All posts by tc

Leonard Cohen 1934-2016

I woke up in the night to go to the bathroom and when I came back to bed I checked my phone to see the time: sometime after 3am. I took a sip of water and scrolled idly through my notifications. In the middle of them was one from the Guardian. The text started with the words “Leonard Cohen” and I knew even before I read on that it was bad news. The word “bard” and his age 82 stood out and I knew they were saying he’d died before I finished reading the headline. I stopped there, the glass frozen at my lips, and thought just one word, the word that begins with the letter F which you say to yourself when things don’t seem to be able to get any worse.

I put the phone down and got back into bed. I knew this was not going to be an ordinary day for me but there was nothing I could do at three in the morning. I felt ineffectual, useless, resigned and angry, the same as I have done at receiving other bad news in recent days, weeks, months.

I fell asleep and immediately dreamt about him. He was with his family somewhere and I was with some other people, fans maybe or reporters. Something impactful had happened to him, there was some undefined but implicitly negative news, and in my concern I followed him up a path leading to a building, maybe his house. He was right in front of me, close enough that I could touch him. He turned round to me and waved me away, saying something like “You can go now” or “Please leave”. I said, “No problem, I just wanted to check you were okay.” He disappeared round the side of the house and I turned and went away.

It’s not a very heartwarming image or gesture – I guess we’d like to think we’re special to these special people, that if you actually met Leonard Cohen, even in a dream, he would invite you in and accommodate you and be your friend. In real life he was a very accommodating man, extremely gracious to interviewers, giving great answers, asking if they needed more time, if they had enough for their editors, offering them food and drink and even cooking for them sometimes. But in this dream, if I felt shunned, I like to think it wasn’t because he was acting ungraciously or because he didn’t want me there but because he was going away to a place I shouldn’t be going. He was going to his death, about which he was as serious as everything else in his life, and he had to go there alone, and it was in fact the utmost graciousness for him to turn me away and to tell me in effect to go back to my life.

Only a few weeks ago a friend had posted on Facebook about an interview with Leonard in which he talked about being “ready to die”. The friend was lamenting and worrying about the implications, but my response was lighthearted. I commented that he had lived to a grand old age and had lived an incredible life of constant world travel, concerts and writing, and would leave a unique and amazing legacy of work. I left it at that even when a few days later I received his new album You Want It Darker in the post. The title was grim, portentous; did I really want to listen to it? Despite being a huge fan between the ages of 15 and 35, my interest had waned in the past few years. I hadn’t actually listed to many of his records very recently, and wasn’t that enamoured of his last couple of albums. Of course I bought them all though and of course I wanted to listen to this one. It just looked very dark. And indeed it was about as dark an album as I’d ever heard, even from him. I couldn’t actually listen to the end. I’ve not listened to it since and still not heard all the tracks. In the meantime, a video of Leonard giving a press conference to promote the album surfaced on the web in which he regretted saying he was “ready to die” and had in fact “decided to live forever”. That cheered me up, and I developed this idea that he still had plenty of life left in him.

When I woke up at 7am a few hours after reading the news on my phone, I looked at the Guardian article properly, all the live updates as tributes came in, and also at Twitter where people were waking up and gradually finding out. Quite quickly I felt a terrible sense of loss and sadness and grief, my eyes watering. I hauled myself out of bed and put on a pot of coffee, which isn’t something I do every day, but I felt there was going to be a need for it. I got out my laptop, went on Twitter and the Guardian and scrolled through. After a few minutes I could barely type or even see the screen for tears. It felt almost ridiculous. I’d never felt this way about the death of anyone “famous”. Thankfully I work at home. I had no idea how I would have handled it if I’d had to commute into an office.

I was first introduced to Leonard Cohen at the tender age of 15 by my psychiatrist, who had been a fan all his life. I was suffering from anxiety and missing school, and it was the best treatment he could have given me. I used to look forward to our sessions – by definition his availability was limited, but by introducing me to such a great writer and singer he basically showed me a way to a permanent soothing companion. Leonard Cohen knew how I felt, and he would always be there.

