William Donaldson's Week: To think I was once the bully

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The Independent Online
I'M ON the horns of a dilemma. One of my publishers, Geoffrey Strachan, is advising me to go off the rails, while another, Michael O'Mara, is urging me, no less forcefully, to keep my bearings. Each has made it clear that I can't follow the advice of one without damaging my standing with the other.

I'm a literary football, caught up in a top-of-the-table clash between a publisher of traditional outlook - a lover of spines and indexes, a bumbling, stooped old bird who, like a dribbling gourmet conducting pious foreplay with a sprout, spends hours in the stockroom fondling his books - and his common modern counterpart - a spring-heeled moneyman with a haircut and a wide suit, who by means of smart technology remains in touch with his computer even while he grabs a sandwich lunch.

In the circumstances it would be a serious setback if Strachan found out that I met O'Mara on Wednesday; still more serious were he to discover the content of our conversation.

O'Mara, as I've said before, is a gentle, sweetly donnish bookman of the old school, preferring to adopt a Garboesque stance towards the media and quite unsuited to a world in which books are sold like sausages. I had expected him to be shaken by the blaze of publicity occasioned by his uncharacteristic decision to publish Diana: Her True Story, but I was ill-prepared for the apparently broken man who confronted me across the luncheon table.

'What's the worst of it?' I asked. 'The sudden flood of money?'

'No, I can handle that,' said O'Mara. 'I'll give most of it away, of course; keep just enough to buy a place in the Dordogne or Tuscany. I'll sit in an orange grove with a Spectator essayist, exchange anthologised Wordsworth with Rumpole of the Bailey. Don't sneer. I can see you've spent too many hours discussing TV tie-ins and pop-up books with types such as Geoffrey Strachan.'

'Strachan's backlist is beyond reproach,' I said. 'It includes Babar the Elephant and Winnie- the-Pooh. And he once translated Moliere.'

'Nous avons changes tout cela,' he said. 'In context, a felicitous tag, I think you'll concede.'

I yield to no one in my admiration of O'Mara, but this is the kind of stuff one has to put up with over lunch. I wished suddenly that I was sitting on a tubular chair in Strachan's office while he talked excitedly of targeting the market.

'So what's upsetting you?' I asked.

'The people I'm now obliged to treat with,' O'Mara said. 'Editors of national newspapers. Men who roll their sleeves up in the office. On Monday morning, Max Hastings rang me. On Tuesday, Andrew Neil called on me at home. Nothing in my background had prepared me for being called on at my home by Andrew Neil. Such men, fascinated as they are by power, are scarcely distinguishable from politicians. Surely it was Canetti who said: 'Power goes to the head even of those who have no power'?'

This rang a bell, reminded me of something Sir Peregrine Worsthorne had written in the Sunday Telegraph. Brooding excitedly on the dangers of freedom and the need for discipline - the smack of firm government and so forth - Worsthorne had admitted (what we might anyway have guessed, I think) that he'd been bullied at school, that freedom there had meant freedom for thugs to torment him in the playground. I'd often wondered why, with much the same background, I'd turned out so much more satisfactorily than he, but now I understood.

At Winchester I'd been a bully - throwing pouting, doe-eyed juniors out of windows, tobogganing them downstairs trussed in a laundry skip - and had therefore got all that stuff out of my system at an early age. The worst I'd done, I'd always supposed, was to have caused one of them to acquire a sense of humour; was responsible, perhaps, for a fat boy's later appearance on Have I Got News For You? but now I wondered whether one of my victims might have been called English, Dacre or Holborow.

'Were you a bully in your youth?' I asked.

'Of course,' O'Mara said. 'When I was nine or 10 I ran a protection gang, extorted money from smaller boys. Why?'

'I'm doing a study of the authoritarian personality,' I said. 'I have the answer, I think, to why you and I are so uninterested in the exercise of power. It's because we were bullies at school.'

'No doubt you're right,' said O'Mara. 'But that's not what I wanted to talk about. Someone who reads your column tells me that you've been discussing TV tie-ins with Geoffrey Strachan - worse, that for the sake of work in progress he's trying to persuade you to go off the rails. I have my reputation to think of - I am shortly to become a member of the Guards Polo Club. I must have your word that you'll not treat with Strachan again.'

I went home and telephoned Strachan, meaning to tell him our relationship was at an end.

'He's at the Groucho Club with Justin Judd,' his secretary said. 'They're discussing a TV tie-in, featuring four alternative comedians, to be called The Big One, The Black One, The Fat One And The Other One. I suggest you ring him there.'

'Do you have Axl Rose's telephone number?' Strachan asked, once I'd got him on the line.

'You want to sign him to a contract?'

'No, I want to sign up Alison your beloved's fat American. I gather he and Mr Rose were arrested for fighting at Kennedy airport.'

I put the phone down and rang O'Mara, only to be told that he'd just left for Tuscany with Geoffrey Wheatcroft. Now I don't know what to do. I could hit someone, I suppose.