William Donaldson's Week: Alison isn't, but is Tina?

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The Independent Online
WHAT if a reader of this column, having confused himself with one of its fictions, were to sue for libel? Would he be making a philosophical mistake, or, more trivially (and like the patients at a Lille psychiatric hospital, who, according to Info Matin on Monday, believe themselves to be not potatoes or poached eggs but Baroness Thatcher), one properly decidable in jurisprudence?

Equally, since in any court case one side loses, does it follow that lawyers are wrong 50 per cent of the time?

Finally, what is the difference between bad taste and a tort, albeit a civil one?

When Goodman Derrick & Co read The Naff Year Book for libel in 1988, they wrote as follows to its publisher:

'The typescript is, like its predecessors, generally tasteless, but the items likely to cause trouble are restricted to a few. Page 1 - Vidal Sassoon may not take kindly to being described as 'rude'. Page 3 - Calling Jan Leeming a 'bald newscaster' is rather beyond what might be tolerated. Page 4 - I believe that Andrew Lloyd Webber is particularly sensitive and I do not think it is safe to describe him as 'a balloon-faced . . .' Page 5 - To call Sir Stanley Matthews 'a . . .' etc, etc.'

The publisher was a little rattled, but after I'd explained my methods, which ever since I'd been the Mail on Sunday's gossip columnist had been to say untrue things about real people (on the grounds that no right-thinking person would credit such eccentric allegations) and true things about unreal people, the book appeared uncut - and, in the event, Goodman Derrick & Co and I were both proved right (or wrong) in that nobody sued for libel but the book bombed horribly. ('In appalling taste throughout' - the Cornish Guardian.)

Since then, I've decided on matters of law and left it to the lawyers to rule on questions of taste. Recently, however, a handful of provincial couples - mistaking themselves for fictions in this column - have threatened libel proceedings, and as a consequence, I'm now being subbed not by Roger From Chicago but by Oswald Hickson, Collier & Co (Philosophy Department), and a good thing, too.

Here was the way of it. When I started this column, and stung by Justin Judd's repeated accusations that I had no imagination and was unable therefore to write a fiction, I went to the trouble of creating certain characters, not least 'Alison, my beloved', to whom I attributed habits of such random thoughtlessness that it never occurred to me that people might think she was real.

Nor did they, I think, but some months ago, and suddenly bored by her imaginary antics, I had her run off with a character who was equally a fiction, and, you may have thought, as lazily drawn - an admirer of hers, who lived in a bungalow, I said, with a barbecue area and a musical cocktail cabinet.

Imagine the surprise of the Independent's management when no less than 24 couples (of whom the most tenacious have been Norman and Tina Norris of The Anchorage, St Austell) protested through their lawyers that they were identifiable as this frightful pair and were, accordingly, seeking damages for defamation.

In no time at all, I was up before Oswald Hickson, Collier & Co, where a charming receptionist ruled that since the litigants seemed prima facie to be making an ontological mistake, the matter could best be dealt with by the firm's Philosophical Department, specifically by their Mr Alway.

'I'm surprised,' I said to Mr Alway, 'that 48 residents of Cornwall should wish to identify themselves with this extraordinary couple. What makes them think they fit the bill?'

'They'll know their business best,' Mr Alway said. 'However, we appear to have a perfectly sound philosophical defence. Unlike patients in a French psychiatric hospital who imagine themselves to be potatoes or Lady Thatcher, these couples are claiming to be what isn't - unactualised possibles, like, for instance, our old friend, the present King of France. Should the matter come to court, they would fall foul of Russell's Theory of Descriptions. I'm right in saying that Alison, your beloved, isn't?'

'Indeed she isn't,' I said. 'But non-being must in some sense be, otherwise what is it that there isn't? If Pegasus were not, we should not be talking about anything when we use the word.'

'A simple mistake,' said Mr Alway, 'but I take your point. You're saying that we might be up before a judge, who, unlike you and me, has read Quine's On What There Is (Harper & Row, 1953) and, wanting to show that the denial of Alison, your beloved, and her benefactor cannot be coherently maintained, concludes that they are; further, and more seriously, that Norman and Tina Norris of St Austell, Cornwall, have been grievously defamed. Is that it?'

'In a nutshell,' I said.

'You could be right,' Mr Alway said. 'I suggest that in future columns, and in El Independo, we introduce Tracey, your beloved, from Suffolk. If she has a benefactor, let him be thin.'

'Excellent,' I said. 'After all, thanks to Mrs Patricia Fitzpatrick, of the South Suffolk Conservative Association, Suffolk is even funnier now than Cornwall.'

Thank goodness we've got that cleared up at last. Now, perhaps, Geoff Atkinson and I can get on with writing El Independo uninterrupted.