Keith Chegwin brightened the dull Saturday mornings of my youth, of which there were many in the early 80s. I often spent Saturday morning alone in the flat above the shop my parents ran, with the gas fire up full, eating jam tarts and watching Swap-Shop on our rented TV. I sometimes felt alone, but the live format of the show and Cheggers’s’s indefatigable, almost unfeasible chirpiness helped things along. It was sad that he struggled with alcoholism later in life, but many people do, and I understand he recovered. I was jealous when he married Maggie Philbin. He always seemed to retain his sense of humour regardless of his situation. He was way cheesy but nobody cared. Unlike many others, I don’t even resent his nude game show episode, though I can’t say I’ve ever made a point of watching it. Some Tory MP stood up in the Commons and described the show as the most disgusting thing on TV. Why, because it had some naked people and one of them was a middle-aged, slightly overweight bloke? Good for him, if you ask me. A few years ago he was thrown in Twitter prison by the humorless for supposedly plagiarising jokes. He tweeted a gag once and I replied, “I refuse to laugh at that unless it’s original.” He sent me a direct message simply saying “LOL”.
In my way home from Christmas shoppping, I stopped to look in the window of a new local barber shop at an advert for a “man mask”, featuring a photo of a bearded 20-something guy having a mud-pack. I’d barely begun attempting to process this latest example of hipster insanity when a bloke of about the same age in some sort of stylised apron get-up darted out of the shop and accosted me with the most practised sales spiel I’ve heard in a long time. “Walk in anytime, no appointment needed” wasn’t necessarily revolutionary, but hey, we need all the reassurance we can get these days. More tantalising was the promise of a loyalty card and hot or cold drinks while you wait, which just makes absolute sense to me. Upon my request, he claimed that not only do they do styles, but “you give us a photo of the haircut, we put your face into it”. I think he probably meant this metaphorically, but I’m so old and out of touch that what do I know? Photoshop does incredible things these days, I’m told, including turning a frown into a smile (no joke actually), so who am I to say they can’t just cut and paste Morrissey’s Smiths-era quiff onto my own real-life fizzog? As he pressed a £5 off voucher for a £24 haircut into my still-querulous palm, I glanced up and even his colleague was stifling a titter at the guy’s brazenness. But, you gotta hand it to him. I normally pay about £12 for a haircut at the place I’ve been going to since (excepting my Midlands hiatus) 1988, but I fear I may have to try these guys if only for the sheer enthusiasm, sadly lacking at my current establishment: it’s as much as you can do to get them to grunt a “sorry” as they relieve you of your eyebrows, or even a “thank you” when, regardless, you tip them, in true British fashion. So, will it be a scissorial sensation or a follicular folly? I shall investigate and report back.
Sam Shepard, who died the other day, was best known for being one of America’s great playwrights, and not a half bad film actor. To be fair the only work of his I’m really familiar with (judging from his obituary, I have a hell of a lot of catching up to do) is his screenplay for the great Wim Wenders movie Paris, Texas – a beautifully understated short screen story about identity, separation, fathers and sons, and America. I first saw it back in the 80s late at night on Channel 4, not long after it came out, and as a young guitarist was mostly attracted by Ry Cooder’s evocative, sparse score. Anyway, when I saw he’d died, the only other thing I knew for sure about Sam Shepard was that he collaborated with Bob Dylan (another musical hero of mine) a couple of times. The first was on Dylan’s legendary Rolling Thunder Revue tour of 1975-76, for which he had a credit on the ensuing surreal movie Renaldo and Clara and about which he wrote The Rolling Thunder Logbook, which I used to have but stupidly gave away in one of my house moves. The second collaboration was when they wrote a fantastic song together, the 11-minute 1986 epic Brownsville Girl, and this – to finally get to the point – is what first came into my mind when I heard about Shepard’s passing. The song is up there with any of Dylan’s best – it’s a weird, fragmented short story, it’s funny, heartbreaking and full of imagery. It’s supposedly about a Gregory Peck western (but is a tad more meta than that – “I still remember the day you came to me on a painted desert … I can’t remember why I was in that film or which part I was supposed to play”), and listening to it is like watching a film, or more specifically like sitting up late one night when you’re alone and a movie you’ve never heard of comes on Channel 4 and you’re transported by it to places you hadn’t expected. (I don’t even know if that happens anymore incidentally, what with the general decline in quality of network TV and films, and the culture now of proactively subscribing to channels and shows rather than idly surfing and stumbling across things.) If you’ve never heard it, whatever you think of Dylan or westerns, have a listen below. His delivery and the arrangement – very 80s in style, with lots of reverb, big sax breaks and ethereal backing singers, who break character to make knowing interventions in the main lyric – are an essential part of what makes the song great, but if you really can’t stand Dylan’s voice or feel 11 minutes is too long then you can
