Carole Stone: The queen of the scene

Carole Stone is the best-connected woman in Britain. Her Monday-night salons have become legendary, and she has the names of 17,000 'friends' keyed into her database. So why does she still feel so insecure? And how can you get invited to one of her parties?
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Carole Stone. Let me tell you a few things about Carole Stone: 1) She is strikingly gorgeous. 2) And highly intelligent. 3) She is 60 this year, but looks so much younger it's almost spooky. 4) She has huge feet, size 10, but super ankles. 5) She is the "Queen of Networking" with the names of 17,000 "friends" in her electronic database. 6) Crucially, there's a tick box next to every name, indicating whether or not they are going to get an invite to her famous Christmas party. 7) I'd quite like to go to her famous Christmas party. 8) Did I mention her super ankles? Her intelligence? Her gorgeousness? Do you think that's me ticked now? 9) What shall I wear? 10) Not, obviously, something that shows my ankles, which aren't nearly as super as Carole's.

We meet at her flat in Covent Garden, the one where she holds her weekly Monday night "salons". You need a "salon" tick to attend these. A "salon" tick is a good thing to have, but not as good as a Christmas tick. Either way, you are likely to meet Baroness this and Baroness that and Adam Faith and Lynda La Plante and Tony Benn and Jeremy Irons and Clare Rayner and Virginia Bottomley and Robert Kilroy-Silk.

Carole's address book first began to bulge when she worked as the producer of Radio 4's Any Questions, which she did between 1977 and 1990. As a matter of interest, who was the worst panellist ever? Hermione Gingold, she thinks. "Oh, she was perfectly charming and everything, but just before the programme went on air she said to the chairman, David Jacobs: 'Of course, I never, ever read the papers, darling'." Her performance, Carole says, indicated this was entirely true.

Anyway, that's by the by. Back to her flat, which is divine, with big, plump white sofas, and yards and yards of dreamy, creamy curtains, and lots of photographs of her with her husband, Richard Lindley, whom she married at 56. He's a television journalist. "Or," she suggests loyally, "You may wish to describe him as Richard Lindley, the television journalist." She is certainly very vivid, with her red, Vidal Sassoon-ish bouncing bob, bright orange jacket and Jean Muir brooch. She says I will probably describe her as vivacious looking, but add: "Shame about the big nose." I say I will not. She says: "I booked myself in to have it done in 1983, but then couldn't go through with it and booked myself out again." Still, she adds: "Whenever I see myself in photographs or home videos, I think: Bloody heck. I am appalled by my nose."

Naturally, I've read her book, Networking: The Art of Making Friends (Random House, £7.99), and while I'm happy to overlook some of the tips (sorry, I'm just never going to be able to do "smile, smile, smile" or kick off a conversation with "I just love your bag"), I have picked up on the one that says you must always bring your hostess a small gift. I've bought her a bunch of flowers. It's only Marks & Spencer rubbish, but she does appear thrilled. "Flowers!" she cries. "How lovely." She says I'm already in her database. As soon as someone contacts her – whoosh! – they are in her database. Now, though, she will have to update my entry and put "flowers!" under my name. The exclamation mark is important, she adds, because it means "I've received them from you, rather than the other way round." I don't mean to be rude. And, Carole, your curtains are very dreamy-creamy and your nose is not half as big as you think. But what kind of lunacy is this?

She offers tea? Coffee? Disappears into the dinky kitchenette to make it. She talks from there. She talks non-stop, and very-very-very-fast, in a sort of speeded-up Dot Cotton voice. Strangely, for someone who is meant to be an expert on small talk, she doesn't seem to have any. She just plunges straight in. I think I asked her where her jacket was from. "The-jacket-is... I-want-to-say-Karl-Lagerfeld-but-I-don't-think-it-is... I-bought-it-when-I-went-down-to-nine-stone-five-and-I-thought-I-was-absolutely- bloody-marvellous-the-bees-knees-and-I-went-and-spent-£5,000-on-clothes-and-I-was-very-ashamed-of-myself-of-course-and-I-didn't-stay-nine-stone-five- for-long-and-I'm-not-allowed-coffee-only-tea-with-soya-milk-because-I-sat-opposite-a-woman-at-dinner-recently-who-looked-so-vibrant-and-she-said- she'd-given-up-caffeine-and-alcohol-and-dairy-products-and-I've-also-given-up-bread-for-the-minute-and-I've-lost-10-pounds-and-I've-been-14-stone-and- I've-been-eight-stone-two..." She is planning to open a private member's club in London. "Do-you-think-people-will-join?-Do-you-think-people-will-invest?-The-salons-are-getting-too-big-oh-I'd-enjoy-it-so..."

The thing about Carole is that no matter how much you intend to not bond with her – 17,000 friends! It's absurd! That's one every day for 47 years! – you ultimately cannot help it. Yes, I was minded to be a bit snotty about her, even if it jeopardised my tick. Why? Because no one can have 17,000 friends? Because it's all just social-climbing, shallow nonsense? And anyway, I'm so deep and I've got so many friends of my own to deal with.

Actually, no. I haven't. But then, I'm not very into friends. Friends are a nuisance, coming over whenever they fancy and eating all your Kettle Chips. Needless to say, I have "0" friends in my electronic database. But I think if I did have a friend, I wouldn't mind if it was Carole.

