William Donaldson's Week: A never-ending search for Self

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The Independent Online
ON MY way to have lunch on Monday with Michael O'Mara, I struck up a conversation with a taxi driver. An odd thing to do - rather like calling on a Jehovah's Witness - but I had my reasons.

That morning I'd received a fat package from Bloomsbury, containing Will Self's startlingly funny new novel, Cock & Bull, a sheet of well-deserved tributes to its predecessor from Martin Amis, Doris Lessing, Beryl Bainbridge and so forth, and a request that I mention it in my column.

Bloomsbury's PR girls must think I'm stupid. How could they seriously suppose that I'd draw attention to Self's stuff here at a time when I need all the space at my disposal to plug a book of mine?

This is being published by Michael O'Mara and I'm certainly not entrusting it to his PR machine - even if he's got one, which I doubt. I bow to no one in my admiration of O'Mara, but, as I've made clear before, he's an old-

time bookman, a lover of spines and indexes, whose idea of a publicity blitz is being noticed in the Literary Review.

Some people wonder how such a sweet old sausage has managed to publish so many No 1 bestsellers, but the credit's entirely due to his fearsome wife, Lesley, who wears the trousers and is in charge of marketing and so forth.

Unfortunately, Lesley has never liked me or my stuff, so I've taken the precaution of hiring my own PR machine - Max Clifford, to be precise - who has come to prominence for his deft handling of Antonia de Sancha, Pat Cash and H2 Only, a pure water company.

Oddly enough, I gave Clifford his first chance almost 30 years ago and a right balls-up he made of it.

One day, I was approached by a rather serious young man who asked for an opportunity to prove himself as a theatrical PR. I liked the look of him, so I gave him the account, which consisted at the time of The Three Musketeers, a musical entertainment written and performed by Professor Bruce Lacey and the Alberts.

This was about to open at the Arts Theatre and was a gift to any publicist. On the day Clifford took over, the Alberts blew the theatre up. They had in the cast a Russian dancer with exploding boots, who, during a break in rehearsals, left his boots on a window sill, where they were detonated by the sun. The explosion blew the doors off the cubicles in the gent's, and Stratford Johns, who happened to be in there at the time, didn't speak for five days.

Hurrying to investigate, Mr Birtwhistle, a Northern businessman who had just bought the Arts and was rather proud of it, was caught in a man-sized mousetrap fashioned to snare the wicked Cardinal Richelieu, and was held fast until the evening performance.

A gift for a publicist, as I say, but Clifford rang me the next day to report that he'd managed to keep it out of the papers.

'Out of the papers?' I screamed. 'We want publicity]'

'Not cheap publicity,' he said. 'Some people might be amused by fat actors being blown up in lavatories, but I'm trying to restrict coverage to the Guardian and the Observer.'

Well, that was 30 years ago, and, impressed by the work he's done on H2 Only, the pure water company, I had no qualms about engaging Clifford to promote my new book.

In fact, I was feeling pretty confident about things until Cock & Bull (Bloomsbury, pounds 9.99) arrived on Monday morning. Nor was my mood much improved when, shortly thereafter, my pal Ludo's cousin pitched up from Paris with a supply of Zantac. My pal Ludo was the French fixer on Root Into Europe and his cousin is a taxi driver.

'Enchante,' he said. Then he spotted Cock & Bull on the coffee table. 'Mon Dieu] Will Self] The most brilliant of your young novelists] You know him?'

'We're acquainted. The joke is, his publishers seriously believe I'll mention him in the Independent] There's one born every minute.'

'They'll be disappointed,' Ludo's cousin said. 'A nice example of Sartre's concept of 'nothingness' (neant) at the heart of being. When M. Bloomsbury searches in your column for M. Self, and he is not there, he is no more not there because of M. Bloomsbury's expectation than he is not there when he had not expected him to be. But the column will reflect back at him the absence of M. Self. Here are the Zantac. Bonjour for now.'

On the way to lunch with O'Mara I thought I'd stick this to the taxi driver. 'Sartre's concept of 'nothingness' introduces intellectual anguish, does it not? The question is, 'How shall I make myself part of the world?' '

'You get out of life what you put into it,' the taxi driver said. 'That's what I always say.'

Over lunch I asked O'Mara if I was in good shape vis-a-vis my book. 'What book?' he said.

Never mind. When I got home I found a message from Max Clifford telling me to ring Terry Wogan's office.

I put on my Charlie Allen suit - one likes to look one's best when making important calls - and telephoned Wogan's producer.

'We're trying to contact Will Self,' he said. 'Do you happen to have his number?'