She finally agreed that the impotent man in chapter two didn't have to be a sociologist

Helen Mandible rings up in the middle of Question Time to give me the exciting news that her first novel has been accepted by Heinemann and to ask if I mind terribly that she's devoted part of the second chapter to the night I couldn't get it up at Selby Fork Travel Lodge.

I sensed it would be some time before it was my turn to speak so I gently nudged the TV's volume three icons along from mute and let her chatter; the size of the advance, likely publication date and Channel 4's interest in the rights fought for attention against John Hume, Ken Maginnis and Michael Ancram.

It was ten minutes before she hit the pause button. "Of course, I've changed your name. To 'Gary'. Is that all right?" The wonders of fiction. Here was someone desperate to impress me with her new-found role in the world of imaginative writing, and the only concrete instance of her literary power that I'd so far been vouchsafed was the transformation of my name from "Laurie" to "Gary".

But I was at least being given the thoroughly modern opportunity to protest about my literary alter ego, a privilege not typically extended to their sources by more traditional authors. ("Hello. Hilda Gabler? Henrik here. Hope you don't mind, but I've popped you into a couple of scenes in my new play. Of course, I've changed your name. Is that all right?")

I decided on balance to let "Gary" go and concentrate on other clues to recognition.

"What made you choose Selby Fork Travel Lodge?"

"Well, it's a comic novel about all the bad times I've had with men, and that night always stuck in my mind because of the way you went on about not being able to perform because you'd decided that you might be homosexual, and I had to lie there listening to you blathering on about a second-year sociologist called Michael Noone and then three months later I found out from a lecturer in linguistics that you'd given her exactly the same line. Janet Wren."

"You mean Julie Finch?"

"That's right. But I've changed her name. Finch. Wren."

"So I'm merely one bad male experience among many?"

"Oh yes, you disappear completely after chapter two."

That was something. After years of pointing out to friends and colleagues that I was not the inspiration for Howard Kirk in The History Man (a misunderstanding addressed in an essay by Malcolm Bradbury in which he postulates that I may be the only known example of a real person with no existence prior to his fictional representation), I was hardly in the mood for a new round of denials. My only other genuine appearances in literature had been too minor for anyone to notice: a crowd-scene part in Michelle Lovett's autobiographical novel about lesbian life in a small town in the sixties (I'm the misogynist who is indicted for telling the joke about lesbianism leaving a nasty taste in the mouth) and three lines in a footnote in Rachel Dobbie's Frontiers of Feminist Freedom (I'm the "Hugo" who votes against the idea of York International Socialists having its own women's section).

I can only hope that this relative literary invisibility is not shattered by Helen's new blockbuster. "Gary" is worryingly recognisable, but, after a great deal of persuasion, she finally agreed that the man in bed with her in Selby didn't have to be a sociologist. What a relief. Coming soon to a bookshop near you: Gary, the impotent economic historian.

This article first appeared in the 26 July 1999 issue of the New Statesman, I took tea with Pinochet