Wednesday, 19 August 2015

My first job as a publisher's publicity assistant, a stone’s throw from Regents Park “type number”

A member of my family entered the world of full-time, salaried employment today for the very first time. This brought back memories of that day almost exactly 41 years’ ago when I left my mother’s Bayswater flat to travel to my first grown-up, salaried job in the publicity department of a very profitable but immensely dull academic publishing house in Camden. The journey consisted of a bus to Regent’s Park, followed either by another bus to Mornington Crescent, or - preferably - a stroll through the park to a prosaic ‘50s office block overlooking Regent’s Park Canal. (There are worse ways of starting the day.)

I’d bought a new suit (actually, my first suit) for the occasion: grey, a bit shiny, and entirely composed of quite possibly carcinogenic man-made fibres , it made the wearer sweat copiously in hot weather, yet afforded no protection against cold in winter. (I'm pretty sure it was the only suit I've ever owned.)

I and my three co-workers sat at widely-spaced desks arranged so that we were forced to stare either at each other or into the empty centre of our large work-room. Dreadful feng-shui. The oldest member of the team was a balding, moustachioed, long-haired Dave Spart lookalike who talked in the hippie mumble that was the height of fashion in 1974. He was left-wing (obviously) and his favourite book – which he reread once a year – was Three Men in a Boat. Despite this - and despite the fact that he smiled a lot - he had absolutely no sense of humour. There was a quite good-looking blonde girl, about whom I can remember nothing. The last of my co-workers was a neat little 20-something public school type who always wore a tie and a blue blazer with shiny gold buttons and whose frizzy fair hair stuck out at an annoying 45º angle from his forehead. Despite the fact that he looked like an adult version of Nigel Molesworth’s wet school companion, Basil Fotherington-Thomas, it was whispered that he’d had quite serious problems with drugs (I could never verify this), and that he was saving up to travel with his girlfriend to the Far East.

The pay was derisory, the work should have been soul-witheringly boring (we wrote and designed marketing pamphlets publicising fabulously obscure and incredibly expensive textbooks for real scientists, rather than students), my colleagues were stultifyingly uninteresting – and yet I can’t remember ever praying for the clock to speed up so that I’d be released from my day’s drudgery. To be honest, I rather enjoyed it all. I got a friend of mine a job there soon after my arrival and he hated it so much he fled within a few weeks, so I’m not sure why it didn’t get on my nerves. Maybe it was because I didn’t plan on staying long, and because I’d taken the view that, after all, you’ve got to start somewhere. (Mind you, I didn’t half fancy jumping ship to Duckworths, the somewhat eccentric up-market literary publisher which inhabited The Old Piano Factory right next door to us.)

I just Googled the man who gave me my first job (on the grounds, I seem to remember, that I hadn’t described myself as a wordsmith “like all the other wankers who applied”) and discovered that he left the company after ten years to set up what’s described as a “publisher services company” which is still going strong, and of which he is the MD. He was a clever, cynical, hip young chap (almost every sentence ended with the phrase “…type number”) with a vigorous Jewfro and a keen eye for fashion – he once spent ages explaining to me that the bottom of one’s flares had to be just wide enough to alternately hide and reveal the tips of one’s suede boots as one strode along Camden High Street. (As the trousers of my sweaty grey suit were distinctly unflared, I’m not sure why he bothered telling me that: maybe it was a hint that I needed to up my sartorial game type number.)

On my first day, my boss warned me that, while most graduates entering publishing imagined they’d end up “taking tea with Iris Murdoch”, very few ever managed it. (The nearest I got was Scotch with Harold Robbins.) I rather assumed he was one of those destined to move in more exalted, glamorous circles. I hope he eventually got to sip tea with Dame Iris (although I’m not sure he had any ambitions in that direction.) I haven’t got a clue what happened to my other colleagues: I couldn’t think of a single reason for staying in touch. Perhaps one of them is still mumbling left-wing nonsense and rereading Three Men in a Boat once a year, and another is banged up in a Thai prison. Who knows?

I left that job after six months, with absolutely no regrets, but thankful to have got a start in adult life, and having learned a lot – mainly the names of dozens of  typefaces, the importance of giving printers VERY CLEAR INSTRUCTIONS, the pleasure of receiving a regular pay-cheque, that learning almost anything is a pleasure – especially when being paid to do so - and that it’s possible to enjoy a job without particularly liking one’s colleagues.

There’s no point to this post – just reminiscing.


  1. Dear Boy
    It resonates so much but I am weary. I shall revert in due course and rattle off my early campaign tales when I am rested.

  2. Mr.Gronmark manages to make the prosaic sound interesting;whiskey with Harold Robbins,not bad,it beats pacing the floor outside 'the prospects' office for that first cold call mustering the courage to knock on his door.Sales,as we all know,although a bit unfair to salesmen,is often the final refuge in an already crowded last chance saloon.Skipping through Dale Carnegie's famous tome the night before,I left the prospect with self-esteem hanging by a thread and visions of an eternity of manual labour on building sites.I knew all about his family and favourite composers-sorry favourite pubs,but most un-Trump like had not closed the sale.
    The best of luck to Mr.Gronmarks son.
    Riley we're still waiting.

    1. I didn't get in over my head until my second publishing job, where I made so many fundamental and potentially career-ending mistakes in the first six months, I'm astonished I survived (the fabulously inept way I handled a meeting with the actor Donald Pleasance, who had written a children's book called "Scouse the Mouse" and wanted us to spend a fortune on publicising it, literally brings me out in a sweat every time I think of it - which I do surprisingly often).

      I'll pass on your good wishes to the son and heir, who seems to be enjoying himself.

      And I too am looking forward to Riley's tales of his early days in the world of work - at least one of which is so upsetting it would make a very harrowing short story or radio drama.

  3. In this parish publishers' publicity assistants are usually referred to as chocolate teapots...

    1. We tend to agree round these parts. Needless to say, I was an exception to the rule. (Actually, no, I was almost as useless as every other publishing publicity/PR person, but I like to imagine I wasn't quite as terrible as the ones I had to deal with during my stint as a professional writer.)