Literati lash out over last words of 'perfumed gadfly'

The publication of a book by murder victim Robert Tewdwr Moss is angering his friends, writes John Walsh

John Walsh@johnhenrywalsh
Saturday 19 July 1997 23:02
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The carnation pong of "Malmaison" by Floris will fill the literary world's nostrils once again this autumn. Just a day after Robert Tewdwr Moss's killer was jailed for life at the Old Bailey, Moss's publisher has announced that his only book will be published on 15 October.

Entitled Cleopatra's Wedding Present: Travels in Syria, its publication by Duckworth is raising eyebrows and hackles among some of the author's friends and associates because of the gruesome circumstances of its history.

Tewdwr Moss, the perfumed gadfly of the London literary world, was murdered last August at the age of 34. Cheshire-born, London University-educated (he got a first in English) he was a talented journalist who never took himself very seriously. He preferred to write about the margins of society, inhabiting "salons" and hanging out with louche publishing friends.

Gay as a paper hat, he nonetheless accreted to his side a score of rackety women writers, some distinguished, like Beryl Bainbridge and Shena Mackay, some more notorious, like Nesta Wyn Ellis, the self-consciously fatale blonde biographer of John Major. Writing about Wyn Ellis's home once, Moss remarked approvingly its "sweet, heavy, languorous fragrance of oil", a description that applied, in spades, to himself.

He was a conspicuous dandy. With his wardrobe of velvet jackets, off- white cravats, floppy bow-ties, frayed cotton cuffs or lacy sleeves, his lycanthropic face and long black hair, his brown eyes and eyelashes of an unearthly, hawk-moth darkness, he was an attractive proposition. He loved being amusing to people, including total strangers. It was, his friends agree, his own openness and friendliness to all (whether they were potential sexual conquests or not) that did for him in the end.

Only hours before he died he had, with surpassing irony, just completed the final draft of his Syrian travel book. He had been commissioned to write it by Christopher Potter of Fourth Estate, an editor and friend, for a modest advance of pounds 8,000.

The first draft, according to Potter, was unpublishably baggy and undisciplined. It needed to be radically edited, cut by half, tidied up. Moss agreed, and put his unfeasibly chatty manuscript through a punishing number of drafts. In August last year, he finished the final draft and rang his sister to tell her. The same evening he went out, met and talked to Abdul Aziz, a 21-year-old student, and invited him back to his ground-floor flat in St Mary's Terrace. There Aziz, with an accomplice, bound Moss's hands and legs, gagged him and stuffed a pair of socks into his mouth, leaving him to suffocate. The pair stole his word processor and some money.

When the police retrieved the word processor, Moss's vital revisions had been wiped. "There was another disk," says Potter, "on which you could see how he'd been restructuring the book, trying out new chapters, revising over and over. But the completed version, of which he was so proud, was lost." Potter reluctantly concluded that, rather than call in an external editor to revise the work, it would be better to respect Moss's integrity and not publish it at all. "He knew well," said Potter, "how much work had to be done."

Potter passed on the first draft to Robin Baird-Smith of Duckworth, a close friend of Moss's who had delivered the eulogy at Moss's memorial service in St Mary's, Paddington. Baird-Smith promised that his intention was to publish a small, non-commercial, friends-only, limited edition of the first draft as a "tribute" to Tewdwr Moss.

But now the book has been professionally edited and Duckworth is in heavy negotiation with a national newspaper over serial rights. "After all Baird- Smith's undertakings, this is not a fitting tribute to Robert," said a rival publisher, darkly. Elsewhere a friend of Moss's intercepted some correspondence between Moss and Potter and leaked it to Insider, the Private Eye-style gossip magazine.

Is the book any good? I am happy to report that it is as "arch", as "floridate", as "orchidaceous" (all favourite words of Robert's) as you could wish. In the first chapter, Moss strolls languorously through Syrian souks, bars, bazaars, mosques and swathes of Byzantine history.

In the bar of the Baron Hotel in Aleppo, he encounters Dan Farson, the exuberantly florid homosexual writer and photographer. Moss goes into bitch-overdrive: "Of the many odd things about him, I could not decide whether it was his voice or his complexion which was the most peculiar. The latter was an angry red colour, and his shiny face was puffed out of all proportion to his features, like a buffalo tomato ... His voice clearly had difficulty escaping from the series of chins and dewlaps that contained it, and it was tarry and indistinct, as though issuing from a tiny megaphone."

Later he sips violet-scented tea from gold-rimmed glasses in a silk-vendor's booth and is lionised by local youths. " 'Please sir, take tea with us. Do not fear. It is nothing to worry about,' said one strange, white-faced youth called Boy George who had pale, mystical staring blue eyes. 'It is only our Syrian bestiality. I'm sorry, hospitality'...."

That's the authentic Tewdwr Moss voice, cooing spurious but irresistible little arias of gossip into medialand's ear. It is a shame he can't hear people laugh any more.

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