MIGUEL the porter is adamant. Madame is not at home. But we have an appointment, I protest. "She’s gone out," he insists. So I call madame on my mobile. She is at home, curled up, she reveals, in her undies on the white satin sheets in her bedroom.
Visiting writer Carole Morin is like falling through the looking glass into a film noir. You know the scenario: Bogartesque gumshoe is fatally attracted to a glamorous, wicked siren who spends her nights in white satin. But we’re not in Forties Hollywood, much as Morin might like to cultivate the impression that we are - and I am most definitely not Humphrey Bogart.
By the time I make it past her fierce protector into Morin’s creamy St John’s Wood apartment, she’s dressed in Emma Peel meets Suzy Wrong [sic] bondage gear - a black dress that appears to be made almost entirely of zips. She was wearing it when she met her latest publisher, John Calder, and he has been enslaved ever since.
She wore it again recently when auditioning for a job as a newspaper columnist. "The editor was very weirded out," she says. On her wrist is a melting Salvador Dali-esque watch. Her face is pale and untroubled, her hair dark, her lips painted the colour of a bloody wound. She’s wearing a pair of heels as lethal as ice picks.
Not only Morin, but the home this 37-year-old Glasgow-born novelist shares with her husband - writer, ‘spy’ and cultural ambassador, Don Watson, is decked out in wall-to-wall stilettos. Shoes and voodoo dolls picked up on the couples’ world travels are everywhere. There’s even a pair of Schiaparelli pink stiletto-heeled boots perched on top of the television in the place normally reserved for a fruit bowl.
In the unlikely event of a thieving fetishist ever managing to get past Miguel and into the flat, he’d think he had died and gone to heaven. So, what’s with the porter? "Oh, he’s always that way," drawls Morin in her classy Kelvinside accent. "He pretends I’m not in; I don’t know why." She has the knack for inspiring utter devotion in people, while others think she’s perfectly dreadful. "You either love or loathe me," she agrees. It’s the same with her work. Some think everything she writes borders on genius. Her husband believes she’s Gertrude Stein reincarnated and Harold Evans reckons she’s "deliciously dangerous for your peace of mind".
But there are those who find Morin’s sulphurously imaginative writing tasteless. She has the distinction of being the only columnist to have written for both the right and the left in the Spectator and the New Statesman, during which time she met a wide range of politicians. Morin was sacked from the New Statesman because she wrote that, given the size of Cherie Blair’s bum, the photographers who snapped her from behind ought to be reported to the RSPCA. Like a mischievous child she repeats the allegation in her new novel, Penniless in Park Lane.
The book is a coruscating satire on New Labour - dubbed ‘New Lice’ - as seen through the eyes of a heroine who’s best described as a foul-mouthed slut. "She’s definitely not based on me," warns Morin, who has often used her own bizarre life story as the basis for her fictions. "I am so not a slut!" The plot moves between the sordid worlds of London media and politics and Glasgow family life. Both are populated by the morally bankrupt and deeply disgusting.
No other writer is so good at bad taste. For while you or I might sit in a park on a sunny day and simply see people enjoying themselves, that’s not for Morin. She would know it was all an illusion; know that half the people gazing placidly into the middle distance were too stoned to blink, that some of the lovers would murder their partners by nightfall, while others would be doing all they could to spread disease and increase the population of criminals. Picnicking families would be dysfunctional, the toddlers incest survivors in the making, and all the dogs would have fleas.
Heroine Astrid Ash, who could never love a man with red pubic hair, is the mistress of a grotesque government minister with flaming red hair, called Ginger, who also happens to be a serial fornicator. He lives in a Park Lane flat. Is he based on anyone we know? You may think so, but she couldn’t possibly comment, demurs Morin, confiding that she has actually been for drinks to a Park Lane penthouse owned by one of "Toady’s" cronies. "But he doesn’t have red hair."
