Remainders of the day

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Betjeman family scorn spying claim read the headlines this week, in response to the recent startling news that Sir John Betjeman, the former Poet Laureate, was once a spy for the British Colonial Office while working in Dublin during the Second World War, according to his biographer, Bevis Hillier. Could such things be? Could the national teddy bear really have been mixed up in espionage? More to the point, can biographers rely on the reading public's apparently limitless capacity to believe 20 unimaginable things before lunch? One thing is clear: there's more of it to come. The Independent has gained privileged access to a number of new revisionist works en route to the remaindered bookshops, and offers a sneak preview of the newspaper articles that will greet them

Kelly Brook `master criminal' sensation

The buxom and apparently clueless co-presenter of The Big Breakfast was the brains behind a secret ring of international agents, working to destabilise Western democracies through a network of devastatingly complicated encryption codes, according to a controversial new biography by Tony Parsons. "We're not dealing with any common-or-garden evil genius here," Sir Crispin Hodges, head of M15, reportedly tells Parsons. "She is the Josephine of crime. Ruthless. Hyperarticulate. An alpha brain. Speaks 12 languages, from Slav to Sanskrit. It took ages to rumble what she was up to on the breakfast show. Every time she appeared to mangle her words or lose her place in the script, she was sending signals to ruthless operatives in Kurdistan and the Basque region. When she pronounced `intrepid' as `interpid' on live television, or said `I'd love to take a holiday but nobody will give me one', whole platoons of agents sprang into action, from Galway to Minsk." Brook, who is temporarily suspended from Channel 4 pending an internal investigation, is said to be "not bothered" by the uproar, and is planning a documentary series on the legacy of Alan Turing.

Boris Yeltsin `was Headless Man' shock

The Russian President Boris Yeltsin, 68, was not a poor peasant from Butka, as Russian Federation records claim, but an aristocratic grandee from St Petersburg who, when young, spent several months a year travelling in the fleshpots of Europe, reveals a startling new biography by Tom Bower. In 1963, when allegedly working as Senior Project Superintendent in the Sverdlovsk region, he was in fact living in chambers at Albany, central London, indulging his love of theatre matinees, silk dressing-gowns and horse's neck cocktails. It was then that he met Margaret, Duchess of Argyll. Their affair was short-lived, but a Polaroid photo taken in the mirror by Mr Yeltsin while having sex with the Duchess in 1963 caused a social scandal. "I don't remyembyer anythying about any Myargaret," a befuddled Yeltsin tells Bower, "but the myargaritas were fyantyastyic."

Holyfield `secretly white' shock

The American NBA world-champion boxer Evander Holyfield, once thought to be Afro-Caribbean, started life as a Caucasian, says an explosive biography by Hugh McIlvanney. He also appeared on the West End stage, dancing the role of Fairy Carabosse in a benefit for Dame Ninette de Valois. Holyfield was born Gervase ("Binky") Thrubshaw in Godalming, Surrey, attended the Miss Porter Dance Academy in Farnham, and was destined for a career as a principal dancer with Sadler's Wells. By the age of 15, however, an imbalance of melanin had darkened his skin and he began to receive unkind taunts and racial abuse. One day, according to McIlvanney, he retaliated to a hurtful remark from Julian "Beastly" Fotheringham with a punch on the nose, a dozen short jabs to the solar plexus, a left uppercut and haymaker right-cross, and an attempted ear-biting incident that was kept from the police only by the timely intervention of Sir Frederick Ashton. Thrubshaw's ballet career was over. His prospects of working in England were nil. His name was mud. So he changed it to Evander Holyfield, emigrated to Chicago and began working out in low-rent gymnasia as his skin grew darker and his hair fell out. A meeting with Don King brought fame and fortune. But, says McIlvanney, the former Binky Thrubshaw never forgot his first love. "If Ah could finish off Lewis," he growled to the author, "maybe they'd let me have a crack at Elite Syncopations."

