Philip Hensher

Give me a break

Philip Hensher was rude about Tracey Emin. Now, he suspects, she is ordering incontinence pads for him

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It started with some junk mail. I threw it out: I gave no consideration to the fact that it was addressed to a Miss Phyllis Henshaw. I put it down to some glitch in the address-sharing industry. But then the telephone calls started. The first one was from a business I'd always been rather unhealthily intrigued by: the photographic makeover studio. 'Could I speak to Miss Phyllis Henshaw, please?' the voice said. 'I think you've made a mistake,' I said. 'This is Philip Hensher. There isn't a Phyllis Henshaw.' 'Ah,' she said, before starting on her scripted spiel. 'I don't think you understand,' I said, in the manner of the Cardinal Archbishop of Lima refusing to dance with George Brown. 'In the first place, I'm not a woman. In the second place, I am not in need of a makeover, or, being ginger, possibly beyond one. And in the third place I rather object to being phoned up like this.' 'But you asked us to,' the woman said. 'You filled out a form.'

It appeared that she was right. I started looking at the letters to Phyllis. She had ordered a new hearing aid, a regular supply of incontinence pads and, very generously, had offered to give a home to a retired racehorse. 'I am afraid I live in a flat in Battersea,' I said when this last lot phoned. 'I'm not sure it could manage the stairs, to be honest.'

Phyllis liked tat too: soon I was being sent china figurines of Peter Rabbit, the sort of thing advertised in the back pages of colour supplements. Someone, clearly, was deliberately persecuting me with rabbits in knickerbockers. The bizarre aspect of this malicious revenge was that it was one of my own invention. In an old short story of mine, a woman revenges herself on an ex-lover in exactly this way.

I embarked on a desultory sort of investigation, but there was very little to go on. It seemed to me that 'Henshaw' was probably a slap-dash mistake; calling me 'Phyllis', however, was certainly a puerile and bigoted insult of the sort that any homosexual writer occasionally gets sent. One firm kindly sent me a copy of the form they had been sent: the handwriting was semi-educated, and the advert had appeared in one of the less demanding newspapers, but that wasn't much help. The investigation, on this slim evidence, ground to a halt.

At this point, however, an astonishing possibility surfaced. Tracey Emin, the celebrity artist, was interviewed in a Sunday newspaper and, inter alia, said, 'I get completely slagged off by people whose mortgage I'm paying. They write 500 words about me, they pay their mortgage that week. Someone on the Independent called me a "retard", which really wound me up. I responded. I'm not saying how, but I responded.'

Needless to say, I didn't use the word 'retard'. I support mental-health charities, and it isn't a word in my vocabulary. What I said was that conceptual art, dealing primarily in ideas, surely required abstract intelligence in a way unnecessary for, say, a painter, and Tracey's numerous public appearances – the immediate occasion was rather an embarrassing display on Have I Got News For You – made one wonder whether she could be considered intelligent. Not really the same thing at all. But, undoubtedly, she meant me.

Tracey, clearly, was riled. Elsewhere in the same interview, she was at pains to point out that she only has sex with people as intelligent as she is – 'I won't sleep with stupid people' – although, since four lines later she was telling the entranced readership that she once turned up at the dentist having forgotten to wipe someone's sperm from her chin, it is hard to think whom that would exclude.

Could my persecutor really be Tracey? It seemed almost unimaginable. Could an artist of professional standing and experience really stoop to that? Moreover, there was the question of the rancid homophobia of the persecution. My personal view was that London cultural circles were, or ought to be, untainted by this sort of open bigotry. Could she really despise and fear something so conspicuous in London society? It was very difficult to believe.

But she certainly said, in print, that she had 'responded' to my original article. No kind of response had ever come to my notice: no letter of complaint, for instance. What was her response? 'I'm not saying how, but I responded.' Perhaps it was just growing paranoia, but that did suggest some kind of underhand revenge; and, certainly, despite my reputation as rather a robust reviewer, nothing else of this nature has ever come into my life. Of course, there had been various email inconveniences recently. The widows of deposed African dictators had been offering to empty my bank account. Complete strangers had been writing to offer sympathy that my penis was so disappointingly small.

But everyone got that sort of stuff. I had no idea what Tracey's response had been, if it hadn't come in the shape of hideous figurines of Peter Rabbit. The rules of behaviour and self-possession dictate that in the wake of a really stinking review – and I've had a few in my time – you don't hold a grudge, and if you meet the author of the review subsequently, you make a firm effort to hold a polite and civil conversation about neutral matters. I could understand that a professional might be angered by something one wrote, but could not believe that someone of that stature could descend to so schoolgirl a revenge.

No, it couldn't possibly be her. But some doubts wouldn't go away. My correspondent thought my surname was 'Henshaw'. Was it mere coincidence that Tracey's ex-boyfriend's surname was Collinshaw? My persecutor's behaviour was that of a 13-year-old schoolgirl, but hadn't I said myself, in the course of a comprehensive demolition of Tracey's ludicrously unaccomplished art, that many of her slogans – 'You Forgot To Kiss My Soul' – resembled the sort of thing which schoolgirls used to write on the back of their blotters? Wasn't it exactly the sort of thing she might plausibly do?

Well, I hope and want to believe that the bigoted illiterate persecuting me isn't Tracey. But she has more or less said that she has revenged herself on me, and I would rather like to know what she has done, if not this. After all, I honourably put my name to my view that Tracey Emin is a talentless and embarrassingly stupid artist. She is perfectly entitled to respond to that, but she may not do it in secret, or anonymously; she may not say, 'I'm not saying how, but I responded.' That kind of behaviour is not likely to increase anyone's respect for her person or her art. Not that I had any in the first place, you understand.