Who is the crazed person spreading lies about me?

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The Independent Online

Someone is going around town telling lies about me. I was tipped off about it one morning last week. A few hours later, a man from the Daily Express rang up, in full investigative-journalist mode. Briefly, I even considered paying a visit to the Land of Libel and Slander, where the great beasts Biddle, Bindman and Carter Ruck are said to roam, before coming to my senses.

Someone is going around town telling lies about me. I was tipped off about it one morning last week. A few hours later, a man from the Daily Express rang up, in full investigative-journalist mode. Briefly, I even considered paying a visit to the Land of Libel and Slander, where the great beasts Biddle, Bindman and Carter Ruck are said to roam, before coming to my senses.

It was a trivial story, even by the standards of the small, inward-looking literary world. There was a novelist, who also wrote newspaper columns under different pseudonyms, it went. Over the past few weeks, he had been using his anonymity to puff and promote his own recently published book. The novelist was me.

Trivial but, frankly, damned annoying. I have written only one pseudonymous column, the now-deceased Harvey Porlock for The Sunday Times, and one of the aims of the column was to point up incidents of log-rolling and covert self-promotion by authors and their pals. For me to be at it myself would be taking humbug to whole new depths.

"When did you stop writing for Private Eye?" asked the man from the Express.

"I have never written for Private Eye in my life."

"What about the other gossip columns you write?"

"I don't do that either."

"Oh," said the journalist gloomily. "There goes my story, then."

He sounded so very plaintive that I found myself feeling rather sorry for him. For a minute of so, we tried to salvage something from the wreckage of his story but, in the end, we had to agree that "Man writes novel" was hardly likely to grab the attention of his newspaper's readers.

I pointed out that the book in question had had to be read for libel and that it would be a nice irony if the author were able to sue rather than be sued, but these remarks seemed to make my new friend rather nervous, and he hung up.

One should, I suppose, learn to be a good sport about such things, but for a while I found it oddly unsettling. The book world is quite a playground, with its little games, its bullies and its teachers' pets. When a rumour of scandal emerges from behind the bikesheds, a vague sense of paranoia can set in.

However firmly and definitively it is denied, the story can, if spread assiduously enough at parties or on the internet, acquire a certain sort of authority and become as true, in its own tiny way, as, say, gerbils are for Richard Gere or the Mars bar once was for Marianne Faithfull.

Another version of oneself - a sleazy, corrupt self-server - can take root while you are looking the other way, establishing itself in the minds of friends, rivals and colleagues. Perhaps, indeed, the fact that the rumour had at some level been believed pointed up a deeper truth - that, while I was not in reality unscrupulous, bent and ambitious, I was the sort of person who should be, who would be, if only he had the necessary nerve.

Then there was the problem of the perpetrator. What had I possibly done to this crazed individual to make him angry enough to invent a story about me and write letters and ring up the press? The book world is propelled by many favours and small acts of revenge, but, so far as I knew, I had never given him a negative review or even met him.

I was alarmed to discover that I cared. A proper, grown-up author should probably be like Paul Theroux, a man so true to his work and oblivious to reaction that he throws letters from readers - favourable or hostile - in the bin. But part of me wants me to track down my enemy, give him a manly, media-world hug and prove to him that I'm not the sleazeball he thinks I am.

On second thoughts, maybe not.

terblacker@aol.com

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