get a life and read another blog read the lyrics for a feel of the story. (Oddly, Dylan’s own site that I link to there doesn’t credit Shepard.) Or indeed you can read along to the lyrics while you listen to the song. Dylan half-speaks the words, so they are pretty clear, but when I first heard it in the late 80s there was no internet or published version of the lyrics, so I had to stop-start the tape of the song that a friend gave me and transcribe it as best I could; being British, I had no idea what a “swap meet” was so for years I thought it was “swamp meet”. By the way, if it turns out you love the song, I probably wouldn’t recommend buying the whole original album Knocked Out Loaded, as it was (in keeping with Dylan’s legendary inconsistency) not one of his best. But then maybe why not? It’s Dylan. Enjoy, and RIP Sam.
Readers of my blog will know I’ve not exactly ever been a fan of Tony Blair’s spin doctor, but when it comes to mental health we’re all in the same boat, dealing with it. I’m not sure I’ve ever actually blogged about mental health, so for some readers I’m coming out here as a lifelong sufferer of anxiety. I deal with it (or don’t) in various ways but one way in the past year or so has been through therapy, first CBT on the NHS and then private psychotherapy. I may post more about some of that sometime but this clip I saw on Twitter this morning moved me very much and I wanted to take a break from my usual rather sarcastic, cynical style to share this widely. This short conversation between Alastair Campbell and his partner Fiona Millar highlights not only (and quite scarily) how it’s possible to be in some cases very high-functioning while still having a serious problem, but also how partners of people with mental health issues can blame themselves and/or react inappropriately because they don’t know how to deal with it. This can cause many problems in relationships – I think I’ve probably messed up at least two because of it. I tend to shut down completely when I have anxiety, and if you factor into that the stigma around MH issues the problem can just internalise endlessly, making talking counterintuitive – yet talking is often exactly what’s needed. So even if you don’t have these problems yourself but are in a relationship with someone who does, or think you may be, give this a watch.
— Kensington Palace (@KensingtonRoyal) March 30, 2017
I was the 48 per cent
to your 52
You voted to leave me
I, to remain with you
I thought the deal we had
was great, the perfect match
But you wanted to renegotiate,
start again, from scratch
I showed you scientific evidence
that my heart would break
You said ‘We’ve had enough of experts
It’ll be just a little ache’
I asked you why you did it
You looked at me quite shifty
You said ‘You were too high-maintenance
You triggered my Article 50’
All I wanted from our love
was the deepest unity
You say that all you want from life
is to know you’re free
I asked the Leader of the Opposition
to validate my pride
I thought he would defend me
but he took your side
Now I parade outside your house
a protest march of one
with my tatty placard calling for
a second referendum
I know I’ve lost, the tide has turned
I’m doing all I can
But I lost the vote, then I lost you
I am yesterday’s man
It was all my fault, my campaign was poor
I took your vote for granted
I never thought you’d really put me
on the single market
I should probably just be grateful
for being part of you this long
Nothing lasts forever
Guess I’ll be moving on.
(c) Thoughtcat 2017
Disclaimer: Any resemblance to any real break-up is entirely coincidental. Happy Valentine’s Day.
THE SPEAKER: Order, order. Jeremy Corbyn.
A LABOUR FRONTBENCHER: Hooray!
JEREMY CORBYN: Will the Prime Minister please take this question about the dire state of something that really matters to ordinary people and completely ignore it in favour of making an embarrassing joke that makes her look nastier than Cruella de Vil and causes the members opposite to laugh hysterically and press their tongues firmly against her buttocks in a transparent display of ingratiation?
THERESA MAY: My Right Honorable Friend has a beard! Look at it! It’s like this really silly beard! Just like Fidel Castro, that other well-known communist!
