John Walsh: Terrible secrets of the famous? Now tell us something we didn't know already

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The Independent Online

I leapt at the weekend newspapers to learn what one front page described as "The Terrible Secrets of Bret Easton Ellis" while noting that, elsewhere, I could learn new revelations about Alan Bennett, an extract from whose family memoir was splashed across a spread under the heading, "Every family has a secret - including ours."

Talk about whet my appetite. Ellis, the author of American Psycho and Glamorama, is a secretive man with a uniquely perverse imagination, a pasty, expressionless face and a collection of Armani suits. He writes about the amoral superficiality of modern New York and LA, the sandstorm of cocaine and the nights of meaningless, hardbody sex. He's a bit of a clam and an enigma, and I welcomed finding out the truth.

Bennett is an exceptionally gifted and powerful writer who seems content to lurk behind the persona of a rumpled and moth-eaten soft toy; one that (if you listen to Dead Ringers) occasionally comes to life to share a pot of tea and a macaroon with Thora Hird. Now we'd learn the secrets of what energised him all through his strange life.

We learned about his parents. They were not well-to-do. They did not swagger. They were shy people, not unfriendly but convinced they were probably a bit tedious to meet. They lacked worldliness, knew their place and dressed in restrained clothing. Bennett's mother was both entranced and appalled by the idea of sophistication. Cocktails and sausages on sticks were as mysterious to her as uranium...

But hang on. Don't we know all this already? I've read about Bennett's Mam and Dad at least a dozen times in the past. I know all about them. I probably know her better than some of my parents' friends. I know how excited she was to find a hotel en-suite lavatory where the maid folded the end of the loo-paper into a pert arrow-shape. I know what she thought of TS Eliot's fancy overcoat. Where were the secrets?

I turned to Bret Easton Ellis. The extracts were from the first chapter of his new novel, Lunar Park, and were fascinatingly autobiographical (though heavily embroidered). They explained how success had come to him early, that he'd been part of Manhattan's trendy Brat Pack, that he took lots of drugs, hung out in expensive restaurants, dated lots of vapid blondes (though once he flirted with men) and had a son via a woman he later married. Jeepers. Was that it? Where, apart from the kid, were the secrets?

Both Bret and Bennett were giving us secrets that were wholly predictable - life as advertised. Had Bennett confessed to spending his time hoovering up speed in the Ten Club's lavabo and squiring £3,000-a-night Nautch girls to the Venice Biennale, we'd be getting somewhere. Had Bret confessed, shamefacedly, to having been a Trappist monk before becoming a shyness counsellor with nice sensible hobbies (goat husbandry, golf, tending his allotment) we wouldn't have felt let down. If each had confessed to secretly living the other's life, we'd have felt it was a secret worth revealing.

The subject of royalty is dominating the landscape at present - Helen Mirren becoming Elizabeth I on Channel 4, David Starkey introducing the world to Monarchy on TV, Kevin Spacey impersonating Richard II at the Old Vic, Camilla Parker Bowles dancing with Mick Jagger at her son's wedding - so maybe it's not all that weird to find Our Island Story in the Amazon Top 10 bestsellers list.

Did you read H E Marshall's book when you were little? First published in 1905, it presented the history of England as a procession of Kings and Queens, most of them "noble of gesture", "fair of countenance", "regal of bearing" and invariably "wise and just" in making laws. When they weren't being noble, they were gathering brave knights around them, conducting battles with Spain, and sending chaps off to straighten out fuzzy-haired blighters in foreign parts.

As old-fashioned as a beadle consuming a weal-an'-hammer pie, it jumbled facts and myth (Camelot and the sword in the stone are treated as entirely true), stirred in a hundred tall stories about cake-burning and beard-singeing, and put both the cause of republicanism and the onset of New Historicism back several decades. It galvanised Antonia Fraser and Andrew Roberts into becoming historians, and was ridiculed in 1066 and All That.

I dug out a mildewed copy and marvelled at how it fetishised the trappings of the warrior classes ("Round the lists were seats where fair ladies and great princes sat to watch the tournament.") But, on looking at the new edition, something seemed to be missing. It took a while to track it down. It was homosexuality. More precisely, the word "gay", which turns up with astonishing regularity in the original. In the chapter about Henry I, we learn that his doomed son "Prince William was young and gay," and given to carousing with a "gay company" of "gay knights" before they all died at sea when their "gay ship" hit a rock.

Henrietta Marshall, the author, uses the word in such louche contexts ("A second handsome boy, even more handsome, gay and princely than Lambert Simnel, landed in Ireland") that you start to suspect she knew what would happen to it ...

I checked the relevant passages in the new edition, thinking how blissfully they would be received in today's ninth-year history classes - but all the gays have gone, to be replaced by "merry" and "colourful." Such a shame.