Right then, Steven Berkoff. Let's settle our feud with a game of ping-pong

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Witness this day my challenge to Steven Berkoff. Full size ping- pong table, since you reckon you're a player; rubber pimples on the bats, not sponge; competition ball; Chinese referee; best of nine games; and may the best man win - ie not you.

So what's this all about? Search me. All I know is that Berkoff's looking to tear my heart out again. "Gloating, smug, superior" he has just called me in this very paper, exercising a "Right of Reply" to a recent column of mine on the subject of Jeffrey Archer's not being a novelist's bootlace. Why the distinguished writer and Hollywood villain - Berkoff I mean, not Archer - should be replying to something that wasn't addressed to him in the first place I cannot say, but he is without doubt entitled to his opinion. Nor would I, under normal circumstances, dream of penning a "Right of Reply" to a "Right of Reply", least of all to Steven Berkoff who will now surely demand a "Right of Reply" in perpetuity. But Berkoff is getting to be a habit with me. Or I'm getting to be a habit with Berkoff. Either way, it seems he can't see me out and about, innocently flying my kite, without rushing into print and accusing me of being a smug bastard, though of course he wouldn't use the word bastard.

He thought my television series Roots Schmoots had a bit of the smug bastard about it too. Especially the programme about Israel entitled He's Not The Messiah He's A Very Naughty Boy, after a line from Monty Python's Life of Brian. But maybe Berkoff missed the allusion and thought I was intending a sly dig at him. He went all uppity anyway, charging me - in The Jewish Chronicle of all places, the paper my mother reads - with missing the symbolic significance of the Wailing Wall, and taking me to task for having the arrogance to deliver my own Sermon on the Mount. Not just arrogance, either. Bad taste. Think of that - having Steven Berkoff reproach you for indelicacy! It's like being accused of heartless philandering by Don Juan. Or manipulating the media by Goebbels. Friends suggested I get a T-shirt printed - HOWARD JACOBSON LACKS DECORUM, SIGNED STEVEN BERKOFF. I actually tried selling the idea to a celebrity clothes shop on Carnaby Street, but they didn't know who Steven Berkoff was.

It is certainly possible that in every hell-raiser there's a Mrs Whitehouse trying to get out, and that Berkoff really did find my sermon improper. But it felt like another of those kite-flying problems to me. I am being metaphorical when I say my kite gets up Berkoff's nose. I don't have a kite. It's just that the moment I show signs of enjoying life - you know, going to parties, writing books, getting good reviews, expressing a few opinions on this and that - up pops Berkoff in a stew, to wet on my flame. Anyone would think the planet isn't big enough for both of us.

And it's not as though we even know each other. The one time we nearly met was on the steps outside Koo Stark's studio somewhere near Whitechapel where we had both agreed to pose for a portfolio of portraits of self- effacing men. I was leaving, he was coming. I can't imagine it bothering him that Koo Stark had done me first. But you never know with actors. He was wearing a baseball cap, I remember that. And kept his head down. Seconds after we crossed, I heard sounds of snapping wire and screaming metal commensurate with a large man falling down a lift shaft. I never turned back to find out if it was him. Call that consideration. He wouldn't have wanted me there looking all gloating, smug and superior, shouting at him to lie still and wait for the fire brigade.

Berkoff's objection to my Archer piece appears to be twofold. Firstly, he thinks no living writer should ever denigrate another (by which principle Berkoff should stop denigrating me). Secondly, he thinks I am judging Jeffrey's shortcomings as a novelist inappropriately, as he never "claimed to be Kafka or even Dickens" but wrote "pulp thrillers for a readership that thrived on them". Readers of this column won't be surprised to hear me affirm a strong aversion to the "he never claimed he was Shakespeare" defence, when Shakespeare was never the yardstick in use.

By the most modest and undemanding standards of literacy and humanity, what Jeffrey Archer writes is bone stupid, an affront to the living, that is more or less my position. Introducing the genre of "pulp thriller" assumes a criterion of valuelessness and therefore begs the only questions that matter. Berkoff himself would not want it said of any of his plays that he is not Shakespeare but what the hell! - since he means to write drivel for morons he's succeeded.

But let ping-pong decide it. Word is, he can play a bit. Don't ask me whose word. His, I suspect. I recall reading some article once in which he boasted of his ping-pong prowess, describing the joy he felt at the moment of pouncing on the ball and smashing the living daylights out of it. Not a subtle or delicate touch player, then. More a Bill Sikes than an Erik Satie. Even so, he might be too strong for me, in which case I will accept defeat gracefully. A man must know how to lose. Besides, after his poor showing in all our tourneys so far, what kind of person would I be if I begrudged him victory on a ping-pong table?