My psychiatrist lent me Cohen’s first Greatest Hits album and his first novel The Favourite Game. The novel doesn’t get talked about much and Cohen came to refer to it as an indulgence, which I would agree with now, but a lot of it is as good (or definitive) as anything he ever wrote, lyrically fictionalising his youth growing up in Montreal. As a lonely teenager I could relate to it completely, and for many years it remained one of my favourite books. The album had Suzanne and Famous Blue Raincoat on it, among other classics – even the cover was wonderful, Cohen reflected in a mirror looking mournful in an immaculate dark suit. A friend at the time said I was mad to listen to it because it would make me feel suicidal, but it had the opposite effect; the friend was one of those people who, at that time, had never actually listened to the records, although when he eventually did, he became a fan too. The music and songs were lyrical, beautiful, deeply spiritual, like hymns or prayers. I wasn’t religious, but the songs were religious without being preachy.

I saw Leonard in concert at the Royal Albert Hall in 1993 and apart from being a great, long gig I remember him at one point turning on its head the notion that the world was too awful to bring children into: laughing about his daughter Lorca’s decision to pierce her tongue, he cried “Let the next generation work it out! We’ve done our best, it’s their turn now.” He also sang “Dance me to the children who are asking to be born” in Dance Me to the End of Love and years later I had that lyric read out at my wedding. The philosophy of these lines helped me feel better about having children. I saw him again at the O2 in 2008, another magnificent show which he introduced by saying, “Last time I was on a stage in London I was 60 years old – just a kid with a crazy dream.” Both concerts went on for three hours or more – he knew how to give value for money, and he’s still the only artist I’ve ever seen who said “I apologise in advance for the financial and logistical inconvenience you’ve had to undergo to get here. It’s an honour to play for you tonight.” Twenty thousand people instantly forgot they’d paid £70 a ticket, travelled for hours and arranged babysitters, and he had us, as they say, in the palm of his hand.

I went to two international fan conventions, on the island of Hydra in Greece where he used to live, and in New York. Hydra was an especially magical occasion and at the open mic I accompanied a fabulous Italian singer on guitar on Chelsea Hotel No. 2, the song telling the story of his doomed affair with Janis Joplin; it was one of the honours of my life to play that in front of an audience with such a great singer.

I nearly met Leonard Cohen once in London in 2007 when, just prior to his return to world touring, he shared a stage with his partner and collaborator Anjani in an industry showcase for her album Blue Alert. I’d heard on the internet that it was going on and somehow blagged my way in at the door. It was a tiny club in the West End and the room was packed with record company types. Leonard was 72 then, had on a grey suit and blue shirt, top button fastened, cropped grey hair on its way to white. He looked thinner than I remembered and smaller than I ever thought he was, and his voice, while still deep and resonant, was unexpectedly soft. He looked slightly crumpled, in fact. But he had presence in spades in his own low-key way. Anjani sang her jazzy set with her snazzy little band and then Leonard joined her and they duetted on some new songs. It was mesmerising. I pinched myself at the same time as checking over my shoulder in case someone worked out I didn’t belong there and chucked me out. The showcase ended and I started chatting with someone and suddenly I was aware there was a queue of people waiting to speak to him. I ran over to the end of the line, trying to think of something to say: “I love you, man” was true but trite; “Your work has touched me more deeply than that of any other singer/songwriter I’ve ever known” was truer but sounded weighty and pretentious – how was a man supposed to reply to a comment like that? The queue crawled on and with just two people ahead of me, his security whisked him away. If I was momentarily crushed I realised with a grim laugh that it really would have been too good to be true if I had actually managed to speak to him – and anyway what would I have said? I’d had 20 years to think of something to say, but I’m sure I would have only ended up babbling and embarrassing myself.

