Second Thoughts: Too close a call: D J Taylor recalls Real Life (Flamingo pounds 5.99) and the real trouble it caused

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The Independent Culture
MY SECOND novel, Real Life, came out in hardback in the spring of last year. It got some respectable reviews, and a stinker in the Observer from a chap I vaguely remember from university (what is it about those chaps we vaguely remember from university? Why do they hate us so?) A dozen bad reviews would have been as nothing, though, compared to what happened on a bright morning in April - April Fool's Day, appropriately enough - about three weeks after publication, when the telephone rang.

'Apparently there's a real Mr X,' said my editor anxiously, 'and it looks as if he's going to sue.' The fictitious Mr X, a Soho pornographer and erstwhile friend of the Krays was, needless to say, the villain of the piece. The solicitor's letter, several pages long and extremely amusing had it been addressed to anybody else, arrived a day later. Not only had I given the distinctively named and entirely blameless Mr X a fictional counterpart, I had also guessed the number of his children and, give or take a syllable or two, the name of the company he ran. Calling the thing Real Life didn't help, either.

According to the lawyers, who shook their heads sadly over this chain of coincidence, there wasn't a great deal that could be done. I spent the next few weeks in and out of their offices signing depositions, writing craven letters to Mr X and hanging about in anterooms while negotiations proceeded. 'By the way,' somebody said at an early stage, 'if you've got any property or savings I should put them in your wife's name. Just to be on the safe side.' Eventually the accusation of 'malicious libel' was watered down to 'accidental defamation'. We settled out of court, agreeing to pay damages and reissue the book (withdrawn at the first hint of trouble) with an erratum slip. Everyone said I was very lucky.

Looking over Real Life for the first time in nearly two years, I am conscious not only of the rightfully upset figure of Mr X but of two or three distinct themes welded rather uncomfortably together. Set mostly in Norwich, where I grew up, the novel features a former scriptwriter of pornographic films who retires to the city in search of peaceful retirement only to find himself destroyed by the consequences of his past. On one level an attempt to say something about pornography, a phenomenon which I continue to find both extraordinarily funny and extraordinarily frightening, on another a nostalgic love-letter to the landscapes of childhood, the book seems further weighed down by some slightly amateurish reflections on authenticity, the 'real life' of the title. An epigraph, taken from an old Magazine song ('So this is real life / you're telling me / and everything / is where it ought to be') reflects this almost neurotic interest in the deceits and subterfuges of - say - casual conversation, the impossibility of achieving what Magazine's lyricist Howard Devoto called a 'definitive gaze'.

Literary autobiography - Anthony Powell's memoirs are a good example - suggests that writers tend to remember books for the circumstances or even the milieux of their composition. Most of what I can recall about my first novel takes in the angular Pimlico bedroom in which it was written and the untidy Fitzrovia basement in which it was typed. With Real Life, though, the circumstances of publication endure. It will be a long time before whatever feelings I may have about the book are uncomplicated by the memory of nervy meetings in solicitors' offices and the sight of lawyers' letters, white and sinister, gleaming from the doormat.