TORY MEMBERS: [collapse in hysterics]
JEREMY CORBYN: Will the Prime Minister confirm that Brexit does, in fact, mean Fuxit?
THERESA MAY: My friend opposite has a beard! [winks knowingly at the clean-shaven David Davis]
JEREMY CORBYN: Will the Prime Minister confirm that this country is turning into a right shithole under the Conservative government?
THE SPEAKER: Ordure, ordure.
THERESA MAY: My Right Honorable Friend can run down this magnificent country of ours as much as he likes, but he has – wait for it – a fucking beard!
TORY MEMBERS: [die laughing]
JEREMY CORBYN: Has the Prime Minister seen “I, Daniel Blake”?
THERESA MAY: No, does he have a beard?
TORY MEMBERS: [start bombing the food banks]
JEREMY CORBYN: Will the Prime Minister stop talking about my beard please and answer my questions?
THERESA MAY: [puts on Jeremy Corbyn Fake Beard bought earlier from Poundland]
TORY MEMBERS: [all put on fake Corbyn beards and laugh themselves sick]
JEREMY CORBYN: What does it take to have any questions actually answered or any legitimate concerns taken seriously around here?
THERESA MAY: [lighting Cuban cigar off £50 note] Oh fucking cheer up you beardy twat.
TORY MEMBERS: [orgasm]
LABOUR FRONTBENCHER: Nice one, Jezza.
LABOUR BACKBENCHERS: Corbyn out!
MSM PAPERS: Corbyn is a beardy twat – it’s official!
For those of you who think of Twitter as a seething mass of hate and misery (which to be fair it mostly is), here’s a gem of an exception. Antique typewriter enthusiast goes on holiday to Barcelona and takes a day trip out to Figueras to see the Salvador Dali museum (been there! wonderful building and a magical location). Instead though he takes a detour and stumbles on an obscure museum he’s never heard of which is full of… antique typewriters. He’s taken loads of photos of these beautiful and sometimes bizarre machines. The whole thread starts here – you don’t have to be on Twitter to read it. The best way of reading through it is to click the links saying “Show more” and ignore the links saying “View other replies”. I only say this because it opens up dozens more comments and makes the story impossible to follow, not because the comments aren’t lovely, because they are. The whole thing is a bit of an oasis amid all the political horror flying about at the moment and the world needs more of it. A sample from the thread follows.
Okay, more photos.
Check out the most beautiful Shift key ever. pic.twitter.com/b45ReIVQvX
— Marcin Wichary (@mwichary) October 27, 2016
As a Remain campaigner in the EU Referendum I’ve been appalled at the Leave campaign. Remain hasn’t exactly done itself proud either, with questionable, daily warnings from Cameron and Osborne about the economic terrors that’ll befall us if we quit the EU, but Leave has basically sounded like a stuck record of an Enoch Powell speech. It’s been a depressing few weeks of listening to these people say we need to “reclaim our sovereignty” and “get our country back”, as if we’ve been living under some sort of occupation these past 40 years. I want us to remain in the EU because I support the free movement of people, think free trade within the largest economic bloc in the world is a good idea, like the fact that women are entitled to maternity leave and because I don’t want to be left stranded on a horrible, nasty, right-wing little island run by Michael Gove and Boris Johnson. There is lots of fear propaganda around but the evidence and reasoning for remaining from people like Professor Michael Dougan, Lisa Maxwell and Ben Goldacre is hugely compelling.
On Tuesday evening a hashtag game took over Twitter, #ThingsThatAreWellBrexit. “Well” is working-class slang and some of the tweets were a tad snobbish, but most were pointing out the hypocrisy and a misplaced desire to return to some sort of 1950s/1970s/prehistoric version of the UK which applies just as much to the middle classes. This litany of cliches and the rhythm of the hashtag inspired me to gather a few together along with some of my own into a lyric inspired by Ian Dury (Reasons to be Cheerful for form and “character” songs like Billericay Dickie for content) – although I guess it’s got a bit of John Cooper-Clarke in there as well. I then recited and uploaded it to YouTube, with annotations. (I did in fact originally want to record it as a parody song, but I lack the right musical equipment and there was no sign on YouTube of one of those free backing tracks you sometimes find… I’d be up for it if anyone can assist with either.) Here’s the result, with the full poem text below, with selected bits linked.
