Howard Jacobson: Comedians have their uses when you're feeling low in Wolverhampton

I wanted to express gratitude to someone whose comic gifts I admired
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The Independent Online

Saw Rik Mayall at the last ever South Bank Show Awards last week. He was sitting at the table next to mine and looking well, I thought. So I chose to tell him that.

This meant interrupting a conversation he was already having, but it was the sort of occasion where you could do that. So much to say and so little time to say it. No more South Bank Show. What next will they take from us in the name of what Rob Brydon, in a witheringly funny speech, called "pig shit"?

There are days when one loves comedians and comic actors and Rik Mayall has been among the best of them. Which was something else I wanted to tell him but had never had the opportunity to do so. "I used to teach at Wolverhampton Polytechnic," I began, "and there were times when the only reason I didn't slit my throat was your wonderful imitation of a Black Country accent." Kevin Turvey was the character I was thinking of, but couldn't remember the name and Rik seemed reluctant to help me find it. Maybe he too had forgotten. He smiled at me warmly, however, as though to say he was on balance pleased he had stopped me slitting my throat.

I think I must have been at Wolverhampton Polytechnic when The South Bank Show began. I hated it from the off. That poncey Melvyn Bragg with his floppy hair, hobnobbing it with Andrew Schmaltz Webber and Paul Almost-as-Schmaltz McCartney, both of whom he no doubt had round to dinner every week while I was rotting in the Black Country, lecturing, as I'd been lecturing all my miserable life, on Bleak House, or was it Hard Times. Made no difference. The students weren't awake. Nor was I. Had I run the two novels together no one would have been the wiser. Hard House? Bleak Times?

I could have written my own Bleak Times. Living in an unheated flat above an underpass, dining alone in the Taj Mahal on the Willenhall Road, sometimes twice in a single night to pass the time and stay warm, while Bragg was chauffeured grinning from one soft-carpeted Hampstead bistro to another. Art? Art is suffering. So what did he know of going to bed choking on the cold chapati of unfulfilment?

I'll tell you the worst hours of a writer's life. When he isn't yet a writer, feels that a book at last is on the way, but fears it might turn out to be a dud. At least when you're unproductive and merely daydreaming of literary eminence you haven't yet been put to any test. You might be bitter and frustrated, you might throw your complete Dickens at the television the minute Bragg appears on it, but there's still the fantasy that come the hour, come the book, the world will change and it will be you he's introducing. In the moment of delivery, though, when there is everything to play for, there is also everything to lose. And it's then that the mighty river of spleen plashes through your body like molten fire. Not just your present failure is before your eyes, but all the failures to come. While elsewhere, in the faerie land of the smugly successful – dum-diddle-iddle-iddle-um-diddle-iddle...

I smashed a number of marriages on the rocks of The South Bank Show. The wives couldn't take the torrents of rage. And I couldn't take their "quite liking" Melvyn. "Then get the hell out," I'd shout. "Go to him since you're so keen on his pissy programme."

You could have mistaken my flat in Wolverhampton for Wuthering Heights on South Bank Show nights, so tempestuous were the altercations, a succession of Cathies disappearing in the direction of Walsall, calling "Heathcliff, Heathcliff!" though whether they meant me or Melvyn I had no idea. But this I did know: they weren't going to find him in Walsall.

Years later, when time's whirligig had rescued me from the precipice and I made it to be the subject of a South Bank Show myself, a lost wife posted me the Radio Times billing. "Thought you hated all he stood for," she wrote. "So much for your principles. Star-fucker!"

Is it star-fucking to be pleased to make the acquaintance of men and women of distinction? Was I star-fucking when I told Rob Brydon I'd loved his pig shit speech? Was I star-fucking when I interrupted Rik Mayall and told him he'd made my life tolerable at Wolverhampton? Not for me to say. All I know is that I wanted to express gratitude to someone whose comic gifts I admired. Generosity – generosity at last. Having been the recipient of The South Bank Show's eclectic generosity myself – though it took its time, I have to say – I wanted to spread it around. I'd have kissed Rik Mayall had he let me.

But I also wanted to talk to him about my friend, the late Simon Gray, in one of whose plays he'd acted. It was when I mentioned Simon that Rik's expression faltered slightly. I am quick at spotting discomfort. And I saw a man who hadn't worked with Simon Gray. "You aren't who I think you are, are you?" I said. He looked sad for me. "You never did a Black Country accent?" He shook his head. "You didn't appear in a Simon Gray play?" He shook his head. "I admire you, anyway," I said, affecting sophisticated amusement.

I was halfway to the other end of the room before he could ask me who I'd thought he was. I couldn't bear to tell him. To give the name would compound the enormity of my mistake. Make a still greater fool of me and maybe upset him. It's hard enough being mistaken for someone else, in my experience, without having to know who it is you've been mistaken for. An autograph collector outside the awards had earlier called me Mr Rushdie. Occasionally they mistake me for Alan Yentob. It's as though there's only one wordy bearded not quite Anglo-Saxon man under six foot in the arts. I sign their names in their absence, so as not to humiliate the autograph hunter, but I can't say I like it. It's demeaning not being recognised as yourself; it robs you of your uniqueness.

The person I'd misidentified dealt with it well. He must be very certain at the centre of himself. Next time I see him I will tell him so. "You were almost responsible for my slitting my throat," I'll say. And hope it isn't Rik Mayall I'm saying it to.

But it won't be at a South Bank Show Awards. Gone. Gone to make way for pig shit.