My dinner with the Da Vinci Code duo
Matthew d’Ancona recalls a very odd meeting with the two men who have dared to take Dan Brown to court — and their spooky theory about the European Community Much the strangest journalistic encounter I have ever had took place more than a decade ago at the Westminster restaurant known in those days as L’Amico. It was the sort of bistro that old-fashioned Tory MPs found congenial, serving traditional Italian fare, with nooks and crannies in which to plot.
The dinner in question took place in a private room, and the invitees were a motley right-of-centre bunch, gathered to give advice to two very unusual guests. And seeing the pair on the news every evening in the past few weeks has brought it all flooding back.
Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh have become familiar faces on our screens as they have pressed their claim in the High Court against Dan Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code. Brown may not be right about Jesus, but he has more money than God. Baigent and Leigh believe that the plot of the blockbuster — which hinges on the claim that Christ married Mary Magdalene and founded a dynasty that survives to this day — is a straight lift from their own 1982 work of nonfiction, The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. Not surprisingly, they want to get their hands on some of Dan’s dosh. But all this was in the distant future on the night of our Westminster dinner.
The two men arrived with a conspiratorial flourish, suspicious as cats. Then, as now, they made an exceedingly odd couple. The bearded Leigh, wearing an ancient leather jacket, looked like a retired roadie for the Grateful Dead, Lemmy with a library card. Baigent, on the other hand, wore a suit and resembled a Wardour Street film distributor on his uppers. They were friendly but — how can one put this politely? — exuded the twitchy eccentricity of two men who don’t get out very much.
The assembled company included one or two guests who have gone on to become prominent Conservatives, and whose blushes I shall spare. Suffice it to say that we snapped our breadsticks nervously, wondering what these conspiracy theorists par excellence might want from us.
Very simple, as it turned out: for more than two decades Baigent and Leigh had been churning out books based on what they called ‘the most shattering secret of the last two thousand years’. In 1886 a French country priest named François Berenger Saunière discovered a cache of mysterious parchments in his home village of Rennes-le-Château, a discovery that, no less mysteriously, made him fabulously rich. Decoding whatever codes they could find — notably Poussin’s famous painting ‘Les Bergers d’Arcadie II’ — Baigent and Leigh claimed that the village’s ‘treasure’ was the knowledge that Christ had not died on the Cross, that his royal bloodline survived in France, and that the ‘Holy Grail’ was not a cup but a sacred dynasty.
Naturally, this information — a bit of a shocker, all things considered — had been kept secret for centuries. In a series of sequels Baigent and Leigh traced the history of this terrible knowledge via the Merovingian dynasty, the Templars, the Masons and the super-secret Prieuré de Sion. Everyone was in on it: the Vatican, the Mafia, the CIA, the KGB, Opus Dei and P2. The authors even warned of nuclear holocaust connected to ‘the advent of Jesus’s lineal descendant’. Spooky, eh?
Baigent and Leigh wanted to keep going with the detective work. What conspiracy was next? What wicked secret society might they smoke out? Seasoned sleuths that they were, they had set their sights on the European Community, as it was then still known. What they wanted to know was this: had we Eurosceptics ever come across anything, well, peculiar? Had we smelt incense or seen cowled shadows in the corridors of Brussels? Had we spotted any Biblical codes in the speeches of Delors or the subclauses of the Treaty of Rome? Did we ever get the strangest, tingly feeling that Europe’s covert intention was not so much to challenge parliamentary sovereignty, promote monetary union and establish a federal superstate but, for instance, to restore the bloodline of Jesus, overturn the established Christian Church, and reveal the Holy Grail for what it really is?
Now this was a real test for me. For I must confess that I have always loved the Baigent and Leigh books. Twenty-four years on, I can still remember buying the first one in hardback with my father in Harrods. In time, the sequels — The Messianic Legacy and The Temple and the Lodge — made good Christmas and birthday presents. We thought it was tosh, but we didn’t care. It was quality tosh.
Like all such theories, Grail-abilia depends on ‘doublethink’ in its consumers. No sensible person could really take it seriously. But the books were too much fun not to read. They made Rennes-le-Château to religious conspiracy theorists what Roswell had long been to UFO spotters. Later I co-authored a couple of books on religious history with the late, great papyrologist Carsten Peter Thiede. He strongly disapproved of Baigent and Leigh, and I remember having to hide their book, The Dead Sea Scrolls Deception, on a trip we took together to the Middle East. ‘It’s all rubbish,’ Carsten said. But I kept on reading, which is why he was a world-renowned scholar, and I am not.
So this was the challenge that night in Westminster. Over plates of spaghetti, we pondered the tantalising question posed by Baigent and Leigh. We could see what they were driving at, the bestseller they had in mind: The Holy Blood and the Holy Directive or The Sacred Riddle of the Common Agricultural Policy. We tried, we really did. And after much thought and whispered conferring, we offered our combined thoughts.
Which were: zip. Zilch. Nada. Absolutely nothing. Or as the sinister members of the Prieuré de Sion would say: Nihil. Whatever the crimes of the European Community might be — red tape, ERM, the end of the nation-state — there was no evidence that we could see to suggest that the Eurocracy was secretly trying to bring back the Merovingians or hasten the Second Coming or destroy the Papacy. Bent bananas, yes. Descendants of Jesus, not really.
Oh, well, said Baigent and Leigh: not to worry. They took our failure to deliver in good part. In fact, they looked like they were fairly used to it. Maybe the next night they were off to dinner with a bunch of Europhiles, hoping to prove that the Eurosceptics were the real villains. And who knows? Maybe the Bruges Group is indeed a huge front. Maybe Bill Cash and Daniel Hannan are actually Merovingians. Maybe Gordon Brown’s five tests are really a secret cryptogram for something mediaeval and murky.
Which brings me back to Dan Brown and The Da Vinci Code. Is his book plagiarism? Probably not: plagiarism requires cunning and guile, whereas this thriller is just a potboiler that turns a fabulous, crazy idea into leaden prose. In truth, it is no more than a treatment for the Hollywood movie that it has inevitably become.
You only have to look at Dan Brown in his polo neck, with his bland face and dollar-sign eyes, to know that he lacks the wit to be a true intellectual thief. And Baigent and Leigh? They may be nutty as fruitcakes, pirates of the first water, hustlers of history — but what a terrific pair. I would have them back to dinner any time.