My father had an alter ego who rang up women to ask them which of their breasts was the heavier

There are certain people who always have the same thing said to them. Mordecai Richler has written an amusing article (reproduced in the current edition of Prospect magazine) in which he complains about having to go around publicising his books and the various travails, inconveniences and petty humiliations that are involved. He mentions the classic, cliched question that readers ask authors: "What do you write with?"

The article leaves a slightly sour taste. Many writers would respond that Richler should think himself lucky to be limoed around cities across the western world by publishers who consider his books worth publicising. The majority of people who write books can't find anybody to publish their book, let alone publicise it once it has been published.

And I've always thought it a bit unsporting to mock readers for asking the old chestnut about whether you write on a word processor. First, because they've probably reacted the way most of us do if we meet someone we admire, which is to go blank and then blurt out something a bit foolish. Second, authors may well get bored with the details of how they go about their pathetic, lonely business day after day but the way they write happens to be interesting. In a letter to his brother, Keats wrote about how he would like to have witnessed the scene when Shakespeare wrote "To be or not to be". It is worth knowing, to name a few examples I know off the top of my head, that Nabokov wrote his novels on little index cards while standing at a lectern, that Iris Murdoch wrote in pencil in exercise books, that A N Wilson writes his books in bed (I did my A-level revision in bed, which was not so much a working method as a form of nervous breakdown). For better or worse, I find it impossible to read the late novels of Henry James - I was tempted to stop there, but I don't find them impossible to read. They just take an awfully long time, with many false starts - I find it impossible to read them without imagining him walking up and down his study in Lamb House dictating those baroque winding sentences to his secretary, Miss Bosanquet.

There isn't exactly a question that people ask me but there is something that people frequently say to me. I'll make the most routine observation and they'll say in some heavily sarcastic tone: "Ah! I sense a column coming on." I've just discovered that one of the editors at the Good Book Guide magazine is called Julene Barnes and observed to somebody that the similarity between her name and Julian Barnes could be made the basis of a French farce. "Huh! This is next week's column, is it?"

Well, sort of. There is an old myth that each of us has a doppelganger, a double, somewhere in the world and if we ever meet him or her, then we will instantly die. I don't believe that for a moment. However, most of us have a much more banal sort of doppelganger, which is the person or persons who have the same name as us. My own family have a peculiar collection. I once saw a poster for a jazz-funk DJ called Sean French; my brother Patrick French, who is a doctor, keeps being congratulated on his brilliant biography of Francis Younghusband, which was written by another, and even younger, Patrick French.

Best of all, an alter ego of my father, Philip French, once turned up in a newspaper item. He was a pipe-fitter who was arrested for conducting a rather curious confidence trick. He rang up women and claimed to be conducting a medical survey about differing breast sizes. He asked women to remove their bras and hold each breast in turn to inform him which was heavier. I've sometimes contemplated a dinner at which Patrick and my father would arrive to be confronted with the other Sean French, the other Patrick French and the other Philip French.

This would just be the first in a string of surreal, malicious social occasions. I would organise a dinner in order to discuss important cultural policy matters with the prime minister, a leading broadcaster, actor, playwright and director, and only half-way through would Tony Blair, Anthony Clare, Antony Sher, David Hare and Richard Eyre realise they'd only been invited because their names rhymed.

Or I'd invite the film critic Anthony Quinn, the BBC industrial correspondent Paul Newman, the novelist Elizabeth Taylor (unfortunately deceased), the controller of Channel 4, Michael Jackson, the financial journalist Robert Taylor and wait for the evening to go disastrously wrong.

These are either brilliant scenarios waiting to happen, or else I've been sitting alone in my attic for too long. Oh, and by the way, the answer to last week's riddle is "Laura Ashley".

This article first appeared in the 26 February 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The police force we deserve?