I can remember exactly when this happened, because it was the evening Syd Barrett, late of the Pink Floyd, died. Not that I’d have registered this, were it not that I was attending a performance at the Royal Court of Tom Stoppard’s new play Rock ’n’ Roll, which actually features a Syd Barrett-like character.
The coincidence introduced a certain frisson, as most of the audience were clearly aware of Barrett’s death – but my wife and I prolonged that frisson by adjourning to the bar in the interval for a vigorous argument about the whys and wherefores of Stoppard’s oeuvre.
We were so absorbed in this contretemps that I was taken completely by surprise when a red-faced, heavy-set figure surged up from a seat and confronted me as we made our way back down the aisle. “You don’t care what you do to people in your books!” he expostulated. When, dumbstruck, I failed to respond, he added: “You don’t even know who I am, do you?” I conceded I didn’t, whereupon he spat his name – an unusual one – back in my face.
Then I did recall him: I’d known X in the mid-1980s when I was hanging around with a fairly louche crowd. X was only a distal member of this group and he wasn’t louche at all – just a hallucinogen-addled young man, rather wistful and lost and, unlike his latter incarnation, slim, ethereal and pale. Which was why, when I ran into him 15 years later, I was shocked by his transformation. X had become something of a gangster and, as he defiantly admitted to me, a pimp.
Well, in this anecdote of literary coincidence, it seems only fitting that there should be a second one: at the time, I happened to be working on a novel that had a crack-addict protagonist who falls into prostitution, and I needed a name for her drug-dealing pimp.
Angry with X for his fall from dopey grace, I used his. Which was why I found myself, five years later, being confronted at the Royal Court by this rather literary thug. “Step outside,” he spattered in my face, “and we’ll settle this right now!” But just then the house lights went down and, being first and foremost good theatregoers, we toddled obligingly back to our seats.
As the play resumed, I sat there, mortified by my crass use of a real person’s identity. How could I have done such a thing? Yet as I pondered, the worm of thought turned. True, I may have exposed X to the world, but I’d done nothing libellous: after all, he really was a pimp and a drug dealer.
With this realisation, I at once calmed down. So, X was going to beat the shit out of me – so what? The main point was that I’d simply done the most important thing a writer of fictions can do: tell the truth.
When the curtain fell my wife and I rose serenely and walked towards the exit. Glancing back, I could see X hopping up and down, desperately trying to reach me through the press.
I seem to recall he was swiping savagely at the air with a rolled-up copy of the New Statesman – but, I concede, this last detail may be one of the vagaries of memory at work.
This article appears in the 14 Jun 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel