William Donaldson's Week: Alway's getting into trouble

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AS A consequence of my falling out with Mr Alway - more accurately, of Mr Alway falling out with himself - I seemed for a while this week to be running out of literary agents.

In what may prove to be the most interesting action since J P Donleavy sued himself over The Ginger Man, Mr Alway has launched libel proceedings against himself over an item here two weeks ago. This concerned my proposed biography of the lad Giggsy and my subsequent discovery that Jim White, following a telephone conversation with Mr Alway, was already embarked on the same project.

The first Mr Alway knew of impending trouble was when, in his capacity as the Independent's lawyer, he received a letter from himself complaining that this passage seriously defamed him.

As an experienced libel lawyer, Mr Alway first tried the customary blocking, or time-consuming, tactic (which is not to say, of course, that he planned to run up crippling costs against himself), seeking to be told which references he, Mr Alway, maintained were defamatory of himself and the sense in which the words concerned were to be understood by a person of ordinary intelligence.

Proving to be as resourceful a litigant as he was a defendant, Mr Alway replied immediately, claiming that the passage implied that he, Mr Alway, had behaved improperly as my literary agent, passing on my idea to Jim White; further, that if he, Mr Alway, thought that he could shake him, Mr Alway, off with a costly, and time-wasting, holding defence, he had another think coming.

At which point, and having informed me that I would have to look after my own career while he sorted the matter out, Mr Alway returned to his law books, and I, by a strange coincidence, flew to Dublin with Classy Cressida to attend a party celebrating the publication of J P Donleavy's The History of the Ginger Man. Nor could I help noticing on the plane that Classy Cressida was clutching her return ticket and a wedge of cash.

'When undertaking an away booking,' she said, 'I always carry my return ticket and pounds 500 in case of violence.'

A wise precaution. Mr Donleavy's brilliant autobiography describes many occasions when, judging that someone has behaved in an ungentlemanly manner, he has boxed the offender on the nose, but omits the incident when he laid Mr Ian Albery as flat as a pancake on the floor of his own theatre.

When I produced Donleavy's Fairy Tales of New York at the Comedy in 1960, there seemed a danger that the box-office receipts would drop below the figure at which the theatre's proprietor, Sir Donald Albery (Ian's father), could give us notice to quit. I decided, therefore, to inject some pounds 2,000 into the box-office myself - a practice specifically forbidden in the contract.

I took pounds 2,000 to Berwick Street market, where I distributed it among the surprised barrow boys with the instruction that they should go straight to the Comedy Theatre and purchase front-row stalls for Donleavy's wry, elusive work. A sudden queue of fruiterers at the box office alerted Sir Donald to irregular goings-on and he posted Ian in the foyer to stop the monkey business.

It was young Ian's misfortune that he took up his position just as Donleavy, who had no idea what I was up to, arrived at the box office to buy six seats for friends. Young Ian stepped forward and accused him of conspiracy in the plot, whereupon he was knocked cold by Donleavy's celebrated bolo punch.

Be that as it may, there were no outbreaks of this kind of violence during the delightful three days that Classy Cressida and I spent as Mr Donleavy's guests this week, unless you count the occasional flare-ups on the American football pitch that Donleavy has on his estate.

Donleavy took Classy Cressida as his first-round draft pick - to play at wide receiver - and I chose Dr Tony O'Reilly to mark her at cornerback. What no one had told me, of course, was that Dr O'Reilly had lost a yard of pace, nor that Classy Cressida had, as a junior, represented the Home Counties in the sprint.

No problem. The first yard's in the mind, and every time Classy Cressida - still clutching her return ticket and pounds 500 in cash - caught the ball, Dr O'Reilly knocked her flat.

'Please stop knocking me flat,' said Classy Cressida. 'I'm only little and you're a great big Irish bully. For pity's sake stop, I say]'

'No gain without pain,' he growled. 'Let's play ball.'

In the fourth quarter, and on third and long, Classy Cressida had had enough. 'I'm going home,' she said.

That was sad, but it left me with more time to discuss Mr Alway's difficulties with Donleavy, who happens to be the world's leading expert on libel law.

'It's the case, is it not,' Donleavy said, 'that Mr Alway, to all intents and purposes, writes your column?'

'That's correct,' I said.

'Prima facie, then,' Donleavy ruled, 'he appears to have grounds for a libel action against himself. But, as the Independent's lawyer, he would have vetted his own copy, so he could counter-claim against himself for negligence. The damages and costs would cancel each other out.'

I passed this advice on to Mr Alway, who was so delighted he took me on as a client again. However, Classy Cressida isn't speaking to me.