john walsh

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Brrring brrring. It is Roger from The Guardian asking if I could offer a few thoughts about Amanda Craig. Then The Telegraph is on the line asking if I mind "appearing" in A Vicious Circle, the new novel by Amanda Craig. Next comes Dalya, an exotic young woman from The Times, asking, Is it true, that stuff in Private Eye about you being in Amanda Craig's...? Soon, Post-It notes cover my desk like sticky snowflakes. "D. Mirror rang. Pls call". "Chap from D. Mail re A. Craig..."

Fame at last. After all these years drudging in obscurity, I'm being lionised because of a fancied resemblance to a character called Ivo Plunge in a roman a clef by a woman who told me, some years ago, "I'll get my own back on you" for publishing an iffy review of her last novel. Gosh. One digs out a proof copy of the book and reads it. Though flagged as a withering satire on the corrupt literati, it appears to be only intermittently concerned with the reviewing tendency, its bookish chapters interspersed with lots of hand-wringing about one-parent families, inner cities, the NHS, and the horrid things you find on your stairs ("needles, condoms, bubble gum").

One notes some rather obvious references: the Slouch Club, Merlin Swagg the broadcaster, Ben Gorgle "the portly Canadian editor of Grunt", Percy Flage the blond poet, novelist, biographer and commissioning editor (Andrew Motion - do catch up). And shamefully, one looks for oneself in the pages about Ivo, cursing the fact that novels don't carry indexes. One remarks the fact that Ivo has curly hair (me too), that he's a lapsed Catholic, ex-grammar school boy (ditto), former gossip writer turned literary editor (yup) whose father was a doctor (check). One notes with interest that "his friends compared him to Oscar Wilde, largely because of his dress..." [and] "his enemies called him the most dangerous man in London". He is also "famously unsuccessful" with women, whom he routinely and charmlessly assaults with something called the "Sponge lunge".

Hmmm. One picks and chooses through all this exciting data, applying whatever shreds of self-knowledge one can summon, and one finally says: Oh blast, it's not enough me. That's the trouble with romans a clef: If you're going to appear in them at all, it has to be as a primary-colour member of the cast, rather than a now-you-see-me-now-you-don't wraith. Makes you feel so... insubstantial.

This is not a view shared by David Sexton, the journalist and former inamorato of the author when they were at Cambridge; he has now written to Ms Craig's publisher, Viking, and got publication of the book suspended. Though a charming fellow in the flesh, Sexton does seem a dead ringer for Ivo's friend, Paul Pinsent ("the nastiest reviewer in London") but also resembles Ivo himself: Ivo is deputy literary editor of the Chronicle (Sunday Telegraph), his boss is a classy middle-aged woman called Marion (Miriam Gross), his uber-boss is called Max de Monde (Hastings, until recently), he writes reviews for Private Eye...

But what people in literary-gossip circles are asking is: what on earth did Mr Sexton do to Amanda Craig back in undergraduate days, that she should wreak this weirdly elaborate revenge 15 years later? Did he two- time her with another? (But that's what everyone does at university). Did he break her heart? (But Ms Craig radiates self-assurance and has been happily married for years). I think we have to look in the pages of the literary press for an answer. Ms Craig wrote a review of Hilary Mantel's novel, A Change of Climate, in February 1994's Literary Review, and got one or two facts wrong. Ms Mantel wrote voicing a mild complaint. And, some years after last being in touch with Ms Craig, Sexton pounced on it in his silkenly bitchy "NB" column in the Times Literary Supplement in April, where he hinted that Ms Craig hadn't read the book. Amanda then wrote to the TLS a month later, complaining that it was the result of typographical errors and the author's lack of clarity.

It was at just this time that Ms Craig was putting A Vicious Circle into shape. Did her alarmingly personal attack date from this encounter? You bet. By the end of the year it was clearly preying on her mind - witness another letter in the TLS (December 1994) taking issue with the magazine on the subject of authors' disclaimers ("All characters in this story are imaginary and no reference is intended to any living person...").

Did you see that story about the Staffordshire driveways? Surprised householders in Cannock, Staffs, woke up after a rainstorm to find that their newly laid driveways had melted away in a pong of spearmint, because the builders had used "broken mints" instead of white stone chippings.

One can only imagine the predicament of the builders. The driveways must be laid. Time is a-pressing. The contractor is complaining. The white stone chippings have failed to turn up. It's 4pm. What should they do? One of them, full of make-do-and-mend invention, has a brainwave. Down at the local corner shop, he buys the entire stock of Softmints, Minties, Polos, Trebors, ExtraMints and sends a runner to every other shop in Staffordshire. Then imagine the thousands of packs he and his colleagues had to unwrap, before smashing them to the correct size - and then they only went up to the second flowerbed. And have you seen the price of the things? A pack of Mint Imperials is 29p (Polos come a bit cheaper). How can the papers call them "cowboys", as if they had botched the job with cheap materials? On the contrary.

I know of only one similar nightmare scenario, when the buyers of paper at News International tried to haggle with the pulp mills over the price, and refused to buy the vast quantities of paper required for printing The Times and its sister titles until their price was accepted. But the manufacturers refused to back down - and, as the weekend loomed, the Wapping production department were staring at a paperless desert and a fearful prospect: that, if things got any worse, they'd have to nip round to Ryman's and buy up astounding amounts of A4 white (no feint or margin), then Sellotape or Pritt them together and try to bring out 1.28 million copies of the 200-page Sunday Times on the result.