Analogue Days in Soho, London

26 Mar

For people today who can essentially publish what the hell they like, as I’m doing now, writing is no longer quite the solemn or evaluated thing it used to be. All you do is write something and then tell an awful lot of people that you’ve done it. Back then, you were pleased if you got a half-drunk brother-in-law to peer myopically at your musings at the end of the evening. “Quite like it, yeah…” would be enough to send you into bleeding raptures.

Also there was the substantial problem of publishers. Those monopolists of the mind.

I knew a couple of them. I knew my publisher at Quartet (see “My Sparkling Career”), whose dirty socks I had once spied on the floor where he must have left them after a late night of drinking in Soho. He also kept – I’d noticed – a rolled up mattress on the floor next to his piano. So, yes, drinking was one of the important things publishers liked to do. I’d frequently seen a bunch of writers and publishers occupying the same table at The Coach and Horses – later this pub became a theme venue, but at this stage it was still more or less just a place for writers, publishers and other mad sorts. A few times I’d recognised my publisher from Quartet, also a few times a sharp-nosed nattily dressed fellow, I’m pretty sure he was Auberon Waugh. They were usually, as far as I could tell, drunk. My publisher once nodded wearily at me but I was not invited to sit at their table, which was probably just as well because none of them were saying anything. I think one of them may have been playing with a box of matches. The rest of the publishers/ writers were staring into their beer. I suppose they were depressed, even in those days there was the perennial problem of books not really selling very well, apart from Mills & Boon and Frederick Forsyth. People prefer to buy almost anything other than a book. A bottle of wine, a selection of breakfast cereals, a jar of organic lemon curd, a silk tie, a hedge trimmer.

But there were also other kinds of publishers, serious ones with smart suits, working in big Georgian buildings with clean windows. One such building in Soho Square exerted a strong fascination on me. Bloomsbury Books. One of my favourite pubs was just round the corner and I also had a nearby sacred spot in Soho Square outside St. Pats Catholic Church where, over a hundred years earlier, Thomas De Quincey had parted from a woman he’d only just fallen in love with, as described in “Confessions of an Opium Eater”. I always rated that book very highly and I used to stand there by the front step of St. Pats, imagining de Quincy in that long-gone night, forlornly waiting for his consumptive friend to come back. “Goodbye, my love,” I used to say to myself, quietly of course, “Goodbye…” I felt I had also been abandoned by someone, but I couldn’t think who.

I’d scoured my “Writers & Artists’ Yearbook” for someone at Bloomsbury who might be interested in some poems of mine. Somehow it didn’t occur to me that  Bloomsbury Publishing wasn’t paying the rent by publishing poetry. Looking back, I wonder if I was twelve or twenty-two? Or maybe my memory is playing tricks on me, maybe what I wanted to give Bloomsbury was a bang-up-to-date annotated manuscript of my historical novel “Unwitching the Lake” (unpublished) which I was certain would become a massive international hit. The third possibility, and please do take into account that memory plays tricks on one, was that I had a fresh-typed version of “Tales of the Barrio Gotico” (unpublished), my short stories from Barcelona.

Anyway, let’s just say I was ambitious. I felt I had a hit in me, I wanted to get it out there into the analogue universe.

Bloomsbury had not yet published the first Harry Potter book but they were doing pretty well. I decided to go right to the top, which meant Nigel Newton. My networking instincts were quite well-developed, I’d say. I had a dislike of telephones because I’d noticed that a lot of important people employed secretaries to answer them.  Nigel’s secretary was friendly but incredibly determined not to put me through to him, even though I made it clear to her that “I had a few things to discuss with Nigel.” This had become a source of irritation to me.

One morning I got up as usual, packed my networking kit – a pile of manuscripts, my diary, pen, rolling tobacco and Rizla papers – then headed down to Soho, absolutely determined to speak to Nigel Newton who would surely see sense and agree to publish my deserving short stories/ poems and historical novel.

I was cheered by the surprising amusement of the girl behind the desk at Bloomsbury Publishing. She agreed to summon Mr. Newton to the reception and suggested that I take a seat in the mean time. To give Mr. Newton credit, he did come wafting down in a very elegant manner, shook my hand and accepted my manuscript, though he said he couldn’t promise that he’d have time to read it any time soon.

I don’t think he ever did read it, because I never heard from him again. And this, to go back to the second point, was the other tendency I managed to define about publishers. They had, and still do have, an amazing ability never to speak to you.

I was pretty annoyed about Nigel Newton being too busy to appreciate the promise of my work, and I actually produced a whole sequence of poems, in which I bitterly lambasted him for i) his balding head (“too much air in his hair”) and his tan which, to me, proved, ii) that he’d just come back from the Caribbean with his secretary, whom he’d invited for lascivious purposes. Of course his baldness I had actually witnessed and so there was some justification for lambasting him about it. But the second allegation of sexual usurpation was unfounded and deeply unfair. Most likely I’d taken a fancy to the secretary who had a decisive, tidy yet also slightly saucy voice. I probably had fantasies of eating boiled eggs with her in the mornings, then spending long happy days in the British Library Reading Rooms. Gloomily I decided she was probably dating her boss.

Was there some sort of shadow between my ideas and my execution of them? Or rather, had I executed my own ideas? Would I be an unemployed writer for ever?

The one exception to the general traits of publishers was one of the junior editors at Quartet, the one who helped me knock my Samarkand translation into shape. Not only was she very pretty, abstemious when it came to alcohol and contact-seeking in her general behaviour, she also had a famous father who was both a lord and a historian and apparently lived in a castle. I remember on one occasion she said to me, “I’ve never had a date with a Swede.” Her head slanted slightly when she said it and she seemed to be waiting for my invitation. Too proud to admit how broke I was, I just smiled. “Oh haven’t you?”

With this, my Soho days were more or less over.

Years later I moved to Berlin and as I sit here writing this I happen to know that Nigel Newton is running the Berlin office of a German publishing house acquired by Bloomsbury with a few coppers of their Potter money.  Newton’s office is very close to where I live. Probably no more than a ten-minute walk.

By now I have amassed large piles of unpublished poems, plays, screenplays, essays, novels and other texts of varying quality. I do also have two published books which have risen up from the compacted mud like bubbles of marsh gas. But I’m an older, sadder man. No longer will I be packing a ream of Surrealist poems in my satchel and heading off to say hello to Nigel Newton. No longer will I write poems on the state of his follicles.

I’ll just e-mail him…

One Response to “Analogue Days in Soho, London”

  1. Marcus Speh (Birkenkrahe) March 26, 2013 at 5:58 pm #

    You have an amazing ability to mix sadness and joy… or perhaps this is life itself and you’re only channeling it. This post hit me in a vulnerable spot located somewhere at the cross-section of baldness and balderdash…your recollection of Soho is remarkable; I had a similar experience with a British literary agent a while ago, but I was already to old then to pour my grief into poems (having said that: is it ever too late? Didn’t an aging Neruda revenge himself on his personal and political enemies?) — and all I could do was forget about him. He had (and supposedly still has) beautiful hair by the way and a hot assistant of Eastern European extraction who wore expensive rings and smelled like Tundra (now you know that his office wasn’t in Soho but in Mayfair). He’d also never read a line I had written but presumed to tell me how to run my writing life. My being German may have motivated him to be harsh with me. We should go visit Nigel Newton together, dressed as Albus (you, with the goldilocks) and Aberforth (me, “at the Hog’s Head, playing with goats”) Dumbledore and stun the publisher with a “Publicus!” spell…

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