Tales of the City: My night with the Scarlett woman

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I first met Kimberly Fortier (as she then was) nine years ago at the launch of a Walter Mosley thriller at Vogue House. She seemed to appear from nowhere, standing at the top of a staircase by herself; cool, friendly, watchful, extremely pretty and indefinably sexy. She once described herself as looking like Walt Disney's Snow White and never being able, as she grew older, to shake off Ms White's pristine wholesomeness. At 35, she radiated an irresistible shockability - she would widen her eyes and part her lips appealingly, as if one's mild and footling attempts at saucy conversation were scandalous gossip from the state-rooms of power. Despite hailing from California rather than Georgia, there was a touch of Scarlett O'Hara in the way she (metaphorically) slapped her salivating beaux on their wrists with her Southern-belle fan.

I first met Kimberly Fortier (as she then was) nine years ago at the launch of a Walter Mosley thriller at Vogue House. She seemed to appear from nowhere, standing at the top of a staircase by herself; cool, friendly, watchful, extremely pretty and indefinably sexy. She once described herself as looking like Walt Disney's Snow White and never being able, as she grew older, to shake off Ms White's pristine wholesomeness. At 35, she radiated an irresistible shockability - she would widen her eyes and part her lips appealingly, as if one's mild and footling attempts at saucy conversation were scandalous gossip from the state-rooms of power. Despite hailing from California rather than Georgia, there was a touch of Scarlett O'Hara in the way she (metaphorically) slapped her salivating beaux on their wrists with her Southern-belle fan.

I think fondly about the 1995 Kimberly and how, that evening, she'd have loved - and would have been, of course, terribly shocked by - a story about the blind cabinet minister who fell for the sassy lady publisher and pulled the walls of the temple down on his head when she said it was over. Though perhaps she might have wrinkled her lovely nose at the messy details about the two pregnancies ("What was she thinking?").

Kimberly obviously liked the idea of power - of being at the top of the social staircase, surveying the chattering throng below; of being the magazine publisher, mistress of all the revels at hack-and-columnist level; of having an inside track into the Cabinet, where the enormous decisions get made about the lives of 59 million people. It is of course a Snow White fantasy - that you are the tall, omnicompetent queen, with a population of craven dwarfs who pretend you keep house for them but who are secretly your slaves...

I saw her around town a few times, always with pleasure but with a gnawing sense that (without ever having actually pressed my suit) I'd been co-opted as one of a band of suitors she could rely on to surround her and do her bidding, like worker bees round a queen. Once I arrived at The Spectator to do a fly-on-the-wall piece about what a conference of querulous right-wing thinkers sounded like in the early days of New Labour. Afterwards, I was asked to drive the lady publisher into town (it's what courtiers and worker-bees do) and, after the piece was published - a blistering satire on the ancient prejudices of the senior management, though I say it myself - she wrote to say, sweetly, that they were thinking of including the piece in their new subscription drive. Once again, it was like being lightly slapped on the arms by Scarlett's fan.

It was in December four years ago that the courtier stuff came to an end. Kimberly rang me out of the blue and invited me to the Vogue Christmas party as her guest. A lovely compliment, only slightly tarnished by the short notice I'd been given (10 hours) and the faint suspicion that I'd been drafted in at the last minute as a replacement. But Kimberly was Kimberly/Scarlett, and I went along happily, taking care to buy a new tie en route (this was Vogue after all). We talked and ate and drank and met designers called Sheba and Betty and did Vogue-y things, but it soon became clear I was there as a walker, a temporary stand-in until someone more significant happened by. Which he did at the end of dinner. It was Stephen Quinn, our host for the evening. I was told that he and Kimberly were a huge item, but had had a terrible row and were currently not speaking. Now that she'd turned up with a dude (with a new Thomas Pink tie) on her arm, however, he'd evidently thought better of it. They went off together. Scarlett had snared her Rhett at last. I slunk home in a taxi, cursing the machinations of women.

They were married the following May. I like to think I was instrumental in bringing together one of the oddest marriages of the new century.

Atheists for an autumn Christmas

Called upon by my youngest daughter's school to give a little talk on "Persuasive Language and Effective Argument", I looked through the newspapers in search of a suitable topic about which strongly divergent opinions were held and warring positions deployed. There wasn't much around, apart from the deeply intellectual topics of "Is Janet Street-Porter a peach or a pain?", "Should David Blunkett resign?", and "Does Top of the Pops really belong on BBC2 on a Sunday?". So I was relieved to catch a humdinger of an argument on Radio 4's Today programme.

On one side was Catherine Pepinster, the no-nonsense editrix of the Catholic weekly journal, The Tablet; and on the other Martin Rowson, the toxin-quilled cartoonist and argumentative atheist-around-town. The topic was deeply unpromising: "are Advent calendars insufficiently religious?"

Ms Pepinster, with a fine disregard for the demands of the radio medium, burrowed in her capacious tote bag for offending examples of Barbie and Snickers and Chelsea FC advent calendars. Rowson retorted that nowhere in the Bible is there a directive concerning the countdown to Christmas Day, or whether it should involve chocolates or wise men. Furthermore, he said (Mr Rowson warming to his theme is an awesome sound), Christmas started life as a pagan winter celebration and got overtaken by the mythology of mangers and stars-in-the-East about a century ago.

"There's nothing intrinsically Christian about it," he concluded ringingly. You could hear the whole of Middle England lower its breakfast teacup and chorus: "Well, really". Ms Pepinster fought bravely to insist that 25 December surely had something to do with Jesus Christ, but Rowson was implacable. "And anyway", he concluded, "We all know that Christ was born in October..."

You have to admire an atheist who likes to have it both ways.

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