Things that are well-Brexit, one, two, three
Black and White Minstrels, living in Spain
No-one I know’s going to vote Remain
Never complaining, queuing in the rain
Being sent to Coventry on a French train
Brexit, we’ve got to, it’d be rude not to
What the hell’s Europe ever done for me?
The miners, the shipyards, the steelworks, the dockyards,
Tories EU wot done for our industry
Pound shop wages for all but the bankers
Taking back control of my hard-earned dole
Bongo-Bongo, bingo hall, hashtag “banter”
Eating egg and chips on the Costa del Sol
Elf and safety spoilsports, regulated fishing ports
Red tape nightmare and Project Fear
MPs on the fiddle, nipping down to Lidl
Cos the very British Sainsbury’s is just too dear
Living in the fifties, being rather thrifty
Three hundred and fifty million a week
Straighten our bananas, microchip our Weimaraners
Bloody Brussels bean-counters are a bloody cheek
School of Hard Knocks, University of Life
Good old Boris Johnson will protect our rights
House of Lords aristocracy, casual hypocrisy
Greeks don’t know the meaning of democracy
Pooftas, Chinkys, Pakis, Page 3
It’s my right to be non-PC
Hammersmith Palais, cheeky trip to Calais
What’s the point in voting for your M.E.P.
Tattoo “Keep Calm” on your arm, turn on the English charm
Bring back the birch, never did me any harm
Hard-hats for acrobats, can’t fly your England flags
Coming back from Benidorm with duty-free fags
God save our German queen, ordering the duck terrine
Reclaim our marmalade back from Seville
Punch and Judy Finnegan, never seen an immigrant
but we’re being overrun and it’s making me ill
Please vote Remain on 23rd June…
(c) Thoughtcat 2016
I recently unearthed a box of old postcards, some of which I’ve had for 30 years. These aren’t postcards sent to me, but rather cards I’d bought, sometimes with the intention of sending short messages to friends (in the days before email), sometimes with the intention of putting them up on my kitchen wall. I lived in a one-bedroom flat in London for about 12 years and in that time covered my kitchen with cards. Anyway, that’s another story.
When I was about 15 I lived in Hampton Court, in a road across the Thames from the palace largely populated by antique shops. It was pretty dull and conservative but at some point a shop opened which upped the cultural profile of the street by several notches. Mainly it was a video rental shop but it also sold art postcards, posters and records. These days of course you can find Van Goghs and Monets on birthday cards in Sainsbury’s, but this was in the late 1980s and I’d rarely seen a shop which sold small versions of classic or arresting images that you could buy for a few pence and take home. The proprietor and I became good friends. He had revolving stands of mid-to-late 20th century black & white photo cards, while on the shop counter was a box of fairly random colour postcards. I was leafing through this one day and uncovered the card shown here. This is a painting by Luciana Martinez de la Rosa called “A Prickly Paer”. That spelling “paer” is as printed on the card and I still don’t know if it’s a misspelling of “pear” or if that’s how she spelt it, for some subversive reason. I was struck by the painting, probably – since I was a 15-year-old boy at the time – for predictable reasons, but beyond its obvious eroticism I was fascinated by it, by the relaxed and unashamed attitude of the subject, and the precision of the style and the colours. I’d never heard of the painter, and in those pre-internet days it was near-impossible to find out anything about artist(e)s who were anything less than massively famous. The image stuck in my imagination long after I forgot the name of the painter and lost the card.
Recently the image came back to me for no obvious reason and being unable to find the card on a cursory look in my flat I searched the web for “A Prickly Paer”. I was surprised to find no results – zero. All I got was a prompt for the “correct” spelling and endless images of cacti. Had I just imagined it? I tried spelling it “pear” instead, but still nothing. Finally I gave in and pulled down boxes from cupboards to see if I still had the original card. After hours of leafing through all sorts of mementos I was thrilled to finally turn up the card. My 30-year-old memory of the title (mis)spelling was correct. I have to admit that what I found just as fascinating as the image itself was the fact that it didn’t seem to exist on the internet: we live now in a time, I think, when it’s felt that our entire culture and history have already been uploaded to a server somewhere, so when something we’re sure exists doesn’t exist online it (ironically) has an unreal quality to it.
