It came about something like this. Boston had become a regular writer for the Guardian by doing a beer column for them. And for a while he did a magnificent job, battling against the big brewers who then, as now, tried to make our beer uninteresting and our pubs uniform. (He once told me in the strictest confidence that he tended to drink in Watney pubs. I was shocked. Why, why, in those temples of mediocrity? To get away from the real-ale bores, old boy . . .)
But then he was given his head by the Guardian to write a column of more general interest. He was given his head in more ways than one: he was allowed, whether he wanted it or not, to have his mugshot at the top of his column, and so there appeared in that spot, week after week, the smiling, bespectacled black-and-white rectangle of Richard Boston.
Until one week it was replaced by the face of Telly Savalas, a man much balder than Boston, and even more famous, but not nearly such a good writer.
I think it was put in by mistake. Perhaps the Guardian photo-engineers reached for the nearest slightly balding photo and put in the wrong one. But the reaction was immediate: people loved it. At last the mugshot was worth looking at. More than that, someone had done a mugshot joke for the first time that anyone could remember.
The next week the anonymous Guardian photo-fitters had removed the Telly Savalas photo. They inserted one of Elvis Presley instead. The next week, as I remember, it was one of Brigitte Bardot that adorned Richard Boston's column. By this time millions of extra readers were buying the Guardian just to find out which photo was with the Boston piece this week. Perhaps some of them were even reading the Guardian as well, I don't know.
But there this circulation increase stopped, because the editor sent down a decree that there was to be no more tomfoolery, and that Boston's head was to be reinstated. Thus was one of the great journalistic innovations of our century nipped in the bud.
Indeed, I will go further and say that the whole development of the media's relations with showbusiness was stopped by Peter Preston's unthinking cruelty. If it had become established that the photo on the column needn't be that of the writer, publishers would then have realised that the face on the back of the novel needn't be the face of the novelist]
How many novels have been left unsold because the bleary, unprepossessing mug of the writer has stared out at potential buyers and put them off? How much better, surely, to have a male model on the back, or someone who looks at least as if you might want to meet him.
Writers are not only sometimes unprepossessing, they can also be disagreeable and unforthcoming. Which is a drawback when you go on a chat show, as most writers have to do these days. (Some writers do it very well, like Jeffrey Archer. Alas, he does not write books very well. It's only the talking bit he is so good at.) But by the Richard Boston principle, it must be possible, if not laudable, to get books plugged on a chat show not by the author but by someone dishy or interesting or sexy, sent on instead of the author.
'A S Byatt has written a remarkable new novel, and here to talk about it is Miranda Richardson . . .'
This happens already, of course. Writers are already sometimes represented by people who did not know them and know little about them. These people are called actors. When they make a film of some writer's life, or his work, we often see an interview with the actor who played the part of that man. If there were a film made of the life of D H Lawrence, and Lawrence were played by Sean Bean, we would not think it strange to see Sean Bean interviewed endlessly on television about Lawrence's work, though if Sean Bean were not involved in a D H Lawrence project, nobody would dream of talking to him about the man's work.
You see? The Boston Principle is already there, in principle. I would be pleased to come on television and talk about it any time. Well, I couldn't come in person. But Richard Boston could come on and talk about it. Or maybe he would send on Telly Savalas instead. But it would be incredibly interesting, whoever it was.