In order to protect the guilty, Morin won’t name names, which is probably just as well given the litany of scandalous events chronicled in the book. She wrote it in a very expensive room at the drop-dead cool Sanderson hotel in London, having moved there after her flat was infested by "beasties". She and Watson had brought back several bags of saffron from a trip to Istanbul. "I woke one morning when Don was away to find the kitchen had been invaded by insects, which it turned out had come from the saffron. The place had to be fumigated, so I moved out."
It was fashion week in London. The Sanderson was full of fashionistas. "The sort of people who are not intelligent enough to do their job and take drugs at the same time, but who think they are," says Morin. She was struck by the similarities between fashion and politics. "Both worlds are vacuous and empty. Fashion is supposed to be trivial and politics serious, but the people are just the same - really stupid. The only good thing about fashion is the people are thinner. I also wanted to write a novel that was quite London and very 21st century - sort of Oscar Wilde meets Pulp Fiction, with lots of creepy characters, some of whom are real people with red hair, like Ruby Wax and Chris Evans, who have walk-ons."
Robbie Williams gets a name check - for his "wee fat legs" - and Sophira, the heroine of Lampshades, Morin’s first novel, about a teenage girl’s obsession with Hitler, also features. As does the author herself, in the guise of Maria Money, the protagonist of her second book, the heavily autobiographical Dead Glamorous, which is based on the "grotesque gallery" of characters in her own family "but with added charm".
"Gossip about the Money family never dries up in the Scottish papers," she writes in Penniless in Park Lane. "Rumour has it that [Maria’s] brother killed himself because she broke off their affair. You wouldn’t know to look at her. She has the face of an angel. Some girls never spoil."
Carole Morin’s brother, John, did commit suicide and she does indeed have angelic features. The siblings were born just a year apart and for many years were virtually joined at the hip. But John never threw off his teenage attraction to self-destruction. Like his idols, Marilyn Monroe, Sylvia Plath and Sid Vicious, he killed himself, shaming the family by jumping off the roof of one of the tenements owned by his grandfather. He was 26.
Morin doesn’t mind if people think she’s Maria Money. It is not hard to work it out but Morin herself refuses to reveal her family’s real name, preferring the surname Money instead. She couldn’t care less if people believe her love for her brother was incestuous. "People are free to make whatever they want of what I write. I love it when people think the truth is lies and lies are true. I can’t stop people thinking what they want to think, but you’ll never know whether I had an affair with my brother or not. That’s what gives my book Dead Glamorous its mysterious, seductive, ambiguous quality."
Along with sex and money, death also fascinates Morin. "It’s not morbid because I don’t think death is a bad thing, so that somehow alleviates the terror." In Dead Glamorous she wrote that in her memories her brother "will always be Montgomery Clift in A Place in the Sun - flawed, mesmerising, doomed. He has left an echo in my soul". After his death she received a letter from him that contained a curl of his hair inside a locket.
"I think of him as being happy in heaven because I have this total, absolute religious conviction, although in a funny way I’m glad he’s dead," she says today. When she was four, John taught her to read and write, and when people came to visit she would sit on the floor wearing a fake diamond tiara, writing deadly accurate thumbnail sketches of them, ruthlessly picking up on their peculiarities. She sold her stories back to her victims for cash. When her aunts worried aloud that the tiara might be squeezing her "wee brain", the mouthy four-year-old would retort: "There’s nothing small about my brain."
Morin was born and raised in one of her grandfather’s smoke-blackened east end tenements. Her grandfather’s empire included 60 slum tenements in Bridgeton. A millionaire, he continued living on the top floor of one of his own slums. Morin’s mother Maggie is the youngest of his seven blonde daughters. The beauty of the family, Maggie inherited his fortune, the property empire and various trusts on the grounds that she would make the best use of it. She did, and like Viv Nicholson, the infamous pools winner, her philosophy was: "Spend, spend, spend!" The inheritance is almost gone now, since she never invested a brass farthing.
