13 NOVEMBER 1999, Page 80

Singular life

Shopping around

Petronella Wyatt

Iwas under Gore Vidal. I suppose that was better than being under a number of people one might think of — I might have been under Ronnie Barker or Jim Davison. Still, I'm the kind of girl who likes to be on top of men. So I moved my position accordingly.

It was last Sunday afternoon and I had decided to take in a couple of London bookshops to see how they were perform- ing with my delicious little tome, Father, Dear Father. The experience soon turned out to be rather analogous to listening to other people's conversations without them knowing it. What was the etiquette? How did one ask to be pointed in the direction of one's own book? One could hardly demand, 'Take me to my memoir.' It seemed safer to pretend to be a punter. That posed problems, too, as there was a whopping photo of me on both the front and back covers. But, as my friends kindly pointed out, I photograph like a South American porn star while actually looking less demi-mondaine than mundane.

In any case, it was no time for taking chances. A disguise was called for. A few years ago I went to an 18th-century cos- tume ball. I still had the costume. Not wish- ing to draw attention to myself, I merely slipped on wide panniers, silver shoes with bows and a tall white wig. They would never guess who I was in that get-up.

In the end I resorted to the old sunglass- es trick and a slash of red lipstick (which I never usually wear). They say that red lip- stick draws attention away from the rest of the face by obscuring the other features. It did the way I had put it on.

In the first shop I couldn't see any of my books at all. So I went to the information desk and mumbled: 'D'ya'ava book Farvadearfarva?' What? I said it again. 'Oh yes,' the girl with the raisin eyes shouted, `by that funny woman called Wyatt.' I froze. It seemed everyone in the shop was looking at me. Did I look like that woman called Wyatt. And why was I 'funny'? The shop assistant thumped the computer. Their order hadn't come in yet.

In the next shop I fared better. There were plenty of copies on the New Titles table. However, I didn't feel they were quite prominently enough displayed. Why weren't they stuck on those stand things that hit your face at eye level? John Major's was stuck on a stand. Why wasn't mine? John Major was being greedy. I had to save him from the cardinal sin of vanity by removing his book and replacing it with mine.

`What are you doing?' said a voice behind me like a salute from a dread- nought. 'Why are you removing that book?' Crikey. She looked at me as if she were about to call security. A vision of shame flashed before my eyes. 'Spectator journalist nabbed stealing books.' My mother would never recover. There was no option but to buy the blasted thing.

A different tack was called for. In shop number three I asked for the book by name. I was pointed to the biography table. 'Why isn't it at the front table?' I demand- ed. 'Because it's not romantic fiction' (how little they knew!). 'I think it should be more prominently displayed,' I went on pompously. 'It's been widely reviewed, you know. This was greeted with suspicion. `Are you the publisher?"No, I just collect new books.' Here you are, then.' Two copies were thrust into my hands.

I remembered a friend who writes history books saying that his mother-in-law used to go into bookshops and ask for his tome to be put in the window because the author was married to her daughter. So I decided to send my mother. Go in to see how the book is doing, I ordered, and shoved her though the door of a shop in Marylebone. I should have known better. First she man- aged to ask for the wrong book. She forgot the title and inquired if they had a book called Farther and Farther. That might be under travel, they said, and led her to a section on the Himalayas. But it's about politicians, she demurred, puzzled, not mountains. 'Oh, you want John Major then.' It was back to that. 'No, no,' said my doughty parent, `there's a picture of a girl on the cover.' Realisation dawned. She came out with a copy of Geri Halliwell's If Only.

And what have you brought to show us, Mr Bates?'