The writer's lot is not a happy one. Photo: Getty
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Most writers’ pay doesn’t amount to a hill of budget baked beans – or even a decent-sized pot of jam

Nick Lezard's Down and Out column.

Great news: professional writers’ average pay has now reached levels that the award-winning children’s book author Mal Peet has called “abject”. That is, £11,000 per annum or so – and if you’re using the median average for all writers, it’s £4,000.

One would hope that this would clear the field a bit and remove some of the competition but, no, people persist in wanting to write. And one would have thought that the existence of below-the-line space online would have satisfied the primitive urges of those who like to think they can write but can’t, in the way that the walls of pub toilets used to be the preferred medium of expression for angry drunks with axes to grind – but, no, there are people out there who still think that “being a writer” is something to aspire to and to use as a description of what they do.

I’m in the fortunate position of earning more than that – touch wood – but I have no illusions as to the way things are going. Recently a friend of mine posted on a social media site a picture of the pot of jam she had received as her fee for taking part in the Telegraph’s Ways with Words festival. She placed it next to a wine glass for scale and either the glass was one of those oversize comedy presents your in-laws give you for Christmas, or – and as she is a woman of probity and good habits, I suspect this is more likely – it was a tiny pot of jam. Artisan jam, to be sure, but tiny jam. I said that if it had been a pot of honey, she could have used the old Frank Muir gag “I see you keep a bee” but even that small pleasure had been denied her.

I must say that I am glad that the organisers of literary festivals seem to have put me on some kind of blacklist. I remember going to Hay – some time before its current supremo, about whom I have yet to hear a kind word, took over – and thinking, first, this place is almost impossible to reach on public transport; and second, what a lovely town this must be when all these bell-ends have gone away.

I had, you must understand, just seen Jeffrey Archer in a huge tent addressing about 2,000 adoring ladies (and doing so, I must say, with consummate professionalism) and so was in something of a bad mood; but ever since then, I have entertained no illusions whatsoever about either Hay qua festival or any of those that would aspire to be something like it. “Woodstock of the mind”, my foot, I thought, when I heard it described thus by the Famous Author Bill Clinton, around the same time that the Famous Author Pervez Musharraf was being invited to speak there. And it was also about this time that people started having the bright idea of paying celebrities huge amounts and paying writers in jam, or cowpat, or kind words, or nothing.

These gloomy thoughts aren’t relieved in any way by the latest look at my bank balance. A run of good fortune has been replaced by a dry spell; the parable of the seven years of famine alternating with the seven years of plenty is the one that always springs to mind, except with the word “weeks” replacing “years” and the word “plenty” being replaced with: “Doing just about OK – you know, being able to go to a restaurant once or twice a week, nothing fancy, and certainly not anything in the line of being able to afford a holiday.” Right now, it’s back to baked beans on toast and making sure that these are the beans with the price already printed on the tin and so not subject to the usual outrageous mark-up at the corner shop.

Meanwhile, I have to think of something to do to get out of this mess. I suppose that as the only thing I can do that anyone would want to pay me for is write, I had better start doing more of it.

The other day, I picked up my first book (which got only one review and none of you bastards bought), flicked through it and thought: “That’s not at all bad.” Believe me, I know when something I’ve written is below par. And how much did it earn me? After the advance, babkas.

Then again, the publisher who rashly commissioned that book is taking me to lunch in about half an hour. Maybe he has some good news. Maybe he doesn’t. (He is, however, good company, perhaps because he is serene in the knowledge that he is on the right side of the publisher/writer fence.) These days, the only restaurants that leave tiny pots of jam on the table belong to hotels. All the rest of the jam has been given away to writers. 

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 16 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Our Island Story

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Utopian tale of Milton Keynes weaves together social history and memoir

Meanwhile Bake Off squares up to the BBC's new Family Cooking Showdown.

Central Milton Keynes: you’ve never seen anything like it, as the song on the Eighties promotional flexi-disc used to go. This is rubbish, of course. With its dreary shopping centres, boring-looking estates and endless roundabouts, Milton Keynes looks, at the beginning of the 21st century, like the newer and more depressing parts of lots of other places – the only difference being, I suppose, that it comprises nothing but these parts. Conceived in 1967 and developed from scratch in green fields at a cost of £1.5bn, the new town’s great and unsolvable problem is that it has no immemorial heart, no superannuated soul. It wants for layers, and therefore for mystery and concomitant charm. Yes, some people will claim, if pushed, to love it: “The trees!” they say, as if London and Birmingham have no parks at all. But their praise, when it comes, always sounds to me rather shifty, like they’re avoiding telling you that any minute now they’ll be catching a train to somewhere lovelier and more exciting.

The film-maker Richard Macer (Absolutely Fashion: Inside British Vogue) caught a train to somewhere more exciting when he went to university at the age of 18, but a few months ago, shortly before both he and Milton Keynes hit 50, he returned, shacking up with his parents in his childhood home in order to make a documentary about the town (screened, now, as part of BBC Four’s Utopia season). As a child, he told us, he felt MK was a bit of a joke: those wretched concrete cows. But in adulthood he was sweetly protective, offering us Elisabeth Frink’s sculpture Horse and the shiny travertine floors of its Grade II-listed shopping centre by way of two delights (after which he did start to struggle somewhat). In what way had the town formed him, though? This was harder to say. As a teenager, he attended a comprehensive where, once a month, pupils were invited to devote a whole day to an activity such as trampolining; every Tuesday, his family ate macaroni cheese. Basically, he might have been anywhere.

Still, I loved his film, which wove social history and memoir pretty seamlessly together. Cunningly, Macer’s voice and his camera did different things. If the former was kind and occasionally fulsome, the latter told another story. Interviewing Anthony Spira, the current director of MK’s purpose-built gallery, the narrative was all about the importance the town planners placed on culture for the masses. But beyond the window, things looked ever cheerless: another dual carriageway, yet more traffic lights. Touring the town with members of the Roundabout Appreciation Society, all the chat was of these structures’ essential beauty: those covered with greenery are referred to by fans as “Titchmarshes” and “Monty Dons”. When Macer and the others disembarked their vehicle for a closer look, however, it seemed to me they should really be known as Ballards or Burgesses (for those noted dystopians). “Wouldn’t it be nice if all cities were like Milton Keynes?” asked the TV marketing campaign for the town. Macer’s wry and quietly assertive film revealed that the correct answer to this question is still: “No, it really wouldn’t.”

How many cooking shows can a country take? It may be that we will shortly have had our fill. If the cynicism currently emanating from Channel 4, the new home of The Great British Bake-Off, doesn’t do it – Sandi Toksvig, its presenter, recently revealed that she doesn’t really care for television – then surely The Big Family Cooking Showdown will. “Be nice or leave,” said a sign in the home of one of the families competing in the first episode, a decorative fixture that might just as well, alas, have been a stage direction. Everyone is just so bloody kind: not only its presenters, Zoe Ball and Nadiya Hussain, who spend their time hugging everyone and everything, but also its judges, the cookery teacher Rosemary Shrager and the chef Giorgio Locatelli. Do the latter have chemistry? No. Shrager is a bit too mistress-at-St-Trinian’s for that. But in his Klein-blue jacket, Locatelli, at least, is a sight for sore eyes: a majestic loaf of artisanal sourdough compared to the plastic sliced white that is Paul Hollywood.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear