Latest squeeze: James Fearnley of The Pogues performs in New York, March 2011. Photo: Getty
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How my literary life became an ever-lengthening index of people to avoid

With the editors to avoid and the editors to endure, book publishers’ parties can be a minefield – thank heavens for the Pogues’ accordionist...

To the summer party of A Certain Publisher. For many years I owed them a book, and so I’d turn up in the spirit of Levin – is it Levin? – from Anna Karenina, who would make a point of going to places where he owed money, just to show he wasn’t scared. I remember once, at another gathering, having someone say to me, “I don’t know how you have the nerve to show your face here,” and, for some reason, I found this rather thrilling. Anyway, even though the organisers of this party have no reason to glare at me (I gather it’s a glitch in the system that gets me invited every year), apart from the fact that the book they published was more of a succès d’estime than an actual success, there are plenty of people there of whom I would be wise to steer clear.

There is, for a start, the small but ever-growing band of writers whose books I have reviewed unkindly. Even though there aren’t many of these, the recipient of a stinker, as I have always suspected, and as experience has taught me, will remember it until the end of time.

Then there are the editors. There are two kinds. Editor Type 1 is the editor of the book you are meant to be writing. You have to deal with these, although the conversation may be pained. Often the relationship with an editor can be more fraught after you have written your book than it was while they were still drumming their fingers on the desk waiting for it.

Also, the question you learn very quickly not to ask is the one with the word “sales” in it. As a more experienced writer friend of mine explained to me a while back, they will be the first to tell you if there is good news on that front. If they have not personally called you up to congratulate you, it is not because they’ve had a busy day. It is because they have little to congratulate you for.

Editor Type 2 is, of course, the editor of the publication you write for. Here, the rule is simply to avoid at all costs, but when the publication concerned is a newspaper, that’s easy, as they move in different circles, usually several miles above the earth, in gold-plated stratocruisers, being smeared in caviar by oiled houris of their preferred gender. The editor the common or “garden” hack has to deal with – the one you file to and who sorts out your sloppy phrasing – is an approachable human being, a rung or two above you but nevertheless recognisably of the same species. They’re fine.

The problem is when working for publications the size of, say . . . oh, I don’t know . . . let’s call it the Modern Politician. The editor of such a publication is approachable; he or she may even have hired you himself. But you must under no circumstances talk to this person when you have taken drink, because you will make a tit of yourself, either by word or by deed, and the memory of this will haunt your days and nights with dread and remorse for years to come. Luckily, the Modern Politician’s chief rival, a right-wing publication called . . . um . . . the Onlooker, was having its own party that night, and they were serving Pol Roger, the bastards, and they may well have invited the Modern Politician’s editor along to that, so no harm done.

The other category of people to avoid is those whose correspondence I have failed to return, whose invitations I have forgotten about, and whom through any number of acts of thoughtless omission I have offended; and the numbers in this category are large beyond counting. First up is Craig Raine, who asks me why I have not replied to his suggestion that I write a huge piece on Gabriel García Márquez, for what I suspect would be a nominal fee.

“Never heard of him,” I say.

In the end, after dodging the extremely large number of people I need to avoid by talking to the accordionist from the Pogues for a very long time (he’s also very sharp, and funny, too, so that’s good), I suddenly find myself talking to a Famous Person who, it turns out, is reading my book.

She has brought her husband along, who is An Even More Famous Person, and, moreover, one who I think, like her, deserves his fame, and I get a bit giddy and tip my glass of rosé over her in my excitement. Things go downhill a bit after that, and as I trudge home, reflecting on the degree to which I have, yet again, made a tit of myself, despite all efforts not to, I think of Samuel Beckett’s wise words from – is it “First Love”? – “The mistake one makes is to speak to people.”

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the red-top era?

John Moore
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The man who created the fake Tube sign explains why he did it

"We need to consider the fact that fake news isn't always fake news at the source," says John Moore.

"I wrote that at 8 o'clock on the evening and before midday the next day it had been read out in the Houses of Parliament."

John Moore, a 44-year-old doctor from Windsor, is describing the whirlwind process by which his social media response to Wednesday's Westminster attack became national news.

Moore used a Tube-sign generator on the evening after the attack to create a sign on a TfL Service Announcement board that read: "All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you." Within three hours, it had just fifty shares. By the morning, it had accumulated 200. Yet by the afternoon, over 30,000 people had shared Moore's post, which was then read aloud on BBC Radio 4 and called a "wonderful tribute" by prime minister Theresa May, who at the time believed it was a genuine Underground sign. 

"I think you have to be very mindful of how powerful the internet is," says Moore, whose viral post was quickly debunked by social media users and then national newspapers such as the Guardian and the Sun. On Thursday, the online world split into two camps: those spreading the word that the sign was "fake news" and urging people not to share it, and those who said that it didn't matter that it was fake - the sentiment was what was important. 

Moore agrees with the latter camp. "I never claimed it was a real tube sign, I never claimed that at all," he says. "In my opinion the only fake news about that sign is that it has been reported as fake news. It was literally just how I was feeling at the time."

Moore was motivated to create and post the sign when he was struck by the "very British response" to the Westminster attack. "There was no sort of knee-jerk Islamaphobia, there was no dramatisation, it was all pretty much, I thought, very calm reporting," he says. "So my initial thought at the time was just a bit of pride in how London had reacted really." Though he saw other, real Tube signs online, he wanted to create his own in order to create a tribute that specifically epitomised the "very London" response. 

Yet though Moore insists he never claimed the sign was real, his caption on the image - which now has 100,800 shares - is arguably misleading. "Quintessentially British..." Moore wrote on his Facebook post, and agrees now that this was ambiguous. "It was meant to relate to the reaction that I saw in London in that day which I just thought was very calm and measured. What the sign was trying to do was capture the spirit I'd seen, so that's what I was actually talking about."

Not only did Moore not mean to mislead, he is actually shocked that anyone thought the sign was real. 

"I'm reasonably digitally savvy and I was extremely shocked that anyone thought it was real," he says, explaining that he thought everyone would be able to spot a fake after a "You ain't no muslim bruv" sign went viral after the Leytonstone Tube attack in 2015. "I thought this is an internet meme that people know isn't true and it's fine to do because this is a digital thing in a digital world."

Yet despite his intentions, Moore's sign has become the centre of debate about whether "nice" fake news is as problematic as that which was notoriously spread during the 2016 United States Presidential elections. Though Moore can understand this perspective, he ultimately feels as though the sentiment behind the sign makes it acceptable. 

"I use the word fake in inverted commas because I think fake implies the intention to deceive and there wasn't [any]... I think if the sentiment is ok then I think it is ok. I think if you were trying to be divisive and you were trying to stir up controversy or influence people's behaviour then perhaps I wouldn't have chosen that forum but I think when you're only expressing your own emotion, I think it's ok.

"The fact that it became so-called fake news was down to other people's interpretation and not down to the actual intention... So in many interesting ways you can see that fake news doesn't even have to originate from the source of the news."

Though Moore was initially "extremely shocked" at the reponse to his post, he says that on reflection he is "pretty proud". 

"I'm glad that other people, even the powers that be, found it an appropriate phrase to use," he says. "I also think social media is often denigrated as a source of evil and bad things in the world, but on occasion I think it can be used for very positive things. I think the vast majority of people who shared my post and liked my post have actually found the phrase and the sentiment useful to them, so I think we have to give social media a fair judgement at times and respect the fact it can be a source for good."

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.