Anyway, reminded now of the painter’s name, I searched for her instead. Luciana Martinez de la Rosa was English, born in the New Forest in 1948, and was an artist and “personality” active on the punk scene, known mainly for a “cameo” role in Derek Jarman’s 1977 classic Jubilee (which I knew vaguely from being a one-time huge fan of Adam Ant, who also had a small role in the film). Apart from a very brief entry on the IMDb, the only site I can find with any details about her or her life is a brilliantly old-school site celebrating punk and New Wave music and art in the 70s and 80s called The Blitz Kids. There’s no information on there about the painting in particular, although the original can be seen hanging on the wall of de la Rosa’s home in this slightly NSFW photo. My postcard dates the painting to 1981 and the angular, stark visual pop culture of the eighties seems very clear. Her other work on that website shows a similar style and fondness for nudity both in her work and her life. There feels to me something of the Frida Kahlo about her and some of her imagery. While (or possibly because) I’m about as straight-laced as they come, I would love to have met de la Rosa, who seems to have been something of a character, an English eccentric who spent her life clubbing, painting and generally hanging out with artists and pop stars. Sadly this won’t be possible though, as she very sadly died of meningitis in 1995, as sensitively recorded in this tribute by fellow artist Duggie Fields.
As for the painting’s subject, I admire her confidence, from her relaxed stance, facial expression, direct eye contact, and frankly non-demure pubic hair. I’ve always found it odd that she kept her earrings in despite being naked; I’m not sure if they make her look more naked, or less. There is a prickliness to it, obviously, representative I think of the painter’s outre life and personality. I especially like the shadows of her fingers on her raised hand.
In posting this piece I am aware of two things – one, that a couple of readers will probably think “dirty old sod” (well, sod them) and two, that it appears I am making the image available for the first time on the web. It’s not often you get to do such a thing, and I think it’s deserved, because I think the painting is good and the image memorable and bold. I don’t do this lightly, though, as I can’t help feeling that both de la Rosa and I have lost something as a result of the image now passing from the obscurity of a treasured postcard in a box in someone’s room (and from the imagination of a sensitive 15-year-old) into the immeasurable, impersonal, crude mass of images on the internet. But maybe, given her non-conformist and mischievous nature, de la Rosa might like the idea that people searching for a particular kind of cactus might now also get something they hadn’t quite bargained for in their search results.
More than ten years ago I did a couple of weeks’ work experience for a major London publishing company. Around that time I was temping and trying to get my own writing career off the ground, having written a novel and sent it around without any success, and I figured that if I couldn’t actually be a novelist then maybe I might have more luck behind the scenes. Without even being aware of what an “intern” was, I wrote off to a publisher whose books I admired and asked if I could come in and do a few days’ unpaid work, just for the experience. I was pleasantly surprised, then, to get a reply inviting me along to do just that. I honestly had no idea that, as it turned out, the company (and doubtless most others in the industry) were practically run by people like me.
While I do occasionally have flashbacks to that time, I’ve never written about it, at least in public, and during a dull day off today I came across a few pages of a diary I kept at the time. Here then are some extracts from my first week’s work with the company, with any incriminating details removed.
Induction meeting with another work experience person who’s also starting today. She and I are called “workies”. Both the other workie and our inductor are in their early 20s; at 33 I feel positively ancient.
I am installed at a desk wedged into a corner of the paperback/editorial department. I am answerable to M, a 20ish editorial assistant with butterscotch hair, a “Bewitched” nose and a fair amount of mascara. She in turn appears to be answerable mainly to B, an editor also in her 20s. The chief editor/director is A, who works in a corner of the open-plan office which with a dressing table to one side looks more like a woman’s bedroom. There are bookshelves of old paperbacks on the walls and a table covered with a stained velvet tablecloth laid with cakes, biscuits and tea and coffee-making equipment. Milk has slopped out and the sugar bowl is encrusted. I am asked at the start of each day to bring up four pints of milk from the fridge on the ground floor and fill the coffee percolator: I mean, I didn’t expect glamour but I’m not sure what this teaches me about publishing.
