'I'M only a lawyer,' said the nice man at the party. 'We have no morals.' We had been chatting with mutual friends and then he had said: 'You don't know who I am, do you? You don't remember me.'

Embarrassed at first, I hesitated. Suddenly I knew why I'd blocked it out: this was the lawyer who had nailed me on behalf of his clients, who were . . . my publishers.

Legal trouble is one of those things you have to experience to believe, like love, or garlic, or going to the dentist. What you discover is that it has nothing much to do with right or wrong, not with morality or even reality, but with deals. While it's going on - and it goes on and on - you feel as if the Alien is breeding, waiting to have you for dinner, but, like a delivery from Pizza Hut, although you know it's going to arrive, you never know exactly when.

Mine is a tiny case in cosmic terms; in a sense, it was my own fault, so this is only a cautionary tale. When it comes to contracts and the potential for legal action, the lesson is: you should worry, especially if you are a writer. In late 1988, I signed a contract with the publishers Chatto & Windus to write a book that would eventually be called Comrade Rockstar, the story of the search for Dean Reed, an American who became the Soviet Union's first rock star.

In the standard publishing contract, there is a clause requiring the author to indemnify the publishers. This worried me a little - mine was a non-fiction story with real people in it. I mentioned it to my agent. He said: 'Don't worry, nothing will happen, and if you don't agree, you won't get the deal.' Anyhow, Chatto was a distinguished publishing house. It was - and is - run by Carmen Callil, a distinguished publisher who had herself taken an interest in the book. Why should I worry?

I signed. I delivered the manuscript. I asked my agent if a libel reading was in order. He said: 'Don't worry.' I should have worried.

In March last year, Comrade Rockstar was published. In February this year, it was turned into a film for a BBC Arena programme. It was called The Incredible Case of Comrade Rockstar, but long before it was aired, another case was under way. Mine.

One of the characters in the book - for legal reasons I'm not allowed to say who, and it doesn't much matter - had begun a process of complaints that ended in the threat of a libel suit. The plaintiff who claimed damages for libel did not just want passages deleted in future editions, but also money. Lots of money.

On the morning this news was delivered in a bundle of legalese, I panicked. My agent suggested I confer with the publishers. An editor at Chatto suggested I speak to their excellent lawyer and he would look after everything. Don't worry. Finally, a buzzer went off in my brain; I began

worrying.

I called a lawyer friend. 'Remember,' he said, 'that man is THEIR lawyer, not yours. You have indemnified Chatto. You signed. You pay. Get a lawyer.' I got a lawyer. Her name was Julia Palca; she was tough and sympathetic and, best of all, she let me ask embarrassingly nave questions without making me feel stupid.

So I went to see their lawyer, who laid out the options: one could fight the case, but it would require a large-scale investigation in foreign countries. I could call their bluff - and lose. And while all this was going on, of course, I knew I would have to pay my legal bills and theirs. Indemnify someone and their problems are all yours. And they know it. Or I could admit to some version of defamation and pay what he suggested would be a modest settlement.

Anyhow, like the dentist, quick seemed best. I assumed we would hear from their lawyer before the final deal was cut. What we did hear later was that on Chatto & Windus' behalf, his firm had settled with the plaintiff for pounds 19,500. Their next question to me was: where's the bread? I had signed that contract, they wanted their money and they wanted it now.

I found it hard to get through to my agent. I heard rumours that Chatto felt that because I had hired my own lawyer, I was unfriendly. Don't worry, friends said. A company like Chatto would never sue an individual author. The clause has been around for years but is rarely invoked.

Soon after, while my lawyers were negotiating with their lawyers - this was already like the movies - there was a knock at the door. I opened it. A writ was served on me personally. In serving the writ, they were suing. Pay up or see you in court.

Months passed. My lawyer tried to negotiate, suggesting that if passages in the book were so clearly defamatory, why had the publishers not asked for changes when the book was still in manuscript form? Did they not bear some responsibility - legal or moral? But we were not talking legal or moral responsibility, we were talking corporate bottom line. Times were tough. The bottom line was the bottom line.

And there were the details that induced paranoia. Their lawyers told my lawyers they had heard I had a large property in America (and could, therefore, afford to pay.) It's actually a loft in Manhattan, but that wasn't the point. The point was: who was talking to them?

As time went by, I realised that it's not just the prospect of paying out loads of money that gets you, it's also the tangle of legalese that you can't make out on your own, your dependency on lawyers, the feeling you are being pursued. There is an on- going sense that the floors are made of rubber covered in treacle, that there is no firm ground. Call it dread.

My lawyer wanted to fight, and to argue that Chatto, as experienced publishers, should have realised that some of my comments were defamatory and dealt with them before publication - since they had not, they should share the blame. And if we won, it might set a precedent that, if it did not shake up publishers, would wake up authors. But we could fight and lose, and if we lost, it would cost even more.

This story doesn't have a happy ending. Recently, there has been a settlement - I was too chicken to go to court - and I've just sent my publishers pounds 5,000, the second of three installments. Bottom line: I signed, I paid. As for the lawyer at the party, I didn't even throw wine on his head. After all, as he said, he was just the lawyer.

Comments