Friday, November 30, 2007

Death Of A Genteel Bohemian

'Holy Blood, Holy Grail' co-author Richard Leigh died in his sleep in London on 21 November aged 64, from a heart condition. Obituaries in the main London papers, the Times and Telegraph, were delayed till today (Nov 30th), perhaps while the obit writers considered what to say, and sort fact from faction. For Leigh was something of a literary prankster, his books dedicated to a mythical Occitan (Languedoc) bard, and his official website describes him as co-founder of the "Vancouver Foundation For Lycanthropic Children". (Perhaps he heard the popular Canadian kids’ joke: ‘I used to be a werewolf. But I’m all right nooooooooowww.’)
Originally American, Leigh did his doctorate in Comparative Literature at SUNY. However he said he “never felt like an American,” his father being British and his mother Austrian, and moved to London in 1974 to write literary fiction. (This became the basis for his final work, which he self-published this year, the semi-autobiographical novel Grey Magic, on the 60s activist political fringe.) While lecturing in literature at an English summer school in 1975, he met a former BBC ‘Dr Who’ scriptwriter, Henry Lincoln, who was also working on what became his documentary trilogy on the now-familiar Rennes-le-Chateau mystery for BBC’s Chronicle series. A mutual friend introduced Leigh to Michael Baigent, a New Zealand psychology graduate cultivating a career as a photojournalism researcher, who was also planning a documentary about the Templars.
The upshot of this was a three-way collaboration where Baigent did most of the research and Leigh did the actual writing, weaving a mass of detail into a readable 1983 bestseller. This was The Holy Blood And The Holy Grail. As the Times obit put it, “Leigh had a photographic memory, and a remarkable talent for organising facts in his head. … It is testament to Leigh's skill that such a cornucopia of detail could be set out in an understandable and entertaining way.” Leigh also had the nous to write it all up with a behind-the-scenes perspective, documenting their ongoing investigation as part of the story. Leigh’s own view was that “The research was purely an intellectual exercise; I enjoyed it for that alone. The finished article simply didn't have the same import for me as literary fiction.”
The trio soon found themselves embroiled in controversy over sources when self-appointed ‘Priory of Sion’ claimant Pierre Plantard proved to be part of a document forgery ring, planting ‘Dossiers Secrets’ parchments in the French National Archives. Leigh actually mentioned this archival ‘planting’ in their book to show they were aware of it, and some researchers who followed up the mystery still feel the dismissal of the whole ‘Priory of Sion’ mythos as a modern literary prank raises more questions than it answers. Indeed, some of their subsequent work would deal with the issue of re-examining suppressed documents. Despite the orthodox attacks, a new ‘secret history’ publishing genre of nonfiction books with sensational revisionist claims based on historical conjecture had been born. As the Independent’s obit noted, “It is largely thanks to Leigh and Baigent that "alternative history" writing is still so successful to this day.”
The eventual outcome of this however was The Da Vinci Code, and Leigh and Baigent’s ill-judged 2004-07 lawsuit (Lincoln did not join in) for plagiarism. It must have been galling to see a hack American thriller writer garner such sales on the basis of a potboiler larded with their research, and even using their names in a slighting way. (Brown created a villain whose name, Leigh Teabing, was based on Leigh and Baigent, who then shows the heroine a copy of HBHG, damning it with faint praise as having missed the real secret.) They also felt film-industry interest in buying rights to HBHG had been sabotaged by TDVC.
But plagiarism is not the same as copyright infringement, and their lawsuit fell into confusion between the two concepts. Their attempt to prove the entire ‘architecture’ or ‘central theme’ of HBHG had been plagiarised by citing an assortment of ‘component parts’ did not work. That their statement of claim here was changed twice did not help, prompting the judge to say the book had no ‘central theme’ as alleged, beyond a vague one too abstract to be copyrighted. The judge pointed out there were elements in TDVC not in HBHG, and vice versa. And Brown’s in-court defense he had got details from subsequent alternative-history books which had followed in HBHG’s wake was another getout. As the saying goes, borrow from one source and it’s theft, from many and it’s called research.
The judge said of Leigh: “I am not sure what Mr Leigh thought was the purpose of his evidence. He seemed to want to have a fight over something and was clearly disappointed at the relative shortness of his cross examination.” He added obscurely, “I did not find his evidence of any significant use in the case save the telling observations that I have already referred to, namely that there is one theme only of HBHG and that he will lift textual matters if he likes them and it suits him [sic].” (Baigent subsequently got torn to pieces in the witness box for his sloppy attention to detail). Journalists commented on Leigh’s appearance (which you’re not supposed to do in reporting a court case) as that of an old biker, with his long sideburns and leather jacket. The court judgement quoted Leigh as saying his avowed lifestyle aim was to live a life of ‘genteel bohemianism.’
Leigh’s claim the lawsuit was (to quote the Times obit) his heartfelt crusade “for the benefit of all authors” was evidently not a view shared by other writers. Editorials re the lawsuit’s dismissal breathed a collective sigh of relief that the danger fiction writers (and perhaps journalists) would face thereafter with a lawsuit, based on this precedent, for using someone’s historical research, had been avoided. (Other plagiarism lawsuits were already in progress. As they say in Hollywood, get a hit - get a writ.) Cynics said the case was a publicity stunt to increase sales of HBHG, which rose from selling 3500 copies a year in the UK to 7000 copies a week - number 7 in the charts, though it also brought TDVC back up in the lists as well. (It rose to 20,000 copies a week, selling more than 50 million copies worldwide, as opposed to 26,000 for Brown’s first 3 thrillers.)
Though Leigh and Baigent faced over a million pounds in court costs, they appealed. They were given leave to do so, and may have felt the judge had made such a mess of his judgement that it would be thrown out. Nevertheless, the Appeals Court reiterated that copying thematic motifs was not copyright infringement, pushing the duo’s legal bills up to £2.3 million, taking its toll on their health. The judge, Sir Peter Winston Smith, was told off for padding out his written judgement with irrelevances - putting gratuitous literary insults into it, etc. making it hard to read. (He had been busy working into the text his own secret code, which he called The Smithy Code, to promote his pet interest in an Edwardian admiral whose motto was “never explain, never apologise.”) Since then the judge has been reprimanded for taking on a case where he had tried to get one of the solicitors involved to give him a job as a legal partner. Leigh meanwhile returned to the interests of his youth.
While Baigent had been able to survive the diastrous court case through his connection with Freemasonry (as editor of their national magazine), Leigh’s interest had become increasingly unworldly, focusing on philosophy and myth. This was demonstrated in his final book with Baigent, The Elixir And The Stone, on “the hermetic search for wisdom and truth,” written with what the Times called “a resonant lyricism.” He self-published a final work, Erceldoune & Other Stories, which showed his talent for analysing what he called “Mythic Logic” in national politics, using Ireland as a case study to argue that a people need constructive myths which party politics cannot provide. In these uncertain times, this sounds as it could have been the basis for a magnum opus, and it seems a work of substance has been lost with the premature death of this genteel bohemian.