Tales of the City: Mad, bad and dangerous to publish

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The Independent Online

All credit to the publishing house of John Murray for selling their priceless archive of literary memorabilia to the National Library of Scotland, where, in theory, we shall be able at last to clap eyes on Jane Austen's bookkeeping ledger ("Length of pale blue ribbon purchased for dear Cassandra's anniversary, 2d. One mob cap, white w/ lace trim, from Howards Haberdashers, 6d. Half gram cocayne from Mr Jazz E Brown of Cheapside, £2 10s 0d..."), and letters from David Livingstone ("Am still stuck in confounded Kalahari. No water. No sign of Lake Ngami. Shoulder gored by wounded lion. In excruciating agony. How things in London? Please write back with all gossip - DL"), Gladstone and Disraeli. It would be even handier if the Murray family could have found a library buyer slightly closer to London, but we cannot have everything.

The Murray headquarters in Albemarle Street, London, is a wonderful house, with a strange, ghostly echo in the downstairs cloakroom, and an indefinable air of bookish dignity and clubman intrigue about the drawing-room on the first floor. I've stood in there many times at book launches, trembling slightly to think of the heroic figures - Dickens, Shelley, Trollope - who stood on the same floor, looking through the same window, in centuries past. But I wonder if John Murray VII, the genial scion of the dynasty, will think with a wry smile of the prize that should by rights be in his £33m archive, and isn't.

Because it was in this very room on 18 May 1824 that one of the worst decisions in literary history was made. Word had reached the publishers that day that Lord Byron had died in Greece. Six years before, Byron had given the manuscript of his memoirs to his best pal, Thomas Moore, who had passed it to John Murray II for editing and (he thought) safe-keeping.

On hearing of the death, Murray summoned members of staff and intimate friends, and they pondered what to do with the dynamite revelations contained on the pages in front of them. Gripped by some collective madness or funk, they decided that the memoirs might prove far too scandalous to publish, and hastily tore up the pages and burnt them in the grate. They burnt Byron's memoirs! Without even reading them first! What would any library in the world not pay for such a prize today? Unless, of course, a second copy has been stashed away, unbeknown to us, in an upstairs room, for all these years...

Best actress in a misleading role...

Charlize Theron is one of the great beauties of the age and, by all accounts, acts up a storm as the serial murderer Aileen Wuornos in the film Monster - one of those movies whose existence you note with a sage nod of approval, while privately deciding that nothing short of a million-pound gift from the producers would make you actually go and see it. But I suspect that Thabo Mbeki, the President of her native South Africa, may be overdoing the significance of her triumph in picking up the best actress Oscar.

As the world now knows, Ms Theron suffered a deeply traumatic childhood in a small Afrikaner mining town 20 miles east of Johannesburg. Her parents were separated. One night, her father Charles came round in a drunken rage, fired a shotgun through Charlize's bedroom door, and was shot dead by her mother. No charges were ever brought against her. Until recently, Charlize concealed the ghastly story, saying that her father had died in a car crash. In due course she finished her education and, at her mother's urging, went into topless modelling until she'd made enough money to head for Hollywood, where her life took off in LA.

President Mbeki sees her career trajectory as a triumph for the Republic, along the lines of JM Coetzee winning the Nobel prize for his parables of post-apartheid reconciliation. He calls it "a triumph of new South African opportunity... Ms Theron, in her personal life, represents a grand metaphor of South Africa's move from agony to achievement. We rejoice in the recognition by the most critical minds in filming that Charlize Theron is pure gold."

Well, up to a point, Mr President. Ms Theron's attitude to the land of her horrible childhood was to leave the place as fast as her elegant legs could carry her, forge a career several thousand miles away, lose her accent and block out the past for 13 years. I don't think she can be signed up by the South African Tourist Board quite yet.

A music mogul's greatest writs

The memoirs of Walter Yetnikoff, the brawling, egomaniacal head of CBS Records from the 1970s to the 1990s, as recorded in Howling at the Moon, make terrific reading. You may have seen stories in the Sunday newspapers about Yetnikoff's baby-minder relationship with Michael Jackson (who used to whisper in Walter's ear at awards ceremonies: "I have to tinkle. Can you take me to the potty?").

Amid all the sexual braggadocio and the recital of druggy excesses, Wally reports some terrific battles, such as the long screaming match between him and Paul Simon, who was about to be signed by Warner but owed CBS one more record.

After a row over whether the contract was worth $14m or $14.5m, Simon announced: "I've decided to put a series of Elizabethan sonnets to music. That's going to be my new album." Yetnikoff hit the roof, insulted the sensitive singer-songwriter's modest stature ("For a teeny tiny little squirt, you've got a big mouth") and told him to do a proper album or die trying.

There followed a war of writs, lawyers and the enlisting by Simon of his famous friends, James Taylor and Billy Joel, both CBS giants. Finally, Warner signed him up. His first move was to write the movie One Trick Pony, in which, as Yetnikoff observes, "a sadly misunderstood artist of unwavering integrity battles a heartless and exploitative music label". It featured a shady corporate bully called Walter Fox with a gorgeous wife, whom the Simon-like hero gets to shag. "That was Paul's revenge," Yetnikoff says. "My revenge was the box office: both the movie and the soundtrack were resounding flops."

It certainly scotches any notion that American creative types are a lot of big kids, doesn't it?

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