John Walsh column

I wondered if this pleasant, inoffensive man could be a former Stasi officer who'd retrained for the DVLA
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The Independent Online
"There's a man in the kitchen about your car," said the children as I was watering the sunflowers and, slightly alarmed, I went to see. He was from the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, an enormous but genial fellow with a clipboard, who had, it seemed, simply wandered into the house and now stood looming over the chocolate fingers and jejeune watercolours, calmly noting the two-year-old's police tricycle and the boy's squeaky truck with instinctive professional interest. He looked entirely at home. Had I arrived a moment later, he'd have started whistling. "It's about your car, sir," he said breezily. "It was seen with an out-of-date tax disc. There'll either be a fine or else a court case, and I just wondered if you had anything to say

I looked at him. What the hell ...? "It may be that the car has been off the road for some time," he continued equably, like Hercule Poirot ticking off possible motives in the blood-stained library, "or that it's been subjected to mechanical work. But I have to make a report on the reason, and then wait for a judgement to be made. It'll either be a fine or a ..." Finally I found my tongue. "Are you telling me that, because my tax disc was a month out of date last April, I'm being investigated like a bullion smuggler?" I demanded. "Oh no," he said. "They already know you're guilty. They just have to work out the level of penalty. And if it goes to the courts ..."

I wondered if this pleasant, inoffensive man could be a former Stasi officer who'd retrained as a DVLA executive. I wondered even more as he smilingly outlined the penalties for failing to keep your tax disc up to date. "Now if it's on an unattended car, we try to contact the owner and, if the disc isn't brought up to date, we clamp the vehicle - but frankly, ha-ha, we've only got one clamp for north London and another for the south." He chortled like a vicar. "Then the owner has 24 hours to pay the pounds 100 fine, before we take it to a car pound." Then what do you do? I asked sarcastically. Beat it senseless with a stick? Spray it pink? Abuse it verbally ("You pathetic little Renault. You ignorant Frog rattletrap. You spineless 1.6-litre nonentity ...")? Or do you just stick it in one of those junk yards you see in the movies and squash it to a cube of twisted metal? "Only as a last resort, sir," said the man calmly, "and after we've given the owner several other warnings".

My God, he meant it. That's what happens to you now in new-age Nineties Britain is it? Tax discs used to be a bit of a joke battlefield between motorist and policeman. You overran the time limit without noticing, you didn't have the pounds 100 renewal fee to spare, whatever the reason, you got flagged down by a smiling No-actually-I-haven't-got-better-things-to-do lady cop, who'd rap her fingernail on your windscreen and say, "Being a bit forgetful aren't we, sir?" One would reply with awkward flirtation ("Your eyes must be very sharp, officer, as well being a rather attractive shade of blue ...") and both sides would part happily. Now they hijack your wheels, immobilise them, kidnap them and crush them to death, all because of a little piece of paper. And the DVLA, which was once just the place you wrote off to for those little plastic folders to keep your driving licence in? Now, they're like some federal agency with a hit squad on permanent standby to come round and berate you in your own kitchen.

I don't like the way the world is going. Next thing you know, there'll be a bloke from the BBC on the doormat with a

sledgehammer, saying, "Morning, sir. Failure to renew colour television licence. If you could show me the offending set ..."

Ghastly Diana Ironies mount up, it seems, daily. At least three people have pointed out something I failed to notice during the funeral - that to have a large black car, with the Princess inside, speeding along a motorway immediately followed by three motorbikes, line-abreast in apparent hot pursuit, is a grossly insensitive simulacrum of the dead woman's last few minutes alive. And as you contemplate the Last Night of the Proms on Saturday (and what a maudlin spectacle that promises to be), does it not seem a little inappropriate to kick off the proceedings with a four- minute minimalist composition called "Short Ride in a Fast Machine"?

How pleasing to see that the two big publishing stories of the summer have reached a happy conclusion at the start of the autumn, by dovetailing into one. The most contentious bit of personnel-adjustment in a long time was the sacking of Jon Riley as head of Picador, the imprint which used to be solely concerned with paperbacking other people's successes but has mutated into a dashing and original publisher of the classiest writers around. Riley had been deputy publishing director since 1993, succeeding his boss Peter Straus to the publisher's chair on the latter's departure to America last year.

Why was he sacked? Ian Chapman, the beaming and rubicund head of Macmillan (which owns Picador) wouldn't say, beyond remarking that it was nothing to do with the company's performance. So what was it? Hints surfaced about personality clashes, Riley's famously short fuse (he is extremely good company, but has a streak of irritability a mile wide), rumours of "excessive behaviour", whatever that may be, and a single quotation attributed to Riley himself: "They didn't approve of the way I enjoyed myself." What could he possibly mean? Angel Dust? Frottage? Absinthe? Bog-snorkelling?

Extraordinary scenes of bitter dispute and tearful loyalty broke out in the wake of Riley's departure. Julian Barnes led a deputation of top Picador writers (Jonathan Coe, John Lanchester, Andrew O'Hagan) round to the luckless Chapman's office to protest against the removal of a man who had championed their work, published them with panache and brought them all (most notably Lanchester) riches, fame and prizes. But Chapman wouldn't budge. Whichever of Riley's noisome habits he objected to (picking his toes? humming "Lillibullero"?), he still objected to it. Pat Kavanagh, Barnes's wife and a leading agent, said her opinion of Riley's sackers was "unprintable". In The Bookseller, organ of the book trade, Peter Straus gave his former deputy a ringing endorsement, before concluding, "I am sure his editorial talents will soon find a suitable position."

They didn't take long. He's now got the chief editor job at Faber alongside Walter Donohue, Faber's charismatic, Brooklyn-born film books editor, who has become the noble imprint's new publisher. Riley's is held to be such a key position in the world of literary taste that the future incumbent has been a matter of impertinent speculation for months. Even I, readers will be astonished to hear, got it slightly wrong when I said the job had gone to Bill Buford, grizzled literary editor of the New Yorker. Things were proceeding smoothly, I understand, until Buford made a small tactical error. He sent in his agent to negotiate his fee with the Faber board. One just doesn't do that sort of thing at TS Eliot's old firm ...

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