In the UK, this quirky tale about the vagaries of the publishing world puts writer Murray Sayle in the spotlight almost half a century after the fact. Check out the back story, too. The currency may have changed but the intrigues and class wars persist. Brush off the cobwebs. It still resonates today, and Revel Barker's website www.booksaboutjournalism.com
goes into it in depth.
He made an excuse, and left
It has taken 47 years for Murray Sayle's classic book about popular newspapers to become readily available.
(Is this a record? – Knowing a bit about publishers, possibly not.)
A CROOKED SIXPENCE tells the tale of a young Australian reporter, fresh off the boat, brimming with excitement, enthusiasm and ambition, securing casual shifts on a mass-circulation Fleet Street Sunday scandal-sheet… and the disillusion that set in very shortly afterwards.
It has been described as:
'The best novel about journalism – ever' (Phillip Knightley)…
'Effectively a documentary, lightly disguised as a novel' (Neville Stack)…
'Wonderful – the best book about British popular journalism' (Roy Greenslade)…
And 'the best novel never published' (Anthony Delano).
In fact the book was published, by MacGibbon and Kee in London and by Doubleday in New York, in 1961. A CROOKED SIXPENCE became an instant hit, and sold to Hollywood for a movie, but it lasted in print only for a number of days.
This was because a near-penniless London aristocrat believed that he was identifiable in the story and wanted to sue.
Incredibly, the would-be litigant was actually a friend of Sayle's; he had no real beef but thought that, since he'd heard that all publishers had libel insurance, he could collect a load of cash without anybody being seriously harmed.
But his get-rich-quick plan backfired because instead of paying up, or bothering their insurers, the publishers simply recalled the book and pulped it. And the Hollywood project was abandoned.
The book had lain dormant, then, until being revived in this edition.
It is available TODAY, from amazon UK (click there to go straight to it) or direct from the publisher at a Ranters' discount, or on order from any decent bookshop.
One of the most distinguished journalists to have taken the boat from Australia, MURRAY SAYLE had started work as a copy boy with the Bulletin while still at Sydney University, later becoming a reporter for the Sydney Daily Telegraph and a columnist on the (Sydney) Daily Mirror.
In 1952 he moved to London where he worked in Fleet Street – mainly as a daily casual reporter for The People – until 1956. Around that time he 'decided it was time to do some serious thinking and light starving and get used to not having a job'.
So he went to Paris and wrote his first novel.
A Crooked Sixpence is the result.
He subsidised his writing with work for Agence France Press in Paris and Geneva. From 1960 to 1973 he was a war correspondent for The Times and the Sunday Times, covering Viet Nam, the Middle East, Northern Ireland, India-Pakistan and Bolivia.
His coverage of Viet Nam earned him the Reporter Of The Year award in 1970. He was made Magazine Writer Of The Year in 1983 for his reports on the KAL 007 incident when a passenger aircraft was shot down by Soviet fighters.
His journalistic scoops included interviews with Che Guevara and with Kim Philby.
He also took part in the International Mount Everest Expedition (reporting for BBC TV) in 1970, the Round Britain Yacht Race (1971) and the Trans-Atlantic Single-Handed Yacht Race in l972 (making a film for BBC, Alone on a Wide Wide Sea, during the race).
In 1975 he moved to the Far East, becoming Asian Editor of Newsweek before going to live in Japan as a freelance. He returned to Australia, where he lives with his wife Jenny, in 2004.
In 2006 his old university – Sydney – from which he had never graduated but where he had he edited the weekly student magazine Honi Soit, awarded him an honorary doctorate and the following year he received the Medal of the Order of Australia – 'for service to media and communications, particularly as a foreign and war correspondent ' in the Queen's Birthday Honours.
After all these years A CROOKED SIXPENCE looks set to be another immediate hit in its second incarnation.
As word spread of its republishing, pre-orders on the designated amazon-uk website last week propelled sales into the top 2½ per cent of the on-line bookseller's ratings.
Classic novel republished
By Roy Greenslade
In the summer I published several extracts from Murray Sayle's classic novel about yellow journalism in the 1950s, A Crooked Sixpence.
Several people wrote asking me to tip them off should it be republished.
Well, I'm delighted to say it's now back in print after 47 years, courtesy of gentlemenranters.com, that wonderful new media outfit that celebrates old media history.
Sayle's landlord, a minor and penniless sprig of the aristocracy, Michael Alexander (Macedon in the novel, geddit?), decided to cash in by suing for libel. He, and Sayle, thought the publisher's insurance company would pay up. Instead, the book was withdrawn from sale.