I offer M a chocolate digestive which I brought to make an “impression”, or rather make friends. She turns me down with a blush and a smoky laugh.
For my first proper task, I am astonished to be asked to read through the unsolicited submissions (aka the slush pile), deciding – on my own and without any training or previous experience – which of the poor sods to reject and which to take further. “We reject about 99% of all slush submissions, so it shouldn’t be too difficult,” says B. Feel uncomfortable with the responsibility but once I start to read I quickly see why they give this job to the workies. The first thing I pick up is a completely incomprehensible letter from an Indian poet, telling his life story and enclosing many poems, all typed on foolscap with a manual typewriter. It’s fascinating but doesn’t seem especially publishable, and we don’t publish poetry anyway. I am using a clunky PC running Windows 95 and on the desktop are template rejection letters, one called “standard.doc” and the other “kind.doc”. The former is not exactly unkind but consists of only two sentences, while the latter adds “I found your MS very engaging” and suggests the author buys a copy of the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook and/or contacts an independent editorial consultancy for more detailed guidance.
Almost every time I start to read a submission someone gives me something else to do, which is by definition more urgent. Asked to photocopy a MS of a new biography of a famous ceramicist, I head down to the dingy post room in the basement. This is piled high with shelves and books and occupied by an American guy of about my age called L, who is so far the only other man I’ve seen working here. One wall is covered with photos taken by L of previous workies (all girls). Another wall displays many other photos of company parties, one a fancy dress do with L as Jules from Pulp Fiction. The post room has a back door onto an outside stairwell and staff repeatedly troop through for a smoke. A sign on the door says “This area is often used by drug addicts. Please be extremely careful when going outside as the inconsiderate fuckers often leave syringes on the ground.”
The photocopier jams. Having a background in (if nothing else relevant) office work, I make several attempts to fix it but to no avail, not helped by there being no room to fix it with people squeezing behind me for fags the whole time. Eventually give up and ask L for help. “No way, man,” he says, “I ain’t into that.” I am referred to another office across the street with more photocopiers, where I continue with more luck. The stairs down to this room are steep and have no hand rail. Health & safety issues are everywhere, in fact – boxes of books litter the place, cables and wires trail around.
L commandeers me to “help” with the recycling. This amounts to him taking me to a floor and asking me to pull vast sacks of paper into the lift while he holds the doors open. “I can see you’re no stranger to manual work,” he says. Then: “Where you comin’ from?” I say Twickenham. “I know Twickenham,” he says. “Where you go to school?” I say near Twickenham. “Where near Twickenham?” I say Teddington. “I know Teddington,” he says. “Where d’you go to university?” I say I didn’t. “No?” he says, surprised, “why not?” They wouldn’t have me, I explain – I was no good at exams. “Hey, same with me, man!” he says, smiling. “We got something in common.”
Back in editorial, a woman brings a big box of muffins in and sits talking to one of the editors for half an hour. When she leaves, all staff on the floor dive into the muffins. “These aren’t muffins, they’re works of art,” says M. I am invited to partake but they turn out to be all savoury. It turns out the woman who brought them wants to write a book about muffins and this is some sort of bribe to get us to publish it.
At some point the chief editor can be heard to say on the phone, “It’s going to be cream with red spot varnish. I’m going to have to find out whether we can emboss or not. I’ll be having a meeting about it in about half an hour.”
M accepts a chocolate biscuit.
Attempt slush pile again. Almost immediately go off to weekly company meeting in a big posh board room in an office across the road – chandeliers, grandfather clock, cornicing, long shiny table, mantelpiece, incongruous framed modern Rothkoesque paintings. All the “important” people sit around the table, while everyone else sits on benches around the perimeter of the room. Pleasant winter sunlight and trees outside the window. At one end of the table is a posh bloke, one of few men in attendance and the only one in a suit. At the other end is another posh bloke in a fleecy sweatshirt who goes through sales figures for the week, of which we were all given a copy as we were filing in. It’s the first week in several years that the company’s main title hasn’t been on the bestseller lists. A blonde publicity woman with a cultivated smoky voice goes through the weekend press cuttings and reviews. One venerable editor talks about a fat new book coming out by a moderately famous academic.
