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Liam Collins: Why Melanie the outsider has seen a closing of the ranks


The backlash is perhaps no surprise since memoir has revealed shadows as well as glitz, writes Liam Collins

ACCORDING to close friends of Melanie Verwoerd, there was a concerted campaign to stop her controversial memoir, When We Dance, from ever being published.

The book, which charts the life and times of the former South African ambassador and her relationship with the tragic radio and television personality, Gerry Ryan, finally went on sale in bookshops last week after a court injunction was lifted.

But according to close friends of the author, the campaign to stop her memoir began almost as soon as news that she was writing the book began to leak out.

A leading literary agent, who declined to handle it, told her that it wasn't "the right time" for such a book.

When the book was written, Irish publishers queued up to read the manuscript and expressed interest in taking it on. But, after an ominous silence, all but two came back to say that after "taking soundings" they would not be going ahead with a publishing deal.

It wasn't about money. Gerry Ryan had no trouble getting an advance of €100,000 for his memoir, Would the Real Gerry Ryan Please Stand up?

Melanie Verwoerd didn't take an advance and in the end she picked Liberties Press, one of two small independent publishers who remained interested in publishing the book.

Friends of Ms Verwoerd are now absolutely certain that there were "a lot of people" who, for various reasons, didn't want the book ever to hit the shelves.

On the morning the book went into the bookshops, music promoter Dave Kavanagh obtained a temporary High Court injunction to prevent it going on sale, saying he had been defamed. Shortly before the matter was due a full hearing in the High Court it was announced he was withdrawing his application for a permanent injunction and the publisher was including an Errata Strip recognising the two men were friends.

According to Melanie Verwoerd's version of events, Gerry Ryan, who was earning €30,000 a month, was deeply in debt at the time of his death. He was stressed as his bank would no longer let him sign cheques and his credit card company had told him to stop using his card.

It emerged in his will that deductions of over €1.3m to various creditors, including the Revenue Commissioners, had been repaid out of his estate.

There is little doubt that many of his colleagues in RTE were anxious to protect his reputation. The portrait of the colourful celebrity that emerges from When We Dance is that of a man who, in the two-and-a-half years Melanie knew him, had very few friends and was ill and stressed because of money worries.

It is obviously a portrait that many of his old friends didn't like, although they were relying on newspaper extracts and publishing gossip to find out what was in the memoir.

"Gerry wrote his own book and he had a chance to share all of this. But he chose to share none of his difficulties and he didn't intend for any of them to be in the public domain. . . I don't know why Melanie decided to do this. And I think its very sad that she has," fellow presenter Pat Kenny told Niamh Horan in the Sunday Independent.

And of course, Pat Kenny who, along with Gay Byrne and Dave Fanning, appeared on The Late Late Show tribute to the broadcaster within days of his death, is perfectly entitled to his opinion. But When We Dance is not Gerry Ryan's story, it is Melanie Verwoerd's -- and that's the difference.

The normally amiable Dave Fanning took a more intemperate position when he told Ken Sweeney, a reporter with the Irish Independent, why he would not buy the book: "I like reading biographies, fiction is not really my thing."

In response, Melanie retorted: "The book tells the true story of my life. As someone who has fought for freedom of speech all my life, I respect everyone's right to comment on what I say in the book -- but only after they have actually read the book."

In his own biography he said Ryan was "someone who has been by my side through my career, whom I holidayed and lived with".

But surely to dismiss someone's story as "fiction" is not good enough, especially for someone in the communications business himself.

Even Fr Brian D'Arcy, who described himself as a close friend of Gerry Ryan, said the presenter had never told him he was lonely. But the book does not portray Gerry Ryan as lonely, it says he was stressed by money worries and deeply saddened by divisions that had arisen by his break-up with his wife, Morah.

Fr Brian says it is a "kiss-and-tell", as if it was akin to when someone has a fling with a celebrity and then sells their story to the tabloids.

The only one from the literary and showbusiness elite who leapt to Melanie Verwoerd's defence last week was Paul Howard, author of the Ross O'Carroll Kelly books.

"I feel terribly sorry for Melanie Verwoerd the way the establishment, and media establishment, is closing ranks. I have an instinctive hatred to that sort of thing" he said.

"Whether she is right or wrong to write the book, we have something in this country called free speech and she should be allowed to tell her story."

The closing of ranks by friends has also brought into focus the complexity of the relationships between many of the 'good old boys' who make up Ireland's showbiz elite.

Was it because they were anxious to protect the reputation of their friend Gerry Ryan? Or did they feel that, by writing her own story, Melanie would stray into the dangerous territory of the break-up of his 27-year marriage?

All separations and break-ups affect a great many people, apart from the couple and their children. Like throwing a rock into a pool, the ripples spread out. Close friends, work colleagues and even acquaintances take sides, sometimes even when they don't want to.

Gerry Ryan had a lot of close friends in his life but his friends also had wives and girlfriends who also took sides, as people do in a marital dispute.

To most of them, Melanie Verwoerd was an outsider, almost an alien in the radio, TV, and theatrical world occupied by her new partner.

"She never wanted to fit in -- she just wasn't like that," said one friend.

Melanie didn't drink, rarely went out, didn't allow Gerry to talk publicly about their relationship and in the book portrays their happiest times together as when they were at home in each other's company.

Maybe friends were also shocked at how Gerry Ryan, who was taking home more than €30,000 a month, could get into such a quandary, and where did all the money go? Unlike most people who 'live up to their income', Gerry Ryan managed to live beyond it.

We live in a small country where a lot of intimate secrets are known but still not talked about in public.

When Gerry Ryan wrote his own book he looked in the mirror, but only told us the things he wanted us to see. Now that somebody else has held up the mirror we've seen the shadows as well as the glitter, maybe Gerry Ryan's friends are being over-protective of a man who always seemed destined to leave trouble in his wake. After all, the listeners who loved his show knew that he was less than perfect.

Sunday Independent