First-class writer goes undercover by second-class Mayle

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The Independent Online
THERE WAS a time when I used to scratch my head over the writings of Peter Mayle, wondering why anyone bothered to buy something that told us so much about Peter Mayle and so very little about Provence, or France in general.

Every time I expressed these sentiments in print, I would get furious letters from the Peter Mayle fans saying that I was only jealous of him.

This puzzled me. I could not think of any aspect of Peter Mayle of which it was possible to be jealous. I used to write back saying (and I still believe this) that what annoyed me was not Mayle's success. What I found galling was the British public's infatuation with him when there was a far preferable English writer, John P Harris, who actually knew France and the French from the inside. He was also twice the writer that Mayle was, as you will know if you have ever sampled his An Englishman in the Midi radio programmes and books.

Peter Mayle's reputation seems to have been effectively punctured by the TV version of A Year in Provence, which seems not to have been liked by anyone, and with good reason; since that time the letters defending Peter Mayle have dried up.

But in last year's Maylebag there was one letter I received which I should have brought to your attention as soon as I got it, as it contains some of the funniest stuff about publishing in general that I have ever read.

The letter was from Roy Kerridge, a writer I have always enjoyed and whose quirky restless travelling makes me think we have a latter-day George Borrow among us. This time last year he sent me a jacket proof of his new book on which it said, 'Always Ireland: An Englishman in Ireland, by Roy Kerridge, Foreword by Mary Kenny', and wrote the following letter to accompany it:

'Dear Miles Kington, I thought you might be amused by the cover of my forthcoming paperback book, Always Ireland.

'It is published by the Irish firm Poolbeg, and I wanted it to be called An Englishman in Ireland. However, the Poolbeg people, a very pleasant lot, wanted to call it A Year in Ireland or Toujours Ireland. In the end, they translated 'Toujours' into 'Always'.

' 'We'll get a cover made with lots of purple and everyone will think it's a Peter Mayle book about Provence]' they cried,

gleefully.

'This they have done, as you see. I think the idea is that people will buy it as a Peter Mayle book, and only find out when they get home, then they'll hurl it to the ground and curse the day they were born. But it will be too late - Poolbeg and I will have got their money.

'I've never read Mayle, and didn't complain too much at Poolbeg's tactics, as it's probably the only way to sell something I've written.

'When I received their cover, I went into WH Smith at Victoria Station and put it next to the Mayle books. It did look just the same, approached from any angle. Finally I picked it up, walked out and was promptly arrested for shoplifting by a tall Irish store detective. He was surprised that I only had a cover and not a whole book. It took quite a long time to explain . . . This is a true story.'

Wonderful. You only have to visualise each stage in the saga to see that it is one of those episodes which are so rich in detail that you scarcely dare believe they actually happen in real life. The chance of it being an Irish store detective who stopped him stealing his own property is almost too good to be true . . .

The Kerridge letter and cover went to ground, and shamefully I have only recently, a year later, rediscovered it and got round to answering it.

Roy Kerridge has written back to me (taking much less than a year to do so), saying that he would be quite happy for me to mention the story, which was never used elsewhere, in print. It might come a bit late to help the book, he says, as he thinks that it may have been remaindered, even if you can still find some copies lying around here and there. He is now engaged in writing a book about British black gospel music, which is about as far from Peter Mayle country as you can get.

Incidentally, the failure of Always Ireland to become a best- seller suggests that modelling your cover on someone else's, even Peter Mayle's, does not always work. But as, by chance, I shall be over in Ireland this weekend, I shall be looking to buy up as many copies of the book as I can lay my hands on, as I sense there is a collector's item in the making here.

Meanwhile, I wonder what sort of a best-selling cover he will have suggested to him for his book on gospel music. Something a bit like the Bible, perhaps . . ?

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