Some copies did get distributed before the axe fell, which is how Stothard came to have one. Another was tracked down by a German journalism academic, Lorenz Lorenz Meyer, who kindly provided me with the copy that allowed me to run extracts.
Anyway, every journalist should read A Crooked Sixpence. So go get yours now.
I was that reporter
By John Knight
The hero of Murray Sayle's masterwork on the raffish Fleet Street of the early 1950s is Duncan (Tom) Webb, The People crime reporter. He embodied what a 'star reporter' was really meant to be.
His stories were sensational in the real meaning of that abused word. He exposed crooks and crooked policemen, the gross and the ghastly, and was the bellwether of modern investigative journalism. He was his own role model. He talked and walked the part: B-movie good looks, immaculate blazer and silk handkerchief, pipe with best aromatic Balkan tobacco, slightly broken nose, and talked deeply and quietly from the corner of his mouth.
Tom Webb was the works. Time Magazine in 1955 described him, at 37, as 'the greatest crime reporter of our time.' He was then at full throttle and died only a few years later. Murray Sayle had traditionally got off the boat from Australia to make it in Fleet Street and wangled a casual reporter's job on The People. Sam Campbell, the managing editor in charge of the paper, handed him over to Webb as a legman for his series on vice which had the country agog. It was good casting. The Aussie did well. Webb liked the aggressive Sayle who in turn saw a heroic professional reporter among a newsroom of scumbags.
Sayle, who had before him a brilliant international career as foreign correspondent and commentator, made this classic plot into his novel, A Crooked Sixpence, which on publication in 1961 ran into legal problems. Now it is published this week revealing The People, in those post-war years. The paper was hardly drowning in its sewer of hubris and humbug but triumphant with a circulation over five million.
It is the most keenly observed book on Fleet Street manners and mores that has been written, with breath-taking dialogue made for a film script and probably destined to be one. It is presented as fiction but in reality it is a documentary about Murray Sayle as 'James O'Toole', Sam Campbell called 'Cameron Barr', Nat Rothman, his sidekick as 'Nick Starsh' and Tom Webb as 'Norman Knight'. Sayle has portrayed them perfectly. All human and inhuman life was there – as I quickly found out for myself.
I was a very young Daily Mirror reporter, and did a Saturday trick on The People, in fact a double shift that went into the early hours and got the small fortune of £33. For a brief period I was also one of Webb's many casuals who went out into the Soho night for him in the early 1950s.
He was after the Messina Brothers of Sicilian-Maltese and Arabic stock who had a stranglehold on London's brothels and pornographic trade. They had the police bribed and boasted: 'We Messinas are more powerful than the British government. We do as we like in England.' They hadn't bargained for Tom Webb. My role was a junior one – small wonder that Harry Ainsworth, the editor, had said doubtfully to me before I departed to the Soho front: 'Do you think yer up to it, sonny?
My task was to walk up and down Sackville Street, near to Piccadilly Circus, trying to be solicited by streetwalkers. They seemed mostly to be well-padded middle aged French freaks with pantomime make-up. Eventually, one woman took me seriously and led me up to a room nearby.
Now the real work began. I had to establish that it was a brothel; in other words she was not the only prostitute working on the premises. So I cautiously asked her if she had another 'girl' who would join in our fun and games. She looked at me with Gallic incredulity.
'You can manage two of us?'
'Yes, I will pay for two. I must have two.' I tried to sound eager.
A shrug. 'Alice, come down 'ere,' she called along the corridor. Another prostitute more horrific than the first entered and looked me up and down. 'Okay, let's get on with it then,' she motioned to the bed.
I had been told by Webb that in no way was I to have any physical contact with any of the women. It was not going to be difficult carrying out his orders. I mumbled that I suddenly didn't feel up to it and put a couple of five-pound notes on a table.
The women picked up the money and watched me as I hurried out to the street to shrieks of their laughter. I had followed orders and made an excuse and left (this phrase had just been invented by Campbell as he dressed Tom Webb's copy).
Webb was waiting in the shadows and reassured me with: 'Well done. Now I want you to do the same thing in Brewer Street and then…' It was a long evening shift.
All this was small beer and Webb saved his big guns for big brothel busts and confronting the gangsters. He had done his homework so thoroughly that he knew all the Messina properties and prostitutes. He had his spies and paid tipsters (some in uniform) all over London's West End. The man who started life as an office boy on the London Evening Standard and fought a brave war in the Merchant Navy had a crusade against the vice barons.
