Latest squeeze: James Fearnley of The Pogues performs in New York, March 2011. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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?

Show Hide image

Boris Johnson isn't risking his political life over Heathrow

The anti-Heathrow campaigner was never a committed environmentalist. 

A government announcement on expanding London’s airports is expected today, and while opposition forces have been rallying against the expected outcome - a third runway at Heathrow - the decision could also be a divisive one for the ruling Conservative party. A long consultation period will allow these divisions to fester. 

Reports suggest that up to 60 Conservative MPs are against expansion at the Heathrow site. The Prime Minister’s own constituents are threatening legal action, and the former London mayoral candidate, Zac Goldsmith, has promised to step down as MP for Richmond rather than let the airport develop.

But what of Boris Johnson? The politician long synonymous with Heathrow opposition - including a threat to lie down “in front of those bulldozers” - is expected to call the decision a mistake. But for a man unafraid to dangle from a zipwire, he has become unusually reticent on the subject.

The reticence has partly been imposed upon him. In a letter to her cabinet ministers, Theresa May has granted them freedom from the usual rules of collective responsibility (under which cabinet ministers are required to support government positions). But she has also requested that they refrain from speaking out in the Commons, from “actively” campaigning against her position, and from calling “into question the decision making process itself”.  

Johnson is not about to start cheering for Heathrow. But unlike Goldsmith, he is no committed environmentalist - and he's certainly a committed politician.  

Boris’s objections to the expansion at Heathrow have all too often only extended as far as the lives of his London constituents. These local impacts are not to be belittled – in his role of mayor of London, he rightly pointed to the extreme health risks of increased noise and air pollution. And his charisma and profile have also boosted community campaigns around these issues. 

But when it comes to reducing emissions, Johnson is complacent. He may have come a long way since a 2013 Telegraph article in which he questioned whether global warming was real. Yet his plan to build an alternative “hub” airport in the Thames Estuary would have left the question of cutting UK aviation emissions worryingly un-resolved. This lack of curiosity is alarming considering his current job as foreign secretary. 

And there are reasons to be concerned. According to Cait Hewitt at the Aviation Environment Federation, the UK fails to meet its targets for CO2 reduction. And the recent UN deal on aviation emission mitigation doesn’t even meet the commitments of the UK’s own Climate Change Act, let alone the more stringent demands of the Paris Agreement. “Deciding that we’re going to do something that we know is going to make a problem worse, before we’ve got an answer, is the wrong move”, said Hewitt.

There is a local environmental argument too. Donnachadh McCarthy, a spokesperson from the activist group “Rising Up”, says the pollution could affect Londoners' health: "With 70 per cent of flights taken just by 15 per cent of the UK's population... this is just not acceptable in a civilised democracy.”

The way Johnson tells it, his reason for staying in government is a pragmatic one. “I think I'd be better off staying in parliament to fight the case, frankly," he told LBC Radio in 2015. And he's right that, whatever the government’s position, the new “national policy statement” to authorise the project will likely face a year-long public consultation before a parliamentary vote in late 2017 or early 2018. Even then the application will still face a lengthy planning policy stage and possible judicial review. 

But if the foreign secretary does fight this quietly, in the back rooms of power, it is not just a loss to his constituents. It means the wider inconsistencies of his position can be brushed aside - rather than exposed and explored, and safely brought down to ground. 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.