Instead, Maggie swanned off to the Ritz in London, the George V in Paris and the Danieli in Venice. From Morin’s perspective, life was an ongoing series of treats - designer clothes, ice-creams and gondola rides. "I was a spoiled little girl, I always got what I wanted. I still do, I suppose," she says, surveying her glamorous, white-carpeted surroundings. Currently penning her fourth novel, she’s also working on an original screenplay, Flesh World.
On the paternal side, Morin’s father John still lives in grandfather’s top-floor tenement. He was an alcoholic, but has miraculously reformed and, says Morin, looks even more like Paul Newman than he did when all seven sisters were in love with him. To his daughter he has always been a shadowy extra in her life. Otherwise, her relatives are thrilled to be grist to her fictional mill. Her four surviving aunts carry copies of Dead Glamorous around in their handbags and argue about who has the most mentions. Recently, her father was thrilled when a Glasgow doctor asked whether he was related to the famous writer. "Yes, she’s my sister," he replied. "He’s obviously barking mad," shrugs the daughter.
Educated at an east end comprehensive, Morin won top marks in everything. So much for the aunts’ fears about that tiara shrinking her brain. At 16 she won a scholarship to an American school but hated it: "It was full of spoilt, brattish kids." Next she went to Harvard medical school for two years and hated that, too: "The students just simulated sex with skeletons all the time." Moving to New York she enrolled in acting school, which led her to the conclusion that "all actors are stupid. The more active mind cannot function as an actor".
Back in London she became associate editor of Granta, the literary magazine, and now boasts that she escaped with the company credit card. She published stories in Faber’s First Fictions, wrote columns and ran the Fun Film Club at Wormwood Scrubs, showing films such as Clockwork Orange and Reservoir Dogs to convicted murderers and rapists.
At one stage Morin joined the Samaritans because she was fascinated by suicide, but soon found it "incredibly boring" - calls from people whingeing because they couldn’t pay their bills. She also did a stint as a writing fellow at the University of East Anglia - "the most boring place on earth". She’s never wanted to have a job because she’s loathed every one she’s ever done. "Writing books is for people like me who can’t do anything else and who like lying in bed all day," she says.
In 1991 she published Lampshades, written while she was suffering from tuberculosis in the fourth toe of her right foot. All her life Morin longed to get TB because "it’s so romantic, like Emily Bront‘ and Vivien Leigh. It makes you pale, frail and dangerous to kiss". Curiously, there was no shadow on her lung. It was her Immaculate Consumption, according to the husband she calls Dangerous Donald. Watson fell in love with her reading one of her stories and seeing her picture. He tracked down her phone number and she proposed to him after three phone conversations.
Four dates, hundreds of phone calls and six months later, they married. The bride was dressed in scarlet chiffon, the groom in military-look grey, the male bridesmaid was in white and the guests - "only friends, no queer relatives" - in black. They honeymooned in Berlin. He’s "a thrill a minute", she says, although her mother warns her daughter she should "be careful of all that happiness".
"A lot of people find our marriage kind of creepy," admits Morin. "My mother thinks it’s disgusting that we still hold hands in public. She says it’s not healthy, that there must be violence behind closed doors and that we only act happy. I tell her she’s basing her crazy opinions on her own experience of marriage as something black and terrible."
Her mother is convinced that Dangerous, the son of a renowned scientist who discovered herpes, is a spy. He actually travels the world as "a cultural diplomat" for organisations such as the British Council. Maggie insists that wherever he goes there’s always a revolution in his wake. When he’s home, Morin says their domestic life is pillow fights, champagne breakfasts and dancing cheek-to-cheek around their apartment.
In 1997 the pair converted to Catholicism. "God is dead glamorous," purrs Morin. But why become a Catholic when all the family are rabid Protestants? "To me it’s a beautiful, sensual thing, which I find really gorgeous. I always tell people that Dangerous and I gave up guilt for Lent and we never picked it up again," she replies with a wicked smile. n
Penniless in Park Lane by Carole Morin