I’m a fan of Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, The Beatles and The Smiths, but Leonard Cohen was without doubt the most important singer/songwriter in my life. His words were profound. Nobody used words like he did. He once said in a documentary “You have to sit in the very bonfire of your distress until you’re burnt away and it’s ashes, and it’s gone.” He sang “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” In his last interview he said “It’s only when the emergency becomes articulate that we can locate the willingness to serve.” Nobody else ever said things like that. His songs were like prayers for people who didn’t need to be religious. He made you think you could be religious in a way that transcended organised religion and its questionable leaders. He kept me company on dark and lonely days and nights and he articulated the dark as well as the light. His songs, no matter how dark – well, except for the unbearable You Want It Darker – created a sort of protective roof of invulnerable beauty over me: Waiting for the Miracle, Master Song, Avalanche, A Thousand Kisses Deep, Everybody Knows, Dance Me To the End of Love, as well as his own brand of soaring romance in Ain’t No Cure For Love, Memories, So Long, Marianne and Hallelujah. As a man he exemplified dignity and thoughtfulness. As a writer he made this sort-of writer feel writing was a possible thing to do, if you just stuck at it long enough. There was nothing casual or trivial about him. It seems fitting to me that this deeply spiritual and dignified man checked out of this world the same week that the most undignified president of the USA we’ve ever seen was voted into office.

I will miss Leonard Cohen terribly, but at least we will always have the records, the books, and that voice.

Something nice on Twitter

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.

Things that are well-Brexit – 1, 2, 3

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 cab drivers, Marks & Sparks clothes
Mild cheddar, slacks, Greggs and Waitrose
We’re being taken over, can’t take any more
Immigrants to blame for making me poor

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,
It’s the 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

Blackpool rock, Union Jack socks
Nandos extra hot which you can’t eat
Daily Mail howlers, mustard-coloured trousers
Benny Hill chasing ladies down the street

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

Now I’m no racist, I’m a royalist, a loyalist
We’re giving away all of our sovereignty
Cubes of Double Gloucester, cheering Diego Costa
in a Made in China Chelsea shirt, sipping lukewarm tea

Eurocrat, bureaucrat, aristocrat, fat-cat
I aint no migrant, I’m a proud ex-pat
Men-only golf clubs, women in their place
Gays are all right as long as they don’t shove it in my face

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

A rare paer

A Prickly Paer by Luciana Martinez de la Rosa (1981)
A Prickly Paer by Luciana Martinez de la Rosa (1981)

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.

The time I was an intern for a famous publisher

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…

If we were having coffee…

I just read about this community blogging exercise in which bloggers post about what they would do or say if they were actually sitting having coffee with their readers. This sounds a bit egotistical in a way, as if “my readers” are this huge audience and I’d be sitting there holding court, when in reality there’d be about three of us around a table. We’re all each other’s readers really so I imagine it’d be a fairly busy and fluid social situation. I don’t actually follow that many blogs as such, I only read individual blog posts that come my way through social media, so I would probably just sit down with whoever seemed interesting, or rather with people who found me interesting enough to sit with.

As for what I’d do… firstly I’d just be grateful to be sitting in a cafe drinking proper coffee, as it’s something I hardly do anymore. I live on the outskirts of quite a small and not very exciting town in the Midlands, and although there is a cafe near my flat I’ve never gone in there. It’s an independent cafe and I’m always slightly scared that the coffee will be bad, and I’ll have to sit there and drink it out of politeness. A couple of miles away in the town centre we have a couple of branches of Costa and a Caffe Nero as well as some more independent places including a street vendor in the marketplace. The street guy looks like his coffee might be excellent but he charges a small fortune, and there’s nowhere to sit unless you want to be intoxicated by cigarettes of the electronic and traditional kind, so I usually end up at Caffe Nero. I like Costa too but Caffe Nero is in a more lively spot than Costa – “lively” around here meaning five or more people might walk by while I drink my latte.

I work from home and have a home-brewed coffee every day. The following is the most pretentious thing I’ve ever written but I’ll write it anyway. Very occasionally I’ll make some proper coffee with a moka pot, usually with 7-8 teaspoons of a medium strength coffee from the Cafe Direct range. Most of the time though I drink instant, albeit decent instant, carefully prepared. First I dissolve two heaped teaspoons of Carte Noire or Douwe Egberts or a new brand I’ve just found called Percol (which sounds like a washing powder, but is very good) in a small amount of off-the-boil water, then microwave a mug two-thirds full with milk for 90 seconds. Then I froth up the milk with a hand-held frother I got for a couple of quid at Range, then pour the coffee into the milk. I take two sugars in coffee and usually I dissolve the sugar with the coffee so that stirring at the end doesn’t dissolve the milk froth, but sometimes it’s good to sprinkle the sugar on top of the froth and watch it melt in and then spoon off the froth-sugar mix and chew it. My recipe is never going to be as flavoursome or luxurious as proper coffee, but for a quick home brew it’s cheap and very cheering.

