A man of many letters

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The Independent Online
I have been thinking rather uneasily recently of a trick I once played on someone, and wondering what exactly my ethical situation is in the wake of that event.

It happened some years ago when I was at the Belfast Festival, playing in a concert, and had gone to a party afterwards. Belfast parties seem to be different from parties elsewhere. They are more - well, party-like. And at this party I met a lawyer, a local man, a very funny and congenial local man, who held some position of importance.

(As far as the law is concerned, that is. You and I, not being lawyers, never know if lawyers are important or not. We don't know what a QC is or what silk is, or even who the Lord High Chief Justice is, or what it means, and whenever a lawyer is said to be of some importance, that means only that he is of importance to other lawyers.)

So anyway, I got talking to this very funny and convivial lawyer, who was either a big Catholic or Protestant, but I forgot to ask him which, nor does it matter, and somewhere along the line he mentioned that he had once written a letter to Anthony Powell and got a nice answer back.

Why he had done this, I don't know. How we even got on to the subject I don't know, because I had never read anything by A Powell (still haven't) but I can still remember being impressed by the fact that this young whippersnapper of a lawyer had got a letter from an old codger of an author like Powell. I mean, anyone can write a letter to A Powell, but you have to have certain qualities to get an answer back from a gent like A Powell.

Juvenile cheek is a quality that always works, of course. I remember a young man who, 20 or more years ago, wrote to all the famous novelists he could think of who were still alive, asking for advice on how to be a successful novelist. Quite a few wrote back to him, including Graham Greene and Somerset Maugham, all offering tips and wisdom.

I know this, because when the young man had received enough answers, he didn't sit down and write a novel based on the advice he had received - he sent all the answers to a Sunday paper, the Sunday Times I think, where they appeared in a feature called something like "How to Write a Great Novel, by the Masters".

I don't suppose the young man ever sent any of the profits he derived from this feature to the great novelists he had used. Nor do I suppose he ever settled down and wrote a novel. The fact that he sent all those celebrity replies to a newspaper marked him out as a future journalist, not a future novelist.

But to come back to my Irish lawyer. When I got back to England, I decided to write a letter to him to say thank you for all his hospitality, but because he had been such fun, I decided to write a silly letter. In fact, I wrote a letter to him purporting to be from Anthony Powell himself. It went somewhat along these lines...

"Dear Irish lawyer, You may remember some time ago that I wrote you a letter in answer to your kind inquiry. I wonder now if you could kindly let me have it back? The fact is that in my old age I have recently run into money problems and have been advised that publishing my selected letters would make me a few quick, much-needed bob. Rashly, however, I kept copies of very few of the letters I have written, including yours. Therefore I wonder if I could prevail on you to let me have my previous missive back?"

I cannot remember now which address I used to write this letter. Did I write it from Powell's agent? His publisher? Or from his real home address in Somerset, which is listed in Who's Who? It had to sound authentic, or otherwise the Irish lawyer would never believe it. But if he did believe it, I would never know about it. He may well have sent the letter back to a puzzled Powell, or he may have ignored it totally. Either way, he never got in touch with me again.

And the ethical problem? Well, it's like this. I've had a few money problems recently. Nothing serious, of course. It's just that if I don't raise a few bob fairly soon, the creditors will be forming an orderly queue at the back door. So I've had the idea of issuing a small volume of selected letters of mine. Including the one pretending to come from Anthony Powell.

Unfortunately, I can't find a copy of the original.

Do you think I am justified in writing to the Irish lawyer asking him to let me have my Anthony Powell letter back again?