One afternoon, early in 1982, my secretary announced, with uncharacteristic enthusiasm, that Antony Sher wanted to speak to me on the phone. I told her to hold the call for a moment while I composed myself. It wasn't so much the shock of being contacted by such a distinguished actor as the knowledge that what Sher had to say might well make me a national laughing- stock.
It all began back in 1975 with the publication of Malcolm Bradbury's The History Man. I'd made a point of not reading the book because some colleagues on the revolutionary left dismissed it as a fundamentally bourgeois caricature of sociology. But it had been impossible to ignore how often even casual acquaintances claimed that an extraordinary resemblance existed between myself and its central character, the university academic Howard Kirk.
Matters came to a head in a first-year seminar when I'd asked fresh-faced new students if they had any urgent questions. A boy with ripped jeans and spiky hair in the second row could hardly wait. "Are you Howard Kirk?" he asked. What, I wondered, had given him that idea? "My mother said you were, and that's why I wanted to come to York in the first place."
It was time to mount a counter-offensive. I walked over to the university bookshop and bought my own copy of The History Man. Who was this Howard Kirk who'd begun to usurp my identity? I soon found out. Kirk and I were both members of the revolutionary left on campus. We both gave lectures on Marx and Freud. We shared an interest in local activist groups (Kirk favoured the Claimants Union, while my own twice-weekly commitment was to the Tenants Association). We both regarded marriage as a somewhat constricting institution that could be enlivened only by regular bouts of promiscuity. And we both rather enjoyed disconcerting our middle- class students with grand talk about the imminence of the proletarian revolution.
By the time I was half-way through the book, I'd reluctantly conceded the central resemblance and was desperately searching for marginal dissimilarities. Thank God that, unlike Kirk, I didn't have a poster of Che Guevara above my desk, that I wasn't writing a book on the defeat of privacy (my forthcoming volume was to be on the decline of public life), and that, best of all, Kirk was clearly a much smaller man than I and sported a large Zapata moustache, whereas I contented myself with long, bushy sideburns.
As the years passed, The History Man ceased to be required campus reading and I was able to lop a few inches off my sideburns, abandon one or two revolutionary causes, and gracefully accept promotions that eventually secured me a large office, a secretary and a professorship.
All this was now in jeopardy. Just when it seemed that I might be able to forget The History Man for ever, the BBC announced its TV adaptation and selected Sher to play the lead. And now here he was on the phone. To me. No, he said, he hadn't heard any of the rumours about Kirk being based on me, he merely wanted to get a feel for the way in which sociologists talked and handled seminars.
I stayed in the pub when the first episode of The History Man was transmitted, and the following morning friends said that Sher bore no resemblance to me whatsoever. But I knew the time had come to tackle Malcolm Bradbury. Novelists can hardly be held to account for the origins of their characters but I longed to know if Bradbury had indeed had me in mind when he created his academic monster, if he had any notion of the embarrassment his book had …