Thus, a proper coffee in a cafe is a real treat for me. The prices are ridiculous if you consider them in isolation, but as an occasional treat it’s a bargain really when you factor in the pleasure of the coffee and being able to gaze out the window at the world, or even just at the baristas doing their job. I love the smell of coffee and the sound of beans grinding and the knocking of a portafilter being emptied.

So having bored on to you, my audient, about my love of coffee and the different types and techniques, I’d then move onto other topics such as our dreadful government, social media and creative writing. I suspect most of my blog’s audience are people who follow me on Twitter, so we’d already have a lot in common and would chat about the same stuff we do on there. We’d probably end up looking at our phones and swapping silly tweets and YouTube videos or something. Speaking of the latter, here to round off is an appropriate Stewart Lee routine…

A short screenplay for Ian McMillan

If you are old enough you may remember a series of TV adverts for Heineken lager. Generally someone would be depicted either doing something lamely or having a disappointing experience, and then they would drink the lager, whereupon their achievement or experience was instantly improved. A German-accented voice-over intoned, “Only Heineken can do this, because it refreshes the parts other beers cannot reach.”

I would say the below is my favourite of the series but in fact I think it’s the only one I can remember. At the time it aired in the late 1980s I was a teenager studying English Literature at school and college, so beer and Wordsworth were much on my mind at the time. Watch the video (it’s only a minute long) and then read on.

Ian McMillan is one of my favourite people on Twitter. (In fact it would be nice to do a series of blog posts focusing on all my favourite Twitter accounts – an idea for another day, perhaps.) He’s a poet, author, BBC Radio broadcaster and general national treasure. Each morning he gets up at (or even before) the crack of dawn and goes for a walk around his native Barnsley. Then he gets back home and tweets these lovely little images and observations which he always prefixes “early stroll”. Do yourself a favour and do an advanced search on Twitter for these tweets and read through them. Here’s an example:

So my mind then put the memory of the Heineken advert and McMillan’s tweets together along with something else of which I am much fond and came up with the following.


The camera SWEEPS over the majestic countryside.

Orchestral classical music SURGES throughout.

Early stroll. Right damp and drizzly. There was some rubbish by the bus stop. Ah, no…


The camera SWEEPS through the streets, past the town hall and Victorian shop buildings.

Early stroll. Some pigeons were eating some chips someone had dropped. Oh, no, this is terrible…


Close on electric kettle boiling. A man’s hand takes a teabag from a box of YORKSHIRE TEA, puts it in a mug and pours the boiling water on. Steam BILLOWS.

IAN MCMILLAN approaches the kitchen table holding the steaming mug of tea in one hand and an iPad in the other. He sits down at the table, drinking from the mug. He puts the mug down smiling, and taps on the iPad.

Early stroll. The bus’s only passenger is light. A man pushes a baby in a pushchair flanked by two whippets. A room flickers underwater blue.

He stops tapping, takes another swig of tea and winks at the camera.


Close on a table laden with a Yorkshire Tea caddy, teapot, mugs, a plate of biscuits, an iPad showing Ian McMillan’s Twitter feed and a book of poems.

Only Yorkshire Tea can do this, because it refreshes the tweets other teas can’t reach.


I doubt Ian McMillan (or Alan Bennett come to that) would be likely to do an advert for Yorkshire Tea, and if they did they’d probably get a professional script-writer in, and also possibly avoid having to pay Heineken a royalty. But guys, if you like the above then feel free to use it. My fee, you might say poetically, is tea.

The Random Surreal Metaphorical Title Generator

A potato
A potato (image shamelessly stolen from the Guardian because they hate Jeremy Corbyn)

The other day my girlfriend and I went to the local park with my children, and apropos of nothing except his own inner silliness my 10-year-old son referred to something he called “the potato of destiny”. We all found this vastly inspirational and were soon competing with each other for the silliest “concrete noun of abstract noun” expression. The winner was unclear but entries included The Pigeon of Doubt, The Seesaw of Happiness, The Bananas of Benevolence (extra marks for alliteration) and The Trouser of Shame. (I admit the latter may have been unconsciously inspired by this wonderful tweet by the fabulous @TechnicallyRon.)

