21 August 2006

Günther Grass

The author of 'The Tin Drum' outed for being a member of the Waffen SS.

If I was an idealistic German, that might be a deal but I met him simply as a Secker & Warburg author whose "The Flounder" it was my job to promote.

I'd heard of but read nothing of his and I admit to being taken aback at the reverence and interest from the media in lionising him.

Two memories lodge in mind:

One of Grass's visits to London coincided with his being awarded the Schlegel-Tieck prize at the heavily fortified German embassy.

I collected him from his hotel - GG looking his usual walrus-tached, corduroy jacketed, shambly self, and me my usual suited and tied facsimile of a PR smoothie hack.

The warm-up was the usual teutonic bowing and heel clicking until Günther sidled up and grumbled about needing a smoke. I suggested we take the air because I too fancied a puff.

Out we went sans demur from security and G fiddled with his usual scruffy roll-up and we puffed in silence til it came to return to the party when we found ourselves locked out and unable to convince the very cockney doorman that an essential element of the upstairs festivities was there before him. Nor did he speak German and GG seemed secretly pleased not to try too hard. I on the other hand was panicking at the next day's headlines.

There then followed pure farce when a suited gent passed by to whom I called out "Are you in the party upstairs?" Yes, he was and it was indeed for Gunther Grass and no the gent with me could not be Herr Grass because the great man was upstairs receiving a distinguished prize at which point GG butted in and there was a short exchange followed by flustered bowing and escorting in and up to the room just as madame chairman announced that year's winner. It reads flatly but I tell you it was dramatic at the time.

PR's Dream: Every press officer's dream is to stick it to the all-powerful media. Of course we don't because we need them too much for the next book and the next book.

But there was this one producer of a powerful TV current affairs prog who'd really been getting my goat.

In fact, I'd actually been in the studio once with an author when another PR officer phoned thru.

"Tell her I'll give her my decision on Tuesday. I don't care if it's too late - they need us more than we need them."

"'Them' being us weedy book hacks," I enquired meekly, "and 'us' being you shot-calling powerful TV types." He gave me a 'look'.

So over comes Grass to attend an exhibition of his etchings and up phones Mr Us and Them TV honcho with oily request to have him on the show.

"He's here to promote his exhibition, and nothing else."

"That's what we want to talk about."

"Come off it, Panorama doing an etchings exhibition? Who've you got for the interview?"

"Ludovic Kennedy."

"Yer joking. Forget it. It'll be 'Welcome Gunther Grass, over here for an exhibition of etchings at a gallery whose name I forget. Now, Herr Grass, you leave a Germany in some turmoil over the latest reports of Willy Brandt etc etc.'"

I was assured not and greed got the better of me, with a proviso: one hint of politics and I took Grass out, there and then.

Absolutely old boy.

Even Grass was sceptical when I told him the good news of Panorama covering his exhibit. No worries, I told him, I have the producer's assurance and I've faxed him confirmation of our agreement.

"One hint of politics and I myself shall beckon you out."

Grass was cutting into a dinner to do the show so I was warned that I had better have got it right.

We arrived, I introduced GG to the slimey producer, much bowing and scraping as I once again asked for assurance that no politics would be raised. None whatsoever, old boy.

Forty-five seconds into the interview, Ludo turned to the topic of Brandt and I left the control panel, went down to the stage floor and told a thunder-browed Grass that we were out of there.

Pandemonium, particularly since the interviewer had been told nothing about the agreement. Shouts and threats from the producer as I led Grass away, the last author they'd do of ours, and he'd be phoning my managing director to have me fired as an incompetent and a liar.

Big deal.

Couple of months later, a book called 'All the President's Men' was making a few headlines and Woodstein were coming over to do interviews. Purring phone call, all oozy first names and promises of top billing.

That was the only time I played the man with the media and God bless Herr Grass for enabling me to show that muscle.

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