Like me Sayle, who did the real heavy lifting, considered him a kind man but a ruthless operator. 'James O'Toole' in the book would go to any lengths for the 'Norman Knight' of his superb novel. But the atmosphere in the newsroom stank of treachery and duplicity.
It was a place where, as Sayle reports, 'Cameron Barr' decreed that all women under fifty-five were attractive, all Frenchmen hairdressers, and every time an aeroplane crashed some passenger had a dream warning them not to go. A broken doll was always found in the wreckage. Sayle had to make up stories about mill girls who didn't exist, answering advertisements made up by the art department to be models and dragged into sexual slavery.
'It is of no importance that the mill girl doesn't exist,' he says in the novel. 'That's what Cam says the people want to read. It saves me the trouble of convincing some deluded little girl that these things really happened. It also saves my employer some money.' And again… 'It's got the warm friendship of clean, uncompromising dishonesty.'
O'Toole is told by Barr to write a spoiler article about a popular singer whose life story is to be run by the Sunday Graphic. But O'Toole finds the singer's father who spills the beans about his son's meanness, illegitimacy and broken promises. The singer's big-breasted publicity woman successfully persuades Barr behind closed doors to pull it. When O'Toole complains, Barr storms: 'I won't have snide snobbish attacks in my newspaper. This singer is a hero to my teenage readers. It's possible you're keeping snobbish company outside the office and you've picked up some wrong attitudes without realising it. These people pay our salaries. Don't forget it.'
The humbug is complete.
A sex change case – all the rage with Sunday newspapers at that time – had written in offering his/her story. 'Go and con him that we're going to do a heart rending story about his courage,' orders Barr. 'But here's the angle – this pervert has had himself mutilated to get money out of the innocent British public…you contemptible beast.'
The reporter went to see the sex change case and found a perfectly reasonable and charming person. He told Barr: 'I am not cut out for this business. I don't know what I'm cut out for, but this is not it.' And quit.
Unnerving days in Covent Garden where, among the smell of fresh veg and stale beer in the market, Murray Sayle caught the 'delicious scent of fresh ink and paraffin, the way newspapers smell all over the world.' So it wasn't all bad.
A novel end to a literary mystery
By Richard Kay
He was a World War II hero, survivor of Colditz and lover of painter Lucian Freud's sometime muse Emily Bearn.
Now, four years after his death, adventurer Michael Alexander has been named as the mysterious litigant who destroyed the publication of writer Murray Sayle's autobiographical novel A Crooked Sixpence.
Sayle's book is about to be republished this week for the first time since it was dramatically pulped 47 years ago when Stowe-educated Alexander – ostensibly a friend of the author – halted its appearance in the hope of a payout.
His action not only scuppered the book, but deprived the distinguished Sayle, now 82, of a lucrative spin-off from a Hollywood film deal.
Alexander, who was Bearn's lover before she took up with Freud, was penniless at the time Sayle's novel appeared. He was convinced that a character in the book was based on him and thought by complaining he could make some money.
Until now the identity of the person who threatened to sue Sayle - famous for getting the only interview with spy Kim Philby after his flight to Moscow - has been kept a secret. The pulping of the book caused a sensation at the time.
'Michael Alexander believed he was identifiable as a character on the run from creditors and wanted to sue,' says a friend of Sayle. 'He'd heard all publishers had libel insurance and thought he could collect a load of cash without anyone being seriously harmed.
'Incredibly, he was a friend of Murray's. But the get-rich-quick plan backfired because the publishers simply recalled the book and pulped it.'
It's called human interest
An extract from A CROOKED SIXPENCE, by Murray Sayle
Within a short time of getting off the boat train, Australian reporter James O'Toole lands a series of casual shifts on a mass circulation Sunday newspaper, the Sunday Sun. He quickly masters the house style, assists the paper's crime man exposing vice racketeers, and is given a five-part series to write, about a girl from the provinces who ends up in London, leading 'a life of shame'…
The girl was waiting in the appointed coffee-house when O'Toole arrived. Seeing her, he realised she was the first person in London he'd recognised out of a crowd. In the first few days, he'd studied people in the street, expecting to see someone he knew round every corner, startled and disappointed by the continual echo of faces he knew, always of people who couldn't possibly be in London. After a week or so, he'd given up looking for acquaintances: there weren't any.
'Hello, Elizabeth,' said O'Toole, enjoying the minor miracle of her continued existence. 'How's the War Office?'