Upon returning home from the park I had nothing better to do so I tweaked a bit of Javascript I’d used previously for something similar to create random “surreal metaphorical titles” whenever you click a button. I’ve now installed this in the sidebar of the blog (a bit up and to the right of this sentence if you’re on a desktop PC, or scroll down a lot if on mobile). So next time you’re stuck for that perfect title for your surreal poem, story or painting, or your imagination needs a jolt of lobster caffeine, hit “generate” a few times, and Bob’s your gramophone (or perhaps your Gramophone of Decrepitude).

My own favourites generated so far include:

The Mince Pie of Deception
The Trouser of Anxiety
The Cheese Slice of Sadness
The Wheelchair of Deception
The Biscuit of Falsity
The Trouser of Truth
The Potato of Anxiety
The Avocado of Humourlessness
The Satsuma of Delight
The Cheese Slice of Humourlessness
The Cake of Shame
The Nose of Sadness
The Avocado of Philanthropy
The Digital Watch of Deception
The Aubergine of Truth
The Trouser of Deception
The Dessert of Deception
The Satsuma of Pusillanimity
The Sausage of Anxiety
The Nose Hair of Deception
The Squidgy Stuff of Destiny
The Moustache of Philanthropy

The script works off a limited vocabulary but I’ve already added several more since first installing the widget, and plan to keep expanding the word list, so please do return for updates, or post suggestions for new words in the comments below.

“Women don’t understand fracking”

A leading female scientist and chair of UK Onshore Oil and Gas has said women are opposed to fracking because they “don’t understand” the science and “follow their gut instinct” rather than the facts.

When I first read this I actually sympathised for a moment because Averil Macdonald blamed this situation on the lack of women studying and working in STEM, which is a well known problem and a national shame. She also went on to say that “More facts are not going to make any difference… What we have got to do is understand the gut reaction, the feel. The dialogue is more important than the dissemination of facts.” Well, it might be a surprise to find a scientist saying something is more important than the facts, but if she’s saying that women have stopped listening to the evidence because they don’t trust the source, I thought, that does have to be dealt with.

Macdonald’s comments were prompted by the latest Nottingham University survey on public perception of fracking revealing that 31.5 per cent of women believe that shale gas exploration should be allowed in the UK compared with 58 per cent of men. These figures compare with “a plurality of [all] respondents, 46.5%, remain[ing] of the view that shale gas should be extracted in the UK [which] is by far the lowest percentage since the University of Nottingham Shale Gas Survey began.” This last point is of course bad news for UK Onshore Oil & Gas, who are by definition pro-fracking.

It occurred to me that Macdonald could be trying to exploit the hot topic of women in STEM to garner female favour for fracking. I even started thinking that her comments were aimed at trapping liberal men into siding with her so that they can be seen as feminist by supporting women in STEM. But there are plenty of women against fracking who do very well understand the science, obviously, so for her to take this position is patronising of women, and is anyway a distraction from the environmental issues of fracking which are that it causes earthquakes, puts chemicals in the ground, and may even cause children to be born prematurely.

Macdonald was also talking to the Times originally, who are intensely pro-fracking. The original article describes her as “the new champion of the shale gas industry, leading a push to persuade women that the process is safe and will benefit Britain’s economy as well as help to meet climate change targets.”

Well, it doesn’t seem to have worked. There’s a great comment on a Huffington Post article about this: “…what Macdonald really said is men are more gullible, easily persuaded by data they wouldnt never [sic] admit they dont understand, and look at short term gain. She also said women are less gullible, more apt to question the validity of data generated by and for the benefit of a particular industry, and look at long term consequences rather than short term gain.”

I’m not surprised to hear that more men than women support fracking, incidentally. Isn’t it, symbolically, a masculine procedure? Drilling into mother earth (wonder what Freud would say?), thrusting a massive penis substitute deep into the ground and ejaculating polluting substances all to demonstrate your total POWER over the very soil we walk on? Put it away, for God’s sake.