It was only when Sue Lawley asked me, ‘So, why did write a biography of Graham Greene?’ that I was pole-axed.
I was struck down with a bizarre and unexpected case of deja vu at a charity fund-raising lunch on Thursday when I sat next to the broadcaster Sue Lawley.
The lunch – at Papillon restaurant on Draycott Avenue in Chelsea, owned by former banker turned Euro-society restauranteur Soren Jesson – was in aid of PACT, the excellent child abduction charity set up by Catherine Meyer, the glamorous wife of Sir Christopher Meyer, the former British ambassador in Washington.
Ever since Lady Meyer had me to stay for a week at the British Embassy in Washington back in 1999 – I was an impoverished author without a hotel who had already spent his entire advance – whilst I was doing the research for a book I was writing about Graham Greene (whose papers are in Georgetown University), I have been indebted to her. I have been happy to support her charity whenever possible.
Sir Christopher himself couldn’t be there at the lunch because he was chained to his desk, probably wearing a pair of track-suit bottoms or maybe still in his pyjamas, pounding out another 3000 or so words to meet a savage deadline for his History of Diplomacy which will also be turned into a TV series.
As a result of Sir Christopher being absent, and the fact Papillon is famous for lunch with the Chelsea society ladies set, there was a shortage of men.
So when I found myself sitting next to Sue Lawley, who presented Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs from 1988 to 2006, I was delighted. And she was great and amusing company, not the least when she started up on the subject of the zealous harridan types (the type that Tom Sharpe used to satirize so well) that are inevitably the gung-ho forces behind literary festivals.
This is a subject close to my heart at the moment as (once the builders get paid off) my wife and I are hoping to start a mini literary festival at my place in the country which will hopefully be a fringe festival to Hay, which is about 45 minutes from my house in Shropshire. As we chatted about literary festivals, all was fine.
It was only when Lawley turned and asked me, ‘So, why did you decide to write a biography of Graham Greene?’ that I was pole-axed. Suddenly I couldn’t swallow the tips of my buttery soft fresh English asparagus – the first of the season.
Again, that all too familiar Lawley inquisitor’s accent – which I had listened to hundreds of times on the BBC’s Nine O’Clock News and Desert Island Discs – repeated the perfectly innocent question to her lunching neighbour: ‘William – why did you choose Graham Greene as a biographical subject?’
For a surreal and uncomfortable moment, I felt as if I was back on Radio 4’s Start the Week in 2001 when Jeremy Paxman made me squirm by asking almost exactly the same question to kick off the show in the week my Graham Greene book was published.
The reason Paxman’s question had been so lethal was that what Paxman didn’t know as we went on air was that as we were speaking live, Norman Sherry – Greene’s official biographer – was busy with his legal team at Random House in America doing everything they could to get my publishers, Little Brown, to pulp all 15,000 copies of my book that were now sitting in bookstores and warehouses across the country.
The reason for this legal attack was that Sherry argued that he and ONLY he had the right to be Greene’s official biographer, and to use quotes from his unpublished letters and diaries as well as his copyrighted works.
Although I had been given permission to use all this unpublished new material by the Greene estate – thanks to Francis Greene, Greene’s son, who was thoroughly disillusioned with Sherry’s snail-pace efforts at ever finishing the biography after 30 years – Sherry argued that my book was ‘illegal’ as Greene had purportedly signed a document on his death-bed saying that nobody else could publish any unpublished material until Sherry had finished his official duties.
Since my lawyers at Little Brown defended the book on the grounds that my book was ‘not’ a biography, the very last question I wanted to be asked was anything that described my book in such terms.
So there I was at 9.05 am in the morning trying breathlessly to argue that my book wasn’t any sort of biography burt rather was ‘an investigation into the creative debt that literature owes adultery’ – in this case the 15 years affair between Graham Greene and his lover Catherine Walston which inspired The End of the Affair.
I don’t think it was an especially successful defence of the book as it clearly was another attempt to cash in on the Greene biography wagon. Until thrown by Lawley’s unmistakable Radio 4 questioner’s voice, I had long forgotten how acutely uncomfortable I had felt when grilled live by Paxman.
As I tried to defend myself on air, I had visions of the entire print run being crushed into a pulp. The vision returned for one horrible moment when I had my own little madeleine cake moment a la Lawley.
It’s a problem all journalists face, although I suspect it is much worse when you are one of Britain’s best known broadcasting voices. I would imagine it is a nightmare for Paxman, David Dimbleby and the likes of my Newsnight friend Emily Maitlis.
I’ve certainly been accused of interrogating people rather than talking to them. You’re sitting at dinner with somebody you probably don’t know very well, and suddenly they say: ‘Is this an interview? You’re not a journalist are you?’
Now I always answer: ‘Absolutely not – I’m a publisher.’