To publish a novel after a lapse of five years is to be brought smack up to date with the changing face of the British book trade. In the old days you wrote the darling work, had your agent send it on to your publisher, got a thumbs-up from the editor and his or her immediate superior, and the deed was more or less done. Here in 2006 the number of interested parties has tripled or even quadrupled. Paperback sponsors crave a look-in. Sales and marketing make their presence felt. The publicity director has taken a chunk home for the weekend. No doubt the security guard on reception flicks through Ian McEwan's new manuscript in his lunch hour.
All this is an elaborate hedge against the decisions of the people who really matter: the Waterstone's execs and the taste-formers at Ottakar's. Cynics who complain about the paralysing influence of the retail chains don't appreciate the historical continuities involved. "At the head of English literature sits a tradesman who considers himself qualified to decide the most delicate artistic questions," George Moore protested 120 years ago in his polemic on Victorian censorship, Literature at Nurse. Moore was referring to Mr Mudie and his circulating library, but the same could be said of the Waterstone's head buyer, Scott Pack.
Some things, though, have improved. Twenty years ago I timidly suggested to the publishers of my first novel that they make a special effort in East Anglia, where the book was set. "Oh dear," somebody said. "You see, X, the East Anglian rep, isn't terribly good." Even then I wondered why X was still in a job.
To London, to do the rounds of radio studios. Four and a half years after having quit the metropolis for greener climes, I find even setting foot on the Liverpool Street Station platform profoundly exhausting. Worse, London - the crowds, the terrible shops, the routine incivilities - demonstrates the Jekyll and Hyde separations of my character. Half of me, I hope, is a good liberal who believes in tolerance, charity and seeing the other person's point of view. But the other half has the legacy of a decent, God-fearing, middle-class upbringing to contain, and the result is that what might be called the Guardian- and Daily Mail-reading sides of me are permanently at war with each other.
Confronted with some doubtful modern phenomenon such as Celebrity Big Brother or the mammary-gland-fest of a lads' magazine, my immediate reaction is to wonder why such things are allowed and whether some law couldn't be passed to forbid them. Then I realise that people are perfectly entitled to make fools of themselves in public or proclaim their half-wittedness in print, and that it is none of my business.
Having tea in Highgate with my friend Marcus, I suddenly feel very old. The prompt is not so much the presence of Marcus's flaxen-haired children or the memory of our twentysomething forays through the Fitzroy wine bars, but a squat, brown-and-yellow hardback got up to resemble a volume of Wisden. Devised at vast expense by the late Harry Thompson, this turns out to be a complete record of the original Captain Scott Invitation XI, the celebrated amateur cricketing side. I was never more than an adornment of the Scotts' creaking tail (career average: exactly five) or bowling attack. No, the scary thing about these statistics is that so much detail has passed beyond remembrance. The 16 runs against the Old Talbotians (a gang of journalists who had once worked on James Goldsmith's Now!), where a certain "D Lawson" recorded bowling figures of 5-26, I can just about recall, but the football match against BBC Science Features in which "Taylor stopped doing his Gary Glitter impressions and scored" is gone.
This feeling is heightened when a journalist rings up to ask about Julian Maclaren-Ross, war-era literary bohemian and the original of X Trapnel in Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time, whose unmarked grave along the North Circular is to be topped with a memorial stone. "Did you know him then?" the journalist wonders, impressed by my evocation of Ross's vagrant, rackety life. "He died when I was four," I assure her.
A little scene from metropolitan life. Liverpool Street, 11.15pm. Likely lad in baguette queue stows his wallet into his jeans: a rail ticket gently descends to the floor. Thinking to help, I retrieve the ticket and hand it back. Oh no, likely lad explains, he was actually just throwing out some rubbish. This time, alas, the Daily Mail reader in me wins out.
D J Taylor's new novel, Kept, has just been published by Chatto & Windus