I felt like I was surrounded by a dozen abseiling homunculi

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The Independent Online
It's a rite of passage you hear about, like some Niebelung sacrifice in the forests of Westphalia, but never imagine you'll actually go through yourself. And then you get the call. The Fact-Checking department of The New Yorker magazine is on your case and there's no escape.

This legendary throng of literal-minded obsessives are the Stormtroopers of the sub-editorial universe. They take the verification of detail to frankly barmy extremes. Their inquiries are of a kind unknown in British journalistic circles. Most sub-editors I've known on newspapers in the past (not The Independent, of course, by no means, absolutely not) tend to say, "John - this piece of yours. Are there any, you know, true bits in it? Oh never mind ..." and leave it at that. On The New Yorker, if you've written, "He shook his head," they ask you if it was up and down or from side to side. I had a dozen conversations with three of them, as increasingly bizarre inquiries about tiny little fact-ettes and huge irrelevancies rained down around me. By the end I felt like John Goodman, surrounded by a dozen abseiling homunculi in The Borrowers.

I'd written an article about an American writer who had once studied at Harvard, where, he'd told me, "Bob Dylan came with a 12-string guitar and played at our freshman mixer." The Fact Checkers pounced. Bob Dylan, as far as they could establish, never played a 12-string guitar. Couldn't they just take the writer's word for it? Hah! Mocking laughter echoed down the telephone. How do you know (I asked) he didn't play one just one evening in his life? The guitar problem hung in the air, but another inquiry reared its head. The chap in my article had said something about his search for identity when young - how "You look at the five billion people in the world and think, `Where's my peer group?'" This is all very well, said Fact Checker No 2, but at the time this man looked at the world, the population of the globe was actually three million. My dear chap, I said, he didn't actually stand on some high rock and count the bloody ... but it was too late. We'd moved on to the important crux of whether the bloke's address in north London was in Camden or Kentish Town, and whether the hamsters in his bathroom really are, or were, Russian.

Then Fact Checker No 3 came on the line. "About the Dylan guitar thing. We've talked to a Dylan expert. No, he didn't ever actually play a 12- string. But in 1963 he was touring with a man who owned a 12-string, so he could have been holding it for him


Last year, we had Amanda Craig's sparkling roman-a-clef, A Vicious Circle, in which the worlds of literary journalism and Groucho Club bonviveurisme were amusingly trashed. One journalist objected so much to a disobliging fictional portrait of himself that he threatened legal sanctions and had the book withdrawn. It was later re-written and brought out by another publisher. This year has been a little short on media novels in which the nighthawks of Soho and the Cobden Club can see their lovely features hideously distorted. But making some amends in the New Year is Andrew Martin, a feature writer on the Evening Standard's magazine, ES.

His first novel, Bilton, is a droll tale of a parallel newspaper universe, in which the eponymous Martyn B, a difficult, oddly featured, howlingly left-wing journalist who perpetrates a physical attack on the British prime minister in public one day and rises in consequence on a fountain of transmedial celebrity. Readers will have little trouble identifying the prototypes of Grass, the green wellie magazine, or Hatstand, the right- wing weekly with its Georgian front door, its garden parties and charismatic editor, Grey Fauntleroy; or Rupert Granger, the aggressive TV current affairs inquisitor ("Let's turn to what I suppose I must call your economic policy"); or Little Willie Meltchitt, the volatile Chief Editor in Chief [sic] of The New Globe, or even General Zubarov, a renegade Zhirinovsky- like Russian dictator.

Mr Martin would, I'm sure, argue that his characters are not meant to correspond with real-life people (his fictional Prime Minister, Lazenby, for instance, is a winningly idiotic creation with no apparent correlative at the Commons) but some of his hits are strikingly direct ones. Like Bilton himself, the chap who goes from disgrace to TV stardom in a matter of weeks. Did Mr Martin know when he wrote the book that Mr William Self (a ringer, you must agree, for the jacket illustration) was going to move from front-page tabloid obloquy to having his own chat show in eight months?


Like everyone else, parent or otherwise, I was relieved when Anne Atkins's daughter Lara was found unharmed after her chilly adventures in Hammersmith Broadway. And I was very moved to read her bleak account of them, alongside her mother's harrowing record of waiting by the phone for the news. But I'd still love to get my hands on the daughter's diary, the one of which we know one single entry: "Hodie, I depart."

Would it tell us various things we would like to know? Like whether Lara, at 12, had outgrown the soubriquet "Bink" (or "Little, helpless, dotty Bink", in her mother's expanded formulation) and had got over the experience of being coerced into joining a super-sophisticated girls' school? Would it record her disenchantment with a religious household where the first thing you do when your daughter disappears is ring your "prayer partner" and organise a "prayer chain"?

Would it say why Lara refused to have pocket money, and whether it had anything to do with her mother's curious insistence on its importance ("I have made her well aware of what it has meant in terms of money and manpower to have 100 policemen searching for her"). And would it chart, with or without Latin code, the process by which a chatty, loving, Fulham household of madcap Christians might induce any awkward pre-teenager "to hide from people so they wouldn't find me"?


Next year is, of course, the bicentenary of Lyrical Ballads, that seminal work of English Romanticism, and the airwaves will be alive with anniversary tributes to its co-authors, Wordsworth and Coleridge, the Wallace and Gromit of the Lake Poets.

Not all the available media have greeted the prospect with delight, however. One of the commissioning editors at Radio 4 was approached the other day by a producer who suggested that Wordsworth's massive, multi-volume epic poem of childhood and spiritual growth, The Prelude, might be adapted for the Classic Serial slot on Sundays. "You do know, don't you, that this is a half-hour slot?" replied the editor scornfully. "I think we'll need something more substantial than a Prelude to fill it."