The BBC was alarmed to hear A J P Taylor declare that history was not his strong point
I have, at long last, been invited to speak at a literary festival. The organisers have asked me not to name the precise venue lest I pre-empt the public launch, in September. But I can tell you that the event will take place in one of Shropshire's larger towns and that in the past it has featured such "contemporary masters of the written word as Martin Amis, Beryl Bainbridge and Geoff Atkins". ("Geoff Atkins?" muttered my partner, who tends to skip the review sections. "Who's he when he's at home?")
My letter of invitation from the secretary of the festival committee, Mrs K L R Monteith, began with an extremely complimentary passage about my contribution to "literature and the arts" and went on to suggest that I take a topic of my own choice but preferably one that considered the role of the novel in the 21st century. (It was a subject, she explained, that was currently exercising people in greater Shropshire.)
When I rang Mrs Monteith to confirm the date for my talk and point out gently that my name was spelled without the final "y", I was mildly alarmed by her suggestion that I contact any relevant publishers so that "we may display your past and present work on the trestle table immediately inside the main entrance. I know there will be a keen interest".
No doubt organisers of literary festivals have to take this effusive tack if they are to persuade the likes of Martin Amis and Beryl Bainbridge to appear on their various platforms, but, even though I've often felt capable of knocking off a rather good novel and a clutch of sensitive poems, my failure to have done anything of the sort in the past 50 years did make me feel that I was being treated with rather too much literary deference.
Were there really people in Shropshire keenly awaiting the chance to snap up a copy of the second edition of Deviance and Society? Perhaps my work had somehow caught on in the county in a manner that was too specific to be captured by the gross UK sales figure for 1998 of 320 copies.
But as I began to jot down a few notes about the novel in the 21st century (the likely erosion of the concept of "fiction" in an age of hyper-reality) I was overtaken by the uneasy sense that Mrs Monteith might have booked the wrong person. It wouldn't have been the first time.
Back in the early eighties, I'd received an invitation to speak at the English Speaking Union on the subject of childhood memories and only been saved from subsequent public embarrassment by spotting the reference in the second paragraph to a country child called Rosie. There'd also been that humiliating moment in the seventies, when a BBC television producer had asked me to give a series of talks on the second world war and been alarmed to hear a person who up till that moment he'd assumed to be A J P Taylor declare that, on the whole, history was not his strong point.
By this morning I'd realised I could no longer continue my jottings without sorting out any possible ambiguity. Mrs Monteith's answering machine explained that she'd gone shopping, but she was good enough to return my call and listen as I clumsily suggested that perhaps she'd got hold of the wrong person for her festival. "You must have no worries on that score," she told me. "In this job you soon learn about the modesty that occasionally overtakes artistic people who are asked to appear in public. Why, last year I had an identical phone call at just this time from Geoff Atkins."