Gallagher `strict vegan mystic'

Liam Gallagher led a double life for much of the Nineties, according to a searching new biography by Tom Paulin. He alternated drunken brawling with an impassioned search for inner truth and enlightenment. "It was all a bit of a performance, actually," the Oasis singer and hellraiser tells a dubious Paulin in chapter six. "I never took anything stronger than Haliborange tablets in my life, and my favourite tipple was Kaliber low-alcohol lager. But one had a certain reputation to keep up." Whenever possible, he would slip away from parties at Soho House and check in to the Theravada Buddhist Temple in Collier's Wood. "Basically, I was searching for a karmic resolution of my different levels of being," he tells a frankly sceptical Paulin in chapter nine. "I found it helpful to meditate on sounds and their relation to eternity, and see how long I could stretch out, say, the word shine into `sheeee-eyeeeeeeeeee-nnnnnn'. It was a very pure but intense experience. It put me closer in touch with my Inner Hooligan."

Widdecombe `former madam' shock

The shadow health spokesman Ann Widdecombe spied for Britain while living in Paris in 1968, according to a startling new biography by Andrew Morton. Dressed in torn fishnet stockings and a tight black skirt slashed to the thigh, Widdecombe was a familiar figure in the notorious Rue de St-Denis, an untipped Gauloise never far from her lips as she loitered in the doorway of the Quelque Chose de la Nuit niteclub. But, while pretending to run a house of ill-repute, she secretly observed the student revolutionaries who were erecting barricades in the street and throwing cobbles at the police in August that year. Widdecombe went to Paris as a mole for Scotland Yard but, following a passionate liaison with Daniel Cohn-Bendit, changed allegiances and tried to foment unrest back in London among the snoring ranks of the National Union of Students.

Sinatra `tone-deaf' probe

The late Frank Sinatra, perhaps the most popular singer of all time, never wanted to sing at all and was happier doing office work, says a gripping new biography by Sheridan Morley. Tone-deaf and unable to read music, he enjoyed a satisfying career as a junior executive in a Hoboken insurance company until he fell foul of Alberto "Bad Fella" Vitapointe, the unscrupulous gangland boss. An enthusiastic but luckless gambler, Sinatra ran up a $30,000 gambling debt in Vitapointe's casino and couldn't pay. The hood threatened to cut Sinatra's legs into slices and feed them to him in pumpernickel sandwiches. The insurance salesman had no collateral. Things were looking bad. But then he remembered that the Sicilian gangster had a sentimental attachment to Gershwin's "Someone to Watch Over Me", so he sang it to him, in flat and quavering tones. With streaming eyes, Vitapointe offered him a contract to perform in the supper room until the debt was paid. Sinatra's voice improved and his rendition of "We Gotta Get Out of This Place" led to his first recording. He never, says the author drily, touched pumpernickel again.

Einstein `could not do up shoelaces'

The most influential scientist of the 20th century, Albert Einstein suffered from a chronic inability to perform basic feats of manual dexterity, according to an outspoken biography by Melvyn Bragg. He could not pick up cups of tea, thread needles, comb his hair or play the piano, and never learnt to tie his shoelaces. His parents, thinking him educationally sub-normal, stopped trying to teach him after the age of four. Consequently, as he grew older his appearance became increasingly dishevelled. He was famous in the streets of Bern for his trailing laces and was followed everywhere by cries of: "Do them up or you'll trip over!" The book also solves the mystery of why Einstein was never awarded the Nobel Prize for his work on relativity. "All that fiddling with bow-ties drove me mad," he told a friend. "I couldn't stand the formality, standing on stage making speeches. Made me feel like an MC squared."

Hague once `interesting' claim stuns Westminster

The Leader of the Opposition, William Hague, long thought to be a byword in featureless anonymity, spent a brief period being "quite interesting", according to a sensational new biography by Amanda Platell. It was during a holiday in Snowdonia, after Mr Hague graduated from university but before he first stood for Parliament. "He did a lot of climbing and reading political philosophy and studying Welsh linguistics," writes Platell, "but a Mr and Mrs Humphries from north London, who were holidaying in Porthmadog at the time, met him in a pub and swear he was `really rather intriguing' for at least 20 minutes". Unfortunately, the subject about which Mr Hague was interesting remains a mystery.