'Hello, James,' said the girl, smiling. 'Pretty dull, as usual. Actually I'm not supposed to talk about it outside, if you could possibly think of some other form of greeting.'
'Sorry. Strangely enough, I'm probably the only reporter in town your secrets are absolutely safe with. I can't think of a thing that could happen at the War Office that would possibly interest my employers. Especially war. But we can keep your business quiet if you like. What'll you have?'
'Just a small black, please. Slimming.'
And not a second too soon, thought O'Toole, and beat the thought back. You have to allow a certain amount of room for manoeuvre in the matter of figures, and too much always has the edge on not enough.
'What about this girl who leads a life of shame?' asked the girl, after O'Toole had ordered the coffees. 'Was she nice?'
'She's just an innocent mill-girl from Bradford,' said O'Toole. 'I'm writing her confession in five instalments. As a matter of fact, I left her being chased down a back street by a seedy stage-door Johnny in a cloth cap.'
'I'm not sure. I think she's going to win. The Sunday Sun is a paper for family reading, so I've been told.'
'You mean, you're making the whole thing up?'
'In a way, yes. It's life, but hotter, stronger and neater.'
'What a peculiar way to earn a living,' said the girl. 'Do you tell your readers it's all made up?'
The coffees arrived. O'Toole sugared his heavily, publicly, wondering if he was being spiteful and if so, what about.
'Not in so many words,' he said. 'In fact, not at all.'
'Isn't that just a teeny bit dishonest?'
'Good God, no. I mean, if you'd been connected with the other branch of the newspaper game you'd probably find it a relief.'
'Tell me about the other branch,' said the girl. 'I'm fascinated.'
'I don't believe that either,' said O'Toole. 'But you asked for it. You have to understand that newspapers are all, more or less, in two distinct kinds of business. There's the intelligence side. You know, meat will be dearer tomorrow, the president of Peru just shot himself, bond-holders beware. That sort of thing's supposed to be true. The other side's the one the money's in.'
'That's what you're in.'
'Right. It's called human interest, and it's really a branch of show business. Non-stop vaudeville, changed every day, and always leave them laughing. If you can write revue sketches and begging letters and you can clean up dirty jokes, you've got what it takes. The only difficult part about it is to get members of the public to take part in your productions.'
'This is the side that doesn't have to be true.'
'Not in the pedestrian, literal sense, no. But it has to be true within a set of conventions called "a nose for news". All women under fifty-five are attractive. All Frenchmen are hair dressers. Every time an aeroplane crashes someone had a dream warning them not to go, a broken doll was found in the wreckage, and priests gave absolution to the dying. That's what people want to read, so that's what I write. It's of no importance that the mill-girl doesn't exist, except that it saves me the trouble of convincing some deluded little girl that the things that have to happen to her really did happen. It also saves my employer some money.'
'You really despise it, under your big tough act, don't you, James?'
'You may be right about my act,' said O'Toole. 'But you're quite wrong about my attitude. Most of the time, I love it. It's got the warm friendliness of clean, uncompromising dis honesty. None of your barrow-boys polishing up the apples on the front of the stall. Mind you, I've got to admit that everyone I ever knew who was in a dirty racket said exactly the same thing: what I like about this game is it's good, clean dirt.'
'But it's such a waste of ability.'
'Oh, I don't know. We're entertaining people, too, and T S Eliot would use exactly the same line of defence for his racket. It can be a very congenial atmosphere to work in. The one thing you don't have to be is sincere.'
'Except with the public.'
'I forgot them. Around the office there are one or two people you have to keep a straight face with, of course, but everyone else knows the whole thing is balls. And they know you know it, too, and so on.'
'But it must be terribly unsatisfying, isn't it?'
'You have to remember we've all got something wrong with us,' said O'Toole. 'Booze, wrong class, hungry for power, can't do anything else. There's always a psychological club-foot or a nasty secret somewhere.'
'What's wrong with you, for instance?'
'Oh, I'm lazy. I need some bastard cracking the whip over me before I can write a line and then some other bastard telling me what great stuff it is as I go along. I like the sensation of power, phoney as the power is. Also, I'm an honest man.'
'Making up stories about mill-girls?'
'I'm too honest for business, let's put it that way. I don't have to convince myself people like their milk watered.'
'Couldn't you be just ordinary old-fashioned honest without all these excuses?'
'You're making me uneasy,' said O'Toole. 'Tell me some more about yourself, if the subject hasn't become irrelevant by now.'