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Famous for Fifteen Minutes

Friday, 27th April, 2001

A couple of days ago, I read a posting on a IT contracting website, pouring high praise on the internet. The poster pointed out that he'd never ever not been able to find what he was looking for, whenever he searched for something. Essentially, he said, the internet contained everything and he asked the world at large if there was anything that they had failed to find...

Well, I'm a huge fan of the internet and its massive interlinked information source, but it does not contain everything. No way, Jose. And in giving two examples, I'm going to further explore my theory that everything is relative. Fame and success are lofty creatures, but they're still relative to time. Fifteen minutes, said Andy Warhol. That's all you get.

Last night I looked up Paul Biegel.

His name crops up quite a bit, and rightly so, in lists of this and that, but I couldn't find the information I was looking for. I want to know something about who the man is.

Who is he? Well, he's a writer of children's stories, author of a few of my favourite novels and winner of some Dutch award for best novel of the year sometime back in the 1960s.

Where is he from? If he isn't Dutch, he's close by. Belgium? Luxembourg?

Do you have his biography, his bibliography? The short answer here is 'no'. The long answer would also be 'no,' but it would ramble.

So, to the search. AltaVista found 145 pages, but nineteen of the first twenty were in Dutch and the twentieth was about someone else entirely. Amazon lists eighteen books, mostly in Dutch, and all but two out of print: one is a Spanish translation and both are out of stock. If you've read his work, you'll realise that this is a pitiful state of affairs.

People who read his work don't forget it. It stays with them through the years and they return to reread and rediscover his wonderful characters. Some of his readers grow up to be teachers and pass the knowledge of his books on to each succeeding year's class they teach. They keep a flame alive.

Who could forget 'The Little Captain'? It tells of a young sailor, whose tiny boat with buckets for chimneys washes out to sea on a huge wave and rides the ocean in search of this fabulous island and that, with a crew of three children.

Who could forget 'The King of the Copper Mountains', truly one of the most perfectly crafted children's novels ever written? The thousand year old king's heart is ticking down and the Wonder Doctor can't give him a cure in time. For now, he'll journey far away to obtain the ingredients for his potion, and he'll send back all the animals he meets who can tell stories. They can tell their stories to the king to keep his heart beating. The wolf and the lion and the beetle and the bees and the three-headed dragon and the dwarf and the...

Right now, I'm rereading 'Robber Hopsika', a polite young man who becomes a robber when his mother dies. He holds up coach after coach, always taking the people's money in the most polite manner possible, until one victim hires him to steal back his daughter from the fiend who kidnapped her. This appeals to his sense of adventure and off he goes, with a portrait of his mother under his arm, to rescue the young lady, who naturally he falls totally in love with.

In one early scene, Robber Hopsika meets the evil fiend on the road, a man with thirteen knives and thirteen pistols under his coat. Spurring his horse with rearing spurs, the horse rears and Robber Hopsika flies through the air to land on the fiend's horse, facing him. He tests one of the thirteen blades and fires one of the thirteen pistols, all the while wisecracking his way along. He reminds me of a movie star, one who has possibly reached a higher level of success than almost any other star.

I'm talking about Bugs Bunny, and he brings me to example two.

I don't own a tv, but I catch the odd glimpse on occasion at my sister's house. She has digital television, which means that she isn't limited to five terrestrial channels, rather she gets all the important stuff too like the Cartoon Network.

A couple of weeks ago I got to see a couple of Loonie Tunes, including my very favourite of all time, 'Duck Amuck'. Maybe it's my age, maybe it's my quirky observational skills but I noticed something that I hadn't noticed before. A name: the name of the writer of these classic clips. Chuck Jones I knew, Friz Freleng I knew, Mel Blanc I knew. Each contributed greatly to the genius of these cartoons, but I don't think anyone contributed more than this name.

So I looked up Michael Maltese.

I found some biographical information, something of his life. Not a lot, however, and I haven't yet found a photo of the man who has probably influenced a few generations more than any other. In an age when large proportions of the population are unable to name any one of a number of world leaders - Bush, Blair, Putin, Chirac - you'll do well to find one who doesn't recognise Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Wile E Coyote, Yosemite Sam...

Michael Maltese, more than anyone, is the man who wrote their stories. He is the twisted genius behind the Roadrunner cartoons, the words of Bugs Bunny, the antics of Daffy Duck. Chuck Jones directed them, Mel Blanc voiced them, but Michael Maltese made them more than mere cartoons. He touched the pulse of popular culture so well that they became a fundamental part of life as we know it.

Where are the fan pages? Where's the official Michael Maltese site? At least there are Paul Biegel fan pages, or at least I'm guessing there are as I can't speak a word of Dutch. Michael Maltese flits around the periphery of the detailed cartoon sites. He's always there, but he's usually only a mention or an aside. He should be the focus, but the internet has passed him by, another man who reached high levels of success but who has been comfortably and unjustly forgotten.

One lady who has finally found her success, sadly a couple of years after her death, went by the name of Eva Cassidy. She was a singer, and once the current bandwagon jumping hype has passed, she will become a legend. Where the internet has lost Paul Biegel and Michael Maltese, it's there for Eva Cassidy.

It started for me when I borrowed a CD from the library: 'Live at Blues Alley', a live album of covers recorded in a small venue, always the best. To say that it blew me away is an understatement. I listened with growing awe at a voice that brought back to me at turns Patsy Cline, Billie Holiday or Janis Joplin. When I reached track seven, Buffy Saint-Marie's 'Tall Trees in Georgia', my jaw was well and truly dropped. By the end of track nine, Johnny Mercer's 'Autumn Leaves', I had tears in my eyes and I did nothing for half an hour but replay and replay and replay.

When I finally gathered my senses, I looked up Eva Cassidy; and there, in and amongst all the pages that didn't touch Paul Biegel or Michael Maltese, were a number of sites about her. Even then, I could feel that they would multiply exponentially. And I logged onto Amazon and bought everything she'd ever recorded. The internet did her proud.

She lived her life her own way. She sang because it made her alive; she ignored record label attempts to fashion her into a success. It simply didn't interest her. And she died, of a melanoma at the tragically young age of 33, and her fame was so localised that the world didn't even have the opportunity to forget her.

Her success story started after her death, and most countries are playing out the same line as England. One man discovered her recorded voice; one man slid her into national radio programming; one man found the phone lines jammed solid with listeners asking about The Voice. A CD was released, supposedly of her best work, and the charts have it in an iron grip.

It isn't her best work - whoever made the selections did a poor job. Then again, her best work is simply one album, the one I found purely by accident, 'Live at Blues Alley'. Forget 'Songbird', buy 'Live at Blues Alley'.

And when they make the movie of her life, the Eva Cassidy story, some time in the dim and distant future, the world will rediscover her again and wonder how fame could be so fleeting. Maybe at that point, the internet will still throw up results for her when some fledgeling writer does a search.

Maybe then the poster on the IT contractors' website might have a point.

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