Back to the slush pile. Get another page read and I’m off again, this time to the weekly editorial meeting. The other workie takes me down to the “library room” and produces two folding chairs for us to sit and observe as the chief editors and their assistants and the sales head talk business. A slightly camp man in a leather jacket talks a lot about books we’re buying, one of which is about an important politician from the JFK administration whom nobody else present has ever heard of. The editor with the smoky voice queries his enthusiasm given that the bloke is not a household name. He says, “Kissinger – does that work?” She nods. “OK,” he says, “this guy was the Kissinger of the Kennedy era.”
Another editor then gushes about a new book, insisting that we all read it over the next week. “And please read it to the end,” she says. “This isn’t one of those books where you read the first 100 pages and say ‘OK, I get this book’ – the way he ends it is just absolutely incredible.”
Sums of money for advances mentioned seem quite modest to me considering how rich the firm is – £3k here, £10k there. An editor talks about a new anthology of bird writings by the husband of a famous novelist; there is much laughter about “twitchers”. She also produces page proofs for a new book about cats; “Face it, cat books sell,” says the fleecy sales head. On the minutes of the previous meeting is a reference to a biography of a famous writer of pornographic Californian potboilers with “sex” in the title. One editor has been trying to email the info about this to the States for three weeks but they’re not getting through because any message with “sex” in it gets blocked. M suggests changing “sex” to “sox”.
Following the meeting, M asks me to do 25 copies of one 280-page MS and 10 copies of another book of 350 pages and distribute them to various recipients throughout the building. Takes me most of the afternoon.
I am given a very dull filing job to share with the other workie. We kneel on the floor by big boxes, taking out suspension files and putting the contents (details of paperbacks by various authors) into slightly smaller files, and putting them back into the big box. It seems an utterly pointless exercise. After a while I go and get my chocolate biscuits and have one. Put them to one side, go off and do something else. Get back and find one of the editors has eaten some. Feel a bit miffed.
Return to the slush pile after my co-workie decides to postpone the filing job. I am constantly interrupted by silly requests: M hands me a water bottle and asks me to go downstairs to fill it for the chief editor. I do it in silence. Are these people so busy they can’t get their own fucking water? Filing is one thing, even making the tea is OK. But filling up someone’s water bottle? Fuck off.
At lunch I turn on my phone to find a voicemail from a writing-related company confirming I’ve not been shortlisted for a job interview. Feel despondent. Also get a text message from a temping agency asking to contact them about availability for work. Go outside and call them. Tempted to say I’m available from next week and cut short the work experience.
Spend afternoon doggedly piling through slush. Couple of interesting things including a chick-lit-type novel called “Violas at Dawn”, the first MS I’ve read from the slush pile which made me laugh out loud. The narrator is a 15-year-old viola player who hates everything and swears a lot – too much really, but still very funny. The chapters are short and there’s a great little story called “And God created the orchestra” ending “and on the seventh day He needed a shit, so He created the violas.” If the author is also 15 she’s pretty good for her age and even if she isn’t it’s still interesting. Write requesting she send us the full MS. [Note April 2016: A quick Google for the title returns zero results, so evidently my instincts were incorrect. I did try though.]
On way to tube home I pass a bloke covered in blood on the pavement surrounded by a little gaggle of onlookers. Someone has helpfully given the bloke dozens of serviettes to mop up the blood.
There is a big editorial promotional party planned at a famous London media club next week for a new collection of short stories about, basically, fat people. With infinite subtlety I am sent out to buy Hershey’s Kisses at Selfridges and Whittard’s hot chocolate to give to bookshop sales reps along with a copy of the book. On my way out L says he’ll need me in the post room for “about a half hour” later. Nod and go out. Find Whittards for the hot choc but get lost trying to find Selfridges, which I’ve never been to in my life. Feel stupid and irritated; I’m a Londoner all right but this isn’t a London I either know or care about. Too embarrassed to go back and ask how to get there, I call in to see my dad who works in the West End, who gives me directions. Jump on a Routemaster to Marble Arch without being asked for a ticket. When I finally arrive, I can’t find the food hall.
