Arts & Giving | Diary of a Somebody

Stephen Bayley

The culture commentator on plagiarism and previews

Stephen Bayley

February 14 2012
Stephen Bayley

Day: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4

I’m fascinated by plagiarism. In fact, I’m rather good at it. At school I was always taught to have “good models” for imitation in writing. And I soon found them. They’re still there. If there’s a principle in this demilitarised zone between inspiration and copying, it must be: when plagiarising, trade up. Joan Didion copied out Hemingway word for word to improve her style. Was that plagiarism? Dunno. It’s a difficult call.

This question is on what’s left of my mind because, most unusually, someone – perhaps inadvertently – seems to have found me an inspiration. A few years ago, Roger Mavity and I wrote a book called Life’s a Pitch… about the black arts of persuasion, winning arguments and the traps of self-identity. It was a success (modest by global standards, stupendous by ours) and is still in print. So when I discovered that Philip Delves Broughton will soon publish a book on a similar subject with an identical title, I asked a witheringly expensive legal friend for advice. He has just told me that there is no copyright on titles. This I found both slightly dismaying and very encouraging indeed. My next book is going to be called The Da Vinci Code.

I’ve also been occupied by other diverting absurdities. Last night I did the nightly newspaper preview for Sky News. This was as weirdly compromised as these things always are: I warned them that I have neither opinions about nor interest in the NHS, Greek debt, the US elections or Whitney Houston, and only ever read restaurant, book, car, art and architecture articles, but they said to come along in any case. It would have been fine… except, live at 9.30pm, there were no papers to preview. Not even online. Absurd, but fascinating. I have now lived through a whole pseudo-event.

Today I go to meet a vivacious hotel PR who represents a group of “design hotels”. She is very interested in me because I have recently been combustibly rude about the concept, and is keen as a maenad to send me to New York to experience that which I detest. So there’s another principle struggling to emerge here.

Then I have another plagiarism argument. This time with a photographer who wants to charge me for using a picture of myself, already paid for by a newspaper, on my own website. Should I need to pay to use my own image?

A sort of relief will come tonight when my most difficult decision is whether to go to the private view of van Dyck in Dulwich or Lucian Freud at the National Portrait Gallery. It’s wonderful that two of the greatest portraitists of all time are simultaneously on show in London. I think I will probably choose van Dyck. Michael Holroyd said of a neglected novelist that he was “famous for being underrated”. I think Freud is famous for being overrated. Anyway. My book title? Van Dyck? Dulwich? The evidence here is that I seem to favour lost causes.

See also