1 AUGUST 1987, Page 7


0 ne of the most delightful aspects of life is the way things even themselves out over the years. That is to say, those like me who were failures at school tend to get some sort of innings later; while those who were captains of teams, heads of houses and suchlike in their teens, almost invari- ably sink without trace soon after their 18th birthdays. I seldom see anybody from Charterhouse these days, but at a grand military dinner a few weeks ago I was introduced to a brigadier whom I was sure I recognised. My first year at school was made a living hell by an inhuman head of house, who beat us all with impartial regularity twice a term. Surely, now, this was he. I sent a note across to the brigadier, those empty eyes still looking as devoid of humanity as they did a quarter of a century ago. The answer came back: I was right. After dinner, he button-holed me: 'Were you at Charterhouse, too? What house? Funny, I don't remember you at all.' If there is one thing worse than the memory of teenage corporal punishment, it is the discovery that the perpetrator professes absolutely no recollection of a victim. On such foundations was Nurem- berg built. To add insult to injury, I was assured by his colleagues that he is a likely candidate for accelerated promotion. Natural justice is breaking down some- where.

share the general respect for the efficiency and competence of Americans in most spheres of endeavour. But the arts of war and publishing must be excluded. Americans bring to modern bookmaking about the same level of competence that they revealed in Vietnam or the invasion of Grenada. In Britain, I have almost always had amicable dealings with publishers, and likewise for years in America, when I dealt with various small concerns. But to the delight of my agent, a couple of books ago I was signed up by one of the largest and grandest New York publishers. Since that day, I have seldom known a moment's happiness. The incompetence, dilatori- ness, feebleness, illiteracy of many with whom my books do business (and who change every few months) defy belief. Their publicity staff plumb the lowest depths, showing only the merest nodding acquaintance with the works they publish. A telephone conversation or exchange of letters with them leaves one limp. I re- member once touting a book synopsis around half-a-dozen leading New York houses. The depressing aspect of all the conversations with senior editors was their lack of evident interest in the subject of my book, or in me, compared with the intensi- ty of their attention to possible market



trends the book might catch onto. Three firms subsequently put in bids. Yet none of the editors concerned gave any impression of being able to read joined-up writing. But the nastiest aspect of New York publishers' behaviour these days is their shiftiness about money. It is widely re- ported that the conglomerate parents of many American firms urge their offspring, as a matter of policy, to delay payment of cheques until the last possible moment. In the case of my own publishers, cheques are drawn on an account with an out-of-state bank, which take an extra week or two to clear. My most recent manuscript was delivered the week before Christmas. It was only 'accepted' and the delivery che- que paid over late in March, without apology. In the meantime, the fall in the dollar meant that the delay had cost me something over a thousand pounds. All right, fair enough, the Hastings family will not starve on the strength of this. But the same policy is pursued by big American publishers towards authors who need the money far more urgently than I do. Some British publishers, for all the mud sometimes thrown at them, still cher- ish personal relationships with authors, and behave with generosity beyond the call of duty. More than once, I have squeezed money I was not yet owed from my own publishers, to meet tax bills. From their point of view this pays, because one feels a real personal loyalty. With the New York contingent, on the other hand, it is painful `He's terribly famous. He's with the secret service.' to be asked to pass the time of day.

In the eyes of many discerning obser- vers, one of the principal tests of the success or failure of Mr John MacGregor as agriculture minister, will be whether he tackles the scandal of subsidies for upland forestry. Everybody agrees that there is an excellent case for subsidising more low- ground planting, now that less land is needed for arable farming. But it is a disgrace that encouragement should go on being given to higher-rate taxpayers to support the planting of armies of conifers in Wales and northern Scotland. The up- lands are a precious and diminishing asset. The extraction of timber from the hills is absurdly expensive. Those like Lady Por- ter and Mr Terry Wogan, who put money into these schemes, do so because of big tax savings. But for this, the trees would never get into the ground. But it defies belief that an activity as vandalistic as upland afforestation should be encouraged by the public purse.

Government ministers seem to be- come more and more inextricably en- twined with their press officers, to the extent that some are even frightened to step outside without PROs to hold their hands. At the Telegraph we are trying to wean them from this practice. We have lots of politicians to lunch, but we discourage them from bringing their hangers-on. Most, even the grandest, seem to enjoy the chance to get away from their staffs. But when we invited the Defence Secretary to join us, we were somewhat taken aback when he answered that he would not come without his press officer. On that note, we left the matter in abeyance. A few weeks later, however, we decided that it was silly to deny our defence correspondent, leader writers and other specialists the pleasure of meeting Mr Younger, who is said to be quite a bright and agreeable man, as politicians go. I wrote what was intended to be a jolly card, explaining our reluctance to put press officers at the luncheon table, but suggesting that if the poor man was really desperate for a meal, we could accommodate him in the kitchen while Mr Younger had his boar's head with us. To this, the Secretary of State deigned no reply. It seems a sad day when a politician of mature years feels unsafe to break bread in a newspaper office without his profes- sional mouthpiece holding his hand (this seems a case that justifies mixed metaphors).