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Goebbels & Gladys

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John Murray, London, 1981
hardback price: 6.95; 190 pages

dedication: For Sara

The blurb on the back:

Journalist Hedley Verity writes about royal indiscretions, spies in high places, political sex scandals, the untold secrets of World War II and other stories that are believed to sell newspapers.
The story he is currently preparing, or making up, depending on how you look at it - Verity's own phrase is 'instinctive journalism' - is the secret love life of Goebbels, 'the PR man with the most difficult client in the world.'
He does most of his writing at home, which he shares with Gladys, his black girlfriend, who likes making love in the bath and whose only drawback is that she wants to live in a country cottage. He regards his desk at the office as his place in the hive, where he enjoys the company of colleagues and the gossip about who's crawling up the ladder and who's screwing who. For Verity his newspaper is a gentle place, 'a protection against the world outside.'
But Goebbels and Gladys and the other people in Verity's life - like his colleague Harry Beans, who believes that Nixon is innocent and that Kennedy worked for the KGB - lead him into series of adventures that have curious consequences and provide sharp, ironic, very funny insights into the intrigues and little white lies of the media.

opening lines:
This is a book about newspapers and the stories they tell. I think that is quite a satisfactory opening sentence.

I like Fleet Street novels - as I may have told you before - and this is a particularly nice little sample of the genre.

There are two key characteristics of the tabloid world: a tone of sentimental cynicism, and a belief that nothing a newspaper does has any consequences at all. The first is laughable, and thus makes for a great source of comedy, whilst the latter is all too horribly untrue: the kids down at the gutter end of British newspapers seem to think they live in a playpen where no one can get hurt, and in the process they destroy lives and culture with a casual disregard that borders on the evil. One is reminded of that Frank Zappa song on the lines of: 'What's the ugliest part of your body ... I think it's your mind.' If tabloids have a mind, then 'ugly' is surely the appropriate adjective.

The joy of the fictional version, on the other hand, is that it is genuinely (and literally) inconsequential. So the idea of a hack inventing Goebbels' private diary about his sexual conquests becomes quite amusing, and you can come away from this novel thinking that it's snappy, raises the odd laugh and passes a couple of hours most agreeably.

The sentimental cynicism is still there, of course. We're supposed to thrill to the freeform version of reporting, whilst also recognizing that journalists are - at heart - decent human beings struggling with moral questions, however much they pretend to be hard-bitten hacks:

I was going to leave the paper, but not because I was affronted by its plans to bring out a National Front supplement. That was just another sales pitch. I was leaving because I couldn't go home to Gladys each night after working on anti-black propaganda. (p.170)

Gladys, in case you didn't read the sleeve-notes, is our narrator's black girlfriend. And she doesn't exactly leap off the page as a fully rounded human being, if you see what I mean.

That aside, it's a charming book and - unlike the world it parodies - it's really quite harmless.

Mr Colquhoun
Keith Colquhoun

PS If the name of the protagonist is familiar, you're probably thinking of the great Yorkshire spin-bowler Hedley Verity, who returned figures of seven wickets for nine runs against Hampshire on the last day of the 1939 cricket season. He was killed whilst serving in the battle for Italy four years later. Why he is evoked here is unclear to me.


from the maker of...

Killing Stalin