However multicultural this country is supposed to have become in recent years, it remains sad but inescapable that if your name isn't something solid and simple (like Johnson or Stephens), you'd better abandon any attachment to dignity or accuracy. I've ended up Booton, Botten, Alan, Alun, Allen, Ellen. My car insurance is made out for Mr Bottom. My dentist calls me Elaine. Receptionists go, "Yer what?" when I say who I am, as though I'd made it up to tease them. Even worse, given Anglo-French and class relations, my name evokes something French (it is in fact Sephardic Jewish) and aristocratic (my ancestors were impecunious rabbis).
So I took heart a few years ago when an author with a name as weird and as foreign as mine was adopted by the British middle classes as one of their favourite authors: Louis de Bernieres. It now seems that his enormous fame is having some unintended effects on my book sales. I was talking to a manager of a Waterstone's the other day, who told me that several people in his branch had bought books of mine thinking that I was the author of the charming Captain Corelli's Mandolin - and had later returned to the shop to ask for refunds when they discovered the sad reality. And last week, an elderly lady told me that she had much enjoyed How Captain Corelli Can Change Your Life. I'm thinking of changing my name to Alan Bolton.
Jeremy Isaacs has been complaining for some time about the dumbing down of British television, so he must have taken heart when, a few weeks ago, Channel 4 commissioned his production company to make a series of serious discussion programmes about the great ideas that have shaped our millennium. I was pretty happy about this, too, when a friendly producer called me up and asked if I'd like to chair them. Having never done anything like this before, I had to be briefed for the programmes. The producer reassured me that my job was not difficult, but the key thing was to keep the discussion flowing nicely and to make sure that all the guests felt involved.
I thought I was doing quite well at this until - in the middle of the first programme - the producer whispered to me through my earpiece that one of the guests had fallen asleep. As I looked to the end of the table, I found that a learned professor who had just outlined the great ideas of medieval philosophy had indeed fallen into a deep and pleasant sleep, a smile etched on his face. Until the ad break, the cameras were forced into complex manoeuvres to cut him out of the shot, lest the viewers at home felt inclined to follow his example. I fear I may not be asked to chair discussion programmes like that again.
Mind you, my real ambition is to present a cookery show. I love the idea of being able to hold up an implausibly exotic vegetable and say: "You can probably find these in your local market," or just plainly: "I've got one bubbling away in the oven." What's more, almost every woman I know between the ages of 20 and 65 seems to be in lust with Jamie Oliver and disappointed that the Naked Chef is just the title of his book, rather than an allusion to his sartorial condition. Sadly, I can't fry an egg.
It's that time of year when book editors call authors up and ask them to write a few hundred words on the best new books they've read during the year. But because most authors don't read books, and certainly not new books, the impulse of these authors is typically just to repay favours and plug the books of their friends. This practice has been coming under scrutiny.
Last year, there was an article tracing in meticulous detail the personal relationships between all the contributors to one newspaper's "Books of the Year" feature. The conclusion was that they all knew one another, often went on holiday together and were even married to each other. So it's perhaps not surprising that I got a call from a literary editor this year who asked if I'd contribute to such a feature, but added rather sternly that all contributors would be liable to a fine if they were discovered plugging the books of their friends. As most authors are cowards and broke, I imagine this practice will be stamped out at once.
On the subject of book reviews and nepotism, an alarming new trend has appeared on the horizon - alarming for authors, at least. It used to be that you published a book, and it was then reviewed by some nice people and a few bastards. You could get over the hurt of the bastards by thinking that they were jealous or bitter or had a professional axe to grind, but in any case were not representative of the real audience.
But now all the major Internet bookshops are running "author reviews", where ordinary people are asked to give their verdict on books - and they speak far more honestly than any critic could. If they like a book, then there is much gushing, and if they hate it, they'll tell you it's not worth the paper it's printed on.
I learnt all about this because, the other day, my publisher, normally the sweetest of men, remarked: "Have you seen your reviews on Amazon.com?" Some were nice, one reader even offered to come around and cook for me (she must have sensed my deficiencies), but most were vicious. One customer, who announced himself as "Steve from Georgia, USA", said: "Someone put this guy out of his misery and get him to stop writing. Whatever the pretensions of his name, he's no Louis de Bernieres."