Truly, I wouldn't. And it's not just because she is always on a diet, and wouldn't eat all my Kettle Chips. It's just that she's so emotionally out there, so disarmingly herself, so good-hearted, so astonishingly without artifice. Probably, people collect her as much as she collects them. She hides nothing. She hates her nose. She hates her weight. She hates her own voice, even. Sometimes she says things quite happily which, when you think about them, are actually quite sad. When she first met Richard and he'd leave messages on her answer machine she'd save them to listen to again and again. However, if she called him and he wasn't in, she would not leave a message. "My voice is so awful I thought that if he heard it without seeing me, he'd go right off me." There might, even, be something a little sad about a nearly-60-year-old saying: "I can tell you at any point in the day, Deborah, how many calories I've had so far." I'm not sure why, but the fact she will tell you these things reclaims her somehow.

Of course she knows there's a difference between having 17,000 names on a database and 17,000 friends. Carole, how many of those 17,000 could you call in the middle of the night if you needed to? "A tiny handful," she admits. She knows, too, that there is a difference between making friends and collecting people, which she seems to do with an almost forensic passion. There's even a passage in her book about what to do when a "friend" makes you cross. "I feel it helps to write down the things about them that are annoying, then tick off those I'm prepared to forget." She says she doesn't know why she is like this. "All I know is that I love meeting people and love bringing them together." Yes. And pathologically so.

What, I ask, if you were to wake up one morning and discover your database had been entirely wiped? "I'd be hysterical," she says – though she did once lose her Filofax and diary. And? "It was quite a feeling of exhilaration, in a funny sort of way. Although I was devastated, the important things would reach the surface. Richard always says to me that I must let some things fall though the slats. For example, you bought me flowers, and I'm either going to ring you or send you a note to thank you. When I was making your coffee I wrote down "ta, flowers" on a bit of paper to remind me to do that. It's crucial to thank you for the flowers, even though you possibly wouldn't think less of me if I didn't." I would, I say. "Ha!" she replies. "There you are!" Actually, I wouldn't. But it's like she's in the grip of one of those obsessive-compulsive disorders. She accepts there might be something in this. "It is a compulsion," she says. If you don't do "ta, flowers", what do you fear is going to happen? "Well, I don't think I fear not being liked. But it's like when I had my macrobiotic period and a friend said, what would happen if you had one slice of bread? And I said, what worries me is that I'd have to go on and have the whole loaf." So, it imposes order? Makes you feel in control? "Possibly. But mostly I think it has something to do with Roger." Ah, Roger.

She is a working-class girl. Her parents ran a sweet shop in Kent, and they all lived above it. Yes, Carole did get quite fat on sweets. In particular, she says, she loved Flakes, Hazelnut Whirls, the big blue ones in Roses, sherbet lemons. Roger, though. Roger was her brother, older by two years. Roger was a paranoid schizophrenic, although he was not diagnosed until aged 21. Roger, as a child, was withdrawn, absolutely unable to make friends, and very weird. He'd go around for weeks, asking the same question over and again. The question might be: "Is there a windmill in my watch?" Carole tried desperately to include him in things. Carole would pay him to come to the Wimpy with her, for a coffee, just to get him out of the house and in the hope he'd meet people. He never did. As he got older, he became more violent, and it became more and more difficult for her to invite her friends home. "He might throw a cup of tea over them." He was eventually sectioned, then placed in a community home, and then given a council flat, where he died of a stroke in his forties. Do you think he loved you Carole? "He'd ring in the middle of the night and say: 'Fuck off.' Then he'd ring back and say, 'I love you Carole, do you love me?' " Did you love him? "I really did, even though, sometimes, I hated him so much I'd break his 78 records over his head."

Anyway, there you have it, a brother who pathologically would not and could not make friends and the sister who would go on to pathologically do the opposite. How, exactly, do these two things connect, though? "I think I felt at a very early age the need for friends, to find out how they lived their lives. I'll still ask 80 people for advice before I do something. I asked 100 people what colour curtains I should have and more said cream than gold. I think if I talk to enough people I'll learn how to cope with life."

She started her working career as a secretary, having taken classes at the Lucie Clayton Charm School, where she learned to smile, smile, smile and get into a car elegantly. "Bottom in first, knees together, swing in." She became a secretary at the BBC in Bristol, working her way up through Woman's Hour and Down Your Way to producing Any Questions. She was often very, very lonely in Bristol, and started having little lunches in her flat for friends. (These were the birth pangs of her salons.) Until Richard came along, when she was 46, her love life was wholly disastrous. "I didn't lose my virginity until I was 25. The permissive society quite passed me by. And then I only had agonising relationships. I cried over one guy every day for three months... you're talking to a very well-balanced person here, Deborah!"

She and Richard live in Gospel Oak, north London. This flat is for work. For the salons and the networking and organising the Christmas party (it was 1,300 guests at a London venue last year) and the "consultancy lunches" she hosts for companies who want their senior employees to meet useful and interesting people. She gets paid for the last thing. It's how she earns her money. Anyway, she and Richard are so in love it's adorable. Carole can even now stay in for an evening, "whereas previously I thought that a failing." Richard reads to Carole nightly. So far, he has read her Little Dorrit, Can You Forgive Her?, Middlemarch and now they are onto Trollope's Phineas Finn. Sometimes Carole falls asleep when Richard is reading Phineas Finn. She feels awful about this and secretly keeps a copy of it here in the flat, "so I can recap on the bits I've missed."

Anyway, time to leave. The phone's rung quite a lot and I can tell she's busting to get at the messages. I leave as she's going through them. "Hello, Carole! It's Georgie..."

But before we go, a few more things about Carole Stone. 11) Her nose is quite groovy. 12) You don't notice the size of her feet, her ankles are so super. 13) Love the brooch. 14) Am I ticked yet?