We are all for tradition, but some rules are too stuffy to bear. Which is why we love Tatler’s new decree 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 those thick white pages says the Brit style bible.
Every few months, we visit a renowned Australian family in Camden who have the most gigantic visitors’ book we have ever seen. It sits, constantly open, on a table in their hall, waiting to be signed on Sundays as guests drift past it on their way out. It is green leather, we think, though we 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, 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. ‘So sorry I drove motorbike into fence!! says a guest who once got so drunk that she couldn’t make it upstairs. It’s like a collective diary, offering up little snapshots of blurry weekends past.
But we have never signed…as we have never actually stayed the night, and it’s terrifically bad form to sign if you’ve not actually spent a night under the eaves.
Others Tatler says are silent contributors, who solemnly write out the date and their name, perhaps they become paralysed, it notes, pen in hand. They would probably love to say something witty and charming about getting pissed on St-Germain in the garden or being beaten at tennis yet again. But they can’t as they’ve probably been told it’s vulgar to write comments in visitors’ books. All their life they have been told they mustn’t do it. And have been brainwashed.
What are you are supposed to do, if you have always been told, to just 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. 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.’
Visitors’ Books: Today’s rules comments must be positive. This is not TripAdvisor. Do not complain about the lack of hot water or the Labrador hair in your soup. On no account draw a smiley face. But you may leave up to three kisses. Keep exclamation marks to a minimum.
If your children are signing, keep an eye on them. You may think it’s adorable that Arthur has taken up a page with his gory scene of a dinosaur eating the host, rendered in green felt tip that’s bled through to the other side. You are wrong.
Be legible. What good will the book be as a future historical reference if your signature looks like it was made by a spider that fell into a pot of ink before limping across the page?
Be considerate about space. In 1935, Walt Disney went to stay with a branch of the Howard family at Naworth Castle. He let himself down by signing in enormous letters that took up twice as much space as everyone else. If a member of the Royal Family comes to stay, they must always be offered a fresh page to sign.