17 OCTOBER 1998, Page 34

What dire effects from civil discords flow

Keith Cooper

A HOUSE DIVIDED by Mary Allen Simon & Schuster, £16.99, pp. 304 Frustratingly, my review copy of Mary Allen's diaries had no index. Well, if you had worked with her, wouldn't you go straight to the index to see how many times your name appeared? But I had no choice but to start from the beginning and relive what were some of Mary's darkest moments during her six-month reign as Chief Executive of the Royal Opera House. Those six months had their dark moments for me, too.

As serialised in the Times last week, the diaries failed to live up to the advance publicity: high on financial detail, but dis- appointingly low on insight (and gossip). Fortunately the complete work has more spice — in fact considerably more. At times Mary outdoes Delia Smith in her passion for creating new recipes. When in doubt whether Hindemith's Mathis der Maier is a more suitable opera for the Royal Opera's opening season in 2000 than Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre, she exper- iments with tempting combinations of sautéed spinach and pine nuts with seared beef fillets. As things get worse, her culi- nary adventures escalate, as does her waistline!

It is the contrast between nervy dictator and housewife superstar that is the great- est surprise: the woman is full of contradic- tions. Ruthlessly ambitious and hugely opinionated, she is also a hopeless roman- tic, obviously, and touchingly, very much in love and loved. After battling it out with the likes of Vivien Duffield, one of the ROH's most generous patrons, or her recalcitrant management colleagues, she yearns for a domestic life of gardening and entertaining friends to dinner in the golden glow of an autumnal sunset. Such misty prose sits as uneasily as her quotes from St Mark's Gospel or the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. I must say I prefer Mary as her- self rather than as Joanna Trollope.

Nonetheless, it is a pleasure of sorts to read that once when it all got too much she threw caution and her clothes to the wind and jumped into the freezing North Sea, then lay hugging her husband Nigel until dusk, wrapped in a blanket. It may not be From Here to Eternity, but it beats inter- minable boardroom wrangles and excruci- ating descriptions of Nigel's perfect rare lamb and exquisite gravy. If there's symbol- ism there, I missed it.

What is more, it shows a spontaneity sorely lacking elsewhere. She has clearly removed much about her involvement in the ROH board's mass resignation in December and her part in the Chairman, Lord Chadlington's startling fall onto his sword. She also glosses over the depths of depression to which she plummeted when reading Gerald Kaufmann's Select Com- mittee report. Perhaps those wounds are still too raw even for the diary.

It was intriguing to read about her discussions with others about my own future, like eavesdropping without the guilt. However, those entries only served to remind me that what Mary knows about marketing could be written on the back of a postage stamp. There is no point in dis- cussing strategies until you have decided on product and price within the context of demand and available resources. But that is history. I kept thinking about the hours, days and months we all wasted in meetings with assessors, consultants, non-executive directors, boards, trusts and committees. If only we had been allowed to get on with the job we were all perfectly qualified to do.

Opera- and ballet-lovers will wonder why the art forms themselves hardly feature in the boardroom wrangles. What was it all about? For all her scrupulous accuracy in recording those interminable meetings (of egos, seldom minds) she never uncovers why the financial situation deteriorated so rapidly during 1997, although as Secretary General of the Arts Council she should have known how bad things were getting long before.

It was in the closing pages that I began to both admire and tire of Mary. She seems to offer her resignation on every ninth page throughout the book, but in recounting the events of February and March this becomes every ninth line. You long for someone to accept it. Initially she seems to crave reas- surance from her board and colleagues that they are not bothered by the manner of her appointment and believe she has the skills to do the job. But later her 'get me out of here' becomes a plea from the heart, the same weary-to-the-bone desperation that Genista McIntosh, her predecessor, must have felt.

The way the ROH had affected her in six months was what she thought had hap- pened to me over six years: drained my objectivity and damaged my judgment. However, it isn't the ROH itself which does that — how could it? It is people who cause damage. Her descriptions of meetings with Chadlington's replacement, the new Chair- man Sir Colin Southgate, are laced with bit- terness and cruelly revealing. For a woman who seems much happier in men's company and is used to getting her way with them, it must have been a surprise that they failed to get on. However, the increasingly bizarre way she was treated by him (including his asking one of her staff to write the ROH's crucial response to the Eyre review) does not provide much confidence for the future as long as such governance remains.

What she reveals, in telling detail, is how (but not really why) so many talented peo- ple are defeated by the tensions and com- plexities of the ROH structure. Its numerous reporting lines and over a dozen power-bases, all working with the best interests of the ROH at heart, are seldom co-ordinated and often in conflict. Add to that artistic temperament, financial insecu- rity and a management too slow to change and Mary's frustration and increasing des- peration become understandable.

The other recurring theme is of some- thing akin to narcolepsy, the strange dis- ease that afflicts River Phoenix in Gus van Sant's disturbing film My Private Idaho. At moments of enormous stress sufferers sim- ply fall into a heavy sleep wherever they find themselves. So, too, does Mary. The film's anti-heroes are simply running on empty. At the end so, too, was Mary. I hope writing this diary has helped her recover.

Keith Cooper was director of corporate affairs at the Royal Opera House from 1992-98.