Get back to the office having spent an hour and a half on my “fat mission”. L sees me and moans about my disappearance. I am also expecting to be torn off a strip by B for being so long but she’s disappeared and M instantly gives me about 10 jobs to do in the space of as many seconds, giving the instructions for each in machine-gun fashion. Usefully one job involves sitting down and typing, so I do that while drinking a cup of coffee with no sugar and chewing a stale Danish. L appears and tries to haul me out to help him. M tries to keep me there as she needs me “desperately”. “I only want him for five minutes,” says L. I go out after him. He takes me upstairs and says something unintelligible while pointing vaguely to piles of boxes. A tall bloke called J appears.
J: “What are you doing, L?”
L: “Nothing, man, don’t worry.”
J: “No, tell me what’s going on.”
I’m thinking J is defending me from being given crap jobs to do by L, but it’s not that at all. The boxes are J’s contracts and he wants to know what L is doing with them. L ignores him. I follow L. L is halfway down stairs. J is behind me shouting after L.
L: “Look, J, it’s nothing to do with you, okay?”
J: “For fuck’s sake!”
L then proceeds to defend himself to me as we walk away. I still have no idea what this is all about. It all seems very superficial and pointless. Get to the reception desk and L asks me to put four big boxes of books onto the trolley. While I do this he stands there and relates the whole “argument” between him and J to the receptionist.
I also help take some freestanding radiators to a couple of floors. There are three men in suits in the sales department. One of them looks at a radiator and says “What’s this – are people cold in here?”
I get back from running around to find M and another assistant editor leafing through Hello! magazine at M’s desk, and a huge MS on my desk requesting two copies. Hmm, so sorry to take up your precious time, girls.
In the afternoon I’m in the post room again. L always has music on down here; today 50 Cent is singing “I smell pussy, I smell pussy” while I photocopy publicity clippings for a famous literary author.
At the end of the day the editor who stole my biscuits says “Thanks for your help today” and I feel much better. Change my mind about quitting work experience early.
Manage to get into work on time, get the right number of bottles of milk, cups and glasses, fill the coffee percolator without dripping water into the four-way adaptor behind and even voluntarily replenish all the women’s water bottles. Whether it’s because it’s Friday or what I don’t know but everyone is looking and sounding very friendly today.
Read a slush proposal for a book purporting to be a study of the terrorist minds behind atrocities such as 9/11. The writer, a Canadian, has already had a book on management published in the US, which, he mentions in his cover letter, “has been described as a masterpiece”. He claims to have been offered a contract for the “criminal minds” book but adds pretentiously that “I haven’t yet signed it”. He encloses just the preface to the book, which opens with two epigraphs, one from a criminologist and one from “Dahmer”. The criminologist is given his full name but the notorious serial killer seems unworthy of his own first name. Apart from one chapter on Nazis, the book has nothing to do with genocidal maniacs, appearing increasingly to be another tacky volume on hackneyed serial killers like Jack the Ripper and Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, “who committed the notorious ‘Murders on the Moors’ [sic]”. Again he mentions Dahmer, but despite giving every other killer their full name, Dahmer is still Dahmer, and not only that but also, suspiciously, the “homosexual killer” Dahmer. Get a strange feeling that this guy might not be best placed to write this book. As M says when I mention it to her, if he really was a published writer of any merit his agent would have sent the MS, not the author himself.
My diary document ends there. My recollection is that I did another week’s work which involved a lot more photocopying and humping boxes of books around. I was placed in the marketing department for a few days and got on well with one of the staff there. For the “fat people” book party I was roped into loading a trolley with the books and promotional materials and was then the only person not invited to the actual party. “It’s just a shame you can’t come,” I remember the other workie saying as they went out the door. I was also given some task which involved copying and pasting some graphics using Photoshop which singularly failed to make any impression whatever, and sent out into the West End again for a sheet of red card for some promotion. I found some card at a Ryman’s but when I brought it back the woman who’d sent me turned her nose up at it. “Oh, no,” she said, and sent me back out to get a refund and get something else. The same day, my fellow workie was offered a job at the company.
A month or two later I was called back to do some paid temping at the company which I think was slightly more interesting, as being paid I couldn’t be roped into post room drudgery with L and had the opportunity to work with a couple of the editors. The atmosphere was regularly tense though: I applied for a permanent job in the department and was invited for interview on a scorching hot summer day yet wasn’t offered so much as a glass of water by the two women interviewing me. So much for filling their water bottles, eh…