A hugely successful marketing and business consultant, in addition to his work as an author and journalist, Peter York first came to prominence with his series of essays on trends and social quirks, written for the up-market British magazine Harpers & Queen during the second half of the 1970s. York’s prose style is a honed and Anglicized version of Tom Wolfe’s classic anthropology of urban and metropolitan status. This takes the form of a literary dandyism – a crucial attention to the eloquence of small details – and is reflected in the flawless sartorial elegance with which both writers appear to be armoured, and which renders them equally ageless, charming and utterly inscrutable.
York’s previous books – Style Wars (1980), The Sloane Ranger’s Handbook (co-written with Ann Barr in 1982) and Peter York’s Eighties (co-written with Charles Jennings in 1996) – all hold at their centre a defining thesis on the slippery algebra of self-presentation. Their tone is conversational, even intimate, while their judgements – on extravagance, fashion, folly, etiquette or aspiration – all tend to have a faintly 18th-century air. You might almost be reading a Business Studies update of Alexander Pope’s Epistle to Allen, Lord Bathurst ‘Of the Use of Riches’ (1732). For like Mr Pope, York abuts social satire and mock-heroic wit, but within his aphoristic style he is delivering some weighty sideswipes to the jutting jaw of modern vanity.
All of which background information seems necessary before considering York’s latest book: a 40,000-word essay on the interior design and furnishings style of the homes of 16 world-class dictators, beginning with Porfirio Diaz and ending with Slobodan Milosevic. The essay accompanies – and in many cases analyses – a wealth of photographs, the sequencing of which becomes increasingly mesmeric as one’s retinas attempt to adjust to interiors so tense, bizarre and downright odd that all the usual apparatus of comprehension simply ceases to work: the ‘Dungeons and Dragons’-style sci-fi sex fantasy paintings in Saddam Hussein’s many palaces and safe houses, for example, or the Ceausescus’ bathing arrangements, or Kirk Douglas looking distinctly ill at ease during afternoon tea with Tito.
For the most part, as revealed by their homes, the Dr Evils of the 20th century divide by type into sweaty mirthless bureaucrats and complete loonies. The loonies tend to dictate in central Africa, the bureaucrats in former Eastern Europe. Vitally – amazingly – there is very little camp in York’s reading of these palaces, bunkers and fortified retreats. Rather, political history is used to underpin the conversational tone of an expert guide; as such, York’s tone and approach seem closer to John Betjeman’s personalized analyses of English market towns than to the critical discourse of Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida (1980).
In essence, York has produced the special edition of Hello magazine as it might be published in Hell – a Through The Keyhole from the seventh circle of Dante’s Inferno. By conflating the ravenous public interest in celebrity trivia with the equal fascination with the extent of human evil, Dictators’ Homes – rather like Michel Houellebecq’s devastating third novel, Platform (1999) – becomes a sinister reflection of the contemporary socio-cultural temper. If ‘celebrity’ has more or less replaced pop as the common subcultural language of modern society, then Dictators’ Homes is a chilled, chilly and chilling excursion into the psychological shadow of our relationship with absolute power.