving a little poem in the Queen Mother’s book at Castle Mey: ‘A meal of such splendour/ Repast of such zest/It will take us to Sunday/Just to digest.’