Bliss this week was a haunted castle near the England/Scotland border in the company of Rupert Everett. Well, even a scandal-soaked media practitioner requires a break; but I can't speak for Rupie.
I flew up to Chillingham Castle in Northumberland, the property of Sir Humphrey and the Honourable Lady Wakefield - whose family, the Greys, has owned it since the 13th Century. Aside from the several marketed ghosts - recently investigated by Living TV's Most Haunted frauds, among others - its chief virtue is its rented apartments: logs and kindling are supplied for an evening's crackling heat should the electric blankets compromise your appreciation of the mixed period decor of a mediaeval fortress.
Certainly I regarded it as a good omen when I learnt that I'd just missed the Diabetes UK Fright Night event.
I stayed in the Pink Room with Rupie - I should explain, before gossips get carried away, that he wasn't with me in person: his memoirs Red Carpets and Other Banana Skins proved to be an excellent counterfeit - and I was warned that the afterlife would attend to my social needs. One of Sir Humphrey's scullions - given to breaking noxious wind - gave me a scripted account of the Blue Boy ghost said to haunt this room: periodically, a blue haze emanates from the fireplace to various disembodied cries. A face is occasionally discerned in a superimposition over flickering flame. He told me about other ghosts in the castle and the netherworld sprites and goblin-like abominations said to scuttle up and down the quadrangle's stonework at night. To my surprise, photos - of the Wakefields and related, and of some royals - stared up at me in standing frames on the old woods. That's trusting.
Don't imagine I was here for the ghosties. The experience I sought - apart from respite from the pesky living and their neuroses - was temporal alienation: and I have found castles to be perfect to this end. Mere hotels, mere inns (even themed ones), subvert their vows of time travel with lobby muzak, looped video porn and staff with TV soap-shaped behaviours and hairstyles. An authentic castle, on the other hand, is a still Tardis: its slate or granite stonework, its cawing unpaid rooks or ravens, its feudal karmic crimes - all these suffice to suggest a pretend- time refuge. And once pretend-alienated, how perfect to find the company of a trivially intelligent person, someone whose actual presence and temperament might be intolerable, but whose sieved, distilled, edited persona (in a book, say) serves a need of entertainment. A pretend companion. Enter Rupie.
His autobiography is one of the best of a showbiz kind: unlike most other actors, Everett writes very well. He understands that discriminated detail is the mother of evocation so by the time I'd finished his St Tropez chapter I swear I had a tan. Thanks to his impulse for indiscretion we learn that Roddy McDowall was hung like a donkey and that Joan Collins dumped a long-term lover simply because he refused to be her social crutch at parties. Orson Welles' last months were a distraction of aborted movie ideas. Warhol's manager Fred Hughes died a long, lonely death of MS. And just when you try to be clever and dismiss Rupie as a lazy gadfly and a roving dilettante - a pity we can't inoculate against the superior urge to be reductive - he devastates the celebrity-media-charity racket in a tell-all chronicle of his fiasco visit to Ethiopia for Oxfam and The Sunday Times. Only a grown-up soul with a light-steely touch could have seen what he allows us to see.
Ah, Rupert, perhaps you frightened Chillingham's ghoulies away. "Did you see a ghost?" Sir Humphrey asked me before I left. "No," I replied. "In fact I've never slept better. It's a very peaceful room. I found the whole castle to be at rest." Sir H smiled bravely, even though I'd just torched his paranormal trade myth. "That's interesting," he said. "We don't tell people but in fact we took away the bones of a baby boy from the fireplace a few years back and gave them a Christian burial. Since then the room has been at peace. We catch out a few people who claim to have seen something."
Mmm, interesting. The last line in Rupie's book came to mind: "Suddenly, and with total clarity, I knew it was time to leave."
For more on Chillingham Castle click here