BOOK REVIEW / Mad Hatter's tea party down at the Garrick: Aren't We Due A Royalty Statement? - Giles Gordon: Chatto, pounds 16.99

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The Independent Online
AS I READ Giles Gordon's autobiography, I had a growing sense of deja vu. Despite the hallucinatory effect of high summer in the Apennines, I was surely straying into a rerun of the Mad Hatter's Tea Party.

The table is set for permanent lunch somewhere between Bianchi's Restaurant and the Garrick Club. There is a stately progress of well-known and not so well-known characters from the literary and publishing worlds. The face cards are authors who are clients of Mr Gordon's agency, and who invariably enjoy a properly hagiographic potted portrait. The only publisher of consequence, who seems to have been the lucky recipient of most of Giles's best books over the years, is Christopher Sinclair-Stevenson. Other luminaries, such as George Weidenfeld and Sir John Hackett, rate cards of a much smaller value. Somewhere along the line, dormouse-like, they all go to sleep over the teapot.

From time to time, the Hatter raises a glass filled from an ever-open bottle and pronounces on the state of the world. Evelyn Waugh's novels 'are good, but not that good. By absolute standards, Evelyn Waugh cannot be considered a great novelist.' 'Writers should write and readers should read.' 'As a general rule, books which read well aloud aren't major books.' 'I used to have a tremendously soft spot for Lady Antonia Fraser. I think a lot of us did in the Sixties and Seventies.' 'The sad thing about young actresses, as presumably they agree, is that . . . they grow older.'

This is all very pleasant, and indeed a rakish honesty is the main virtue of Aren't We Due A Royalty Statement?, but I'm not sure what the remorseless flow of anecdote adds up to. Giles Gordon was, by his own account, a promising novelist and has been for 20 years an excellent writers' agent. For someone who has nurtured an agreeable image as the enfant terrible of his trade, he emerges as a good old-fashioned snob, and I marvel at his ability to portray the literary world in the cosy, clubbable colours of a generation ago.

He chronicles the formal accolades of his career with due weight: the entry in Who's Who, which, believe it or not, constitutes the preface of the book, his election to the Garrick Club against seemingly overwhelming odds, his representation of numerous Royals, and last but not least 'now I must behave decorously where the Royal Society of Literature is concerned, as I have just been invited to serve on the council'.

No doubt none of this is meant to be taken too seriously, but I must say that a significant opportunity has been lost. Giles Gordon is the first writers' agent in modern times to be given the opportunity to tell the story of his career. If I were commissioning this book, I'd be much more interested in what he knows than whom he knows. During the last 25 years the profession of writer has changed out of all recognition. First, the advent of television and the ensuing multimedia revolution has created enormous opportunities. Second, the consolidation of English as the lingua franca of entertainment, communication, travel, commerce and the computer - a position I can see being overturned only by the victory of China in World War III - has put the owners of copyright material in unprecedentedly powerful positions. A successful practitioner in the English language, whether in the realm of fiction, biography, reference, technology or children's books, can look forward to an infinitely more promising and diverse future than ever before.

The writers' agent, unpopular as he has been to many of his customers, has played a central part in this. His growing strength in the marketplace has been both a direct reflection of the collective strength of his authors and of his acquisition of new skills. The trade has grown to maturity in a way of which it can reasonably be proud. I can attest to the fact that it has been enormously challenging and invigorating to be involved in this. But there is barely a hint of it in Giles Gordon's book.