The fact is my fiction has fled

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'KILL your darlings.' 'Q' was it? Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, that is, to anyone under 40 and - his only claim to distinction I'd have thought - King Edward VII Professor of English Literature at Cambridge when Leavis was a student.

He meant, I suppose, that having written a passage you imagined to be rather fine, you should then bin it instantly.

What, though, if one of your fictions bins you? What if, all in a second, one of your darlings were to:

'Leap from the sun with mask and brand

And murder and not understand?'

You'll forgive me if I have the quotation wrong. One of my fictions has scarpered to the West Country, of all third-rate places, with my collected Larkin and, rather less elegantly, to service a fat man who markets hardware for a loving.

(I meant to type 'living', of course, then realised that 'loving' is happier, since such care as he'll receive will be courtesy of the hardware's proceeds. And don't tell me that I wouldn't know elegance from an elephant's arse. I'm squinting here with grief and can therefore be forgiven).

Nor have I finished with him yet. A man - here goes - who, I wouldn't wonder, says, 'Long time no see]' and, if on top, wine-bar form, 'Methinks the lady doth protest too much]'; who, I imagine, takes his jacket off in restaurants and looks at the menu and says, 'Decisions, decisions]'; who, if I suddenly surprised him up an alley with a display of oriental fighting techniques, could, on the spot, compose a construction as adroit as 'Time's the great healer, you know.'

OK, one knows about one's 'characters' taking over and all that stuff, but things are getting out of hand. First Alison, my beloved, dares to do something real for once, to appear here as Penny, her actual name, thereafter exchanging a man who almost knows his Larkin for the aforementioned gonk who takes his jacket off in restaurants and markets hardware.

Then I discover that another of my fictions, 'Nicholas Coleridge', editorial director, I'd been told, of a clutch of women's knicker magazines (to be read under driers, I believe, in Mr Teasy Weasy's hairdressing salon by facial surgery victims and their unsatisfactory daughters) wasn't the real fiction after all (we'll not go into Popper's ontology here, Worlds 2 and 3 and so forth), but another, and entirely bogus, fiction.

(Nor will we consider in what sense a fiction can be bogus. What, after all, would count as a lying artefact? You may be beginning to twig, however, what Penny, my beloved, has exchanged for a fat West Countryman and may even be thinking that she's made the right decision).

Two weeks ago, you may remember, my friend 'Craig Brown' - if, as I now wonder, it was indeed 'Craig Brown' - booked me in for lunch with 'Nicholas Coleridge', suggesting that the latter wished to engage me as the Tatler's restaurant critic. The lunch went very well, I thought, and, in spite of the fact that I last saw 'Coleridge' wearing the goofy, surprised look of a suddenly unhorsed Windsor as he drove a crack fiend north from Ladbroke Grove, I fully supposed the job was mine.

Imagine, then, my surprise when an item in the Daily Telegraph, followed by a somewhat strenuously cutting letter from 'Coleridge' in the Independent (to be fair, these things aren't easy to compose), claimed that I'd been the victim of a hoax; that the fellow who'd lunched me wasn't 'Nicholas Coleridge' in the least, but a resting actor, hired for his floor-walker's looks and dancing master's manners.

He could have fooled me - indeed, he did fool me - but I'd not be fooled again, I thought, least of all by my friend 'Craig Brown', who asked me out to lunch on Tuesday, tempting me, unashamedly, by saying that his wife, Frances Welch (Colin, my hero's girl), might be joining us.

'Excuse me, Frances,' I said, as we took our seats, 'I wish to check that your cheery companion really is 'Craig Brown'.'

'Go ahead,' she said.

I turned to 'Brown'.

'Say something stupid,' I said. 'Brown' isn't stupid. He feigns it from time to time to wind me up.

'OK,' he said. 'Take that guff about Popper's ontology. You think that he's intelligent because you can't understand a word he says.'

Not bad. Only the real 'Brown' would be quick enough to present himself as the half-witted compiler of 'Pseuds Corner'.

'You think,' he continued, 'that the population could be lined up in order of intelligence, from Dummet and Hawking at the top down to a West Country village idiot. Where would you place me?'

'On present form,' I said, 'at about 9,785 - three places above Taki, the unattractive Greek, and Richard Ingrams.'

'And anyone above me - Jonathan Miller, say - would necessarily be a better television critic?'

'Of course,' I said.

'Brown' chuckled happily. 'Don't worry about Penny, your beloved,' he said. 'She'll be back in a month. No one with an IQ out of single figures has ever lived in the West Country.'

'What about Betjeman?' said Frances.

'He only went for the weekend,' said Brown.

Later, as we were leaving the Gents, I told 'Brown' that I hoped he'd washed his hands.

'Gentlemen wash their hands,' he said, 'before they relieve themselves, not afterwards. Have I passed?'

He certainly had now. This was my friend, the real Craig Brown, and I love him to bits. Stuff the fictions.

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