In a poetry workshop last weekend, there 5 of us were fairly evenly spread in age with a young tutor – 3 young ones in their 20s, one middle aged and two of us retired. I was intrigued by the way the young ones wrote poetry directly onto their phones. We had the usual discussion that crops up at these events: do you write poems by hand or straight onto screen?
For me, that direct connection between heart and hand (I am left-handed as well) is the only way I can begin my poetry. I reserve the screen for the time when a poem approaches a finished state, a state ready to be read in a workshop or group setting.
But this doesn’t mean I can’t write directly onto a keyboard, my working life began in book publishing, news agency and magazine journalism. The clatter of typerwriters is woven into all the jobs I did through the 70s and 80s.
My first job in 1972 was as an Editorial Assistant at Tom Stacey’s publishing house in Maiden Lane, Covent Garden. I was the most junior of a team of 5 editorial assistants putting together a 20-volume series of popular anthropology books, Peoples of the Earth. We all worked in one room alongside the editor, assistant editor and editorial secretary. On every desk was a portable typewriter (only the secretary had an electric typewriter). Long strips of printed paper, the galley proofs, hung from bulldog clips on cuphooks along one wall.
They were about 5 volumes into the 20-vol series when I arrived. The books were lavishly illustrated with colour and black and white photographs. It was discovered that I had a knack for writing succinct captions. Each caption had to be 5 lines of no more than 30 characters long. I set the margin guides on my typewriter to 30 spaces, read the typescript or proof of the article, studied the photo proofs and then began typing my 5-line captions, over and over until I had a first draft that was relevant, informative and as near the right length as I could manage. Then I took sheets of the typed captions and carefully read them, corrected them by hand and re-typed them.
This process was repeated over and over until each chapter had its set of captions ready for approval by the editor.
As I moved up to being given my first chapters to prepare, and moved on to other jobs, I learned how much writing and re-writing was done in-house by editors. Chapters came in from authors in any state ranging from perfectly typed and well-written to an instruction from the author for us to write them, based on their previously published work. Sometimes text had to be massively cut, sometimes it was hundreds of words short. Sometimes masses of re-writing was required and I loved doing this.
You can only go so far in editing a typescript with a pen. We moved whole chunks of text from paragraphs to a couple of lines, simply by cutting it out then stapling it into its new position. Blue pen, red pen, purple pen could be used until the typescript was a mass of colour decipherable only by the person doing the editing. Then it was time to re-type the whole thing, to ‘run it through the typewriter’ as we used to say.
It was startling how much this process of re-typing helped the work to progress. As you typed, you got into the flow of the chapter, the hard graft of writing and shaping had been done, and like a sculptor with a block of stone, the shape of the writing was now emerging.
Now with a clean copy of the typescript in front of you, you re-read and, if necessary picked up the pens to continue marking up mistakes and improvements. If necessary you could go to the assistant editor or editor for help – but not too often. Only when we had been through this process with a typescript, shown a clean copy to the editor for her approval, did the typescript go to the editorial secretary for typing up the ‘setting copy’ to be marked up ready for the typesetters.
Until computers became common in the mid-1990s, this was how editors worked on text. Incidentally, when computers first came in, like the electric typewriters, they were usually given first to the team secretary.
It’s as hopeless as expecting people to write with quill pens as it is to expect people brought up writing on screens and able to spell check, make changes in an instant to expect them to type and re-type a piece from scratch as they edit, but I do miss that hands-on way of working with text.
Now that it’s all over and we begin the ten-month task of sweeping up the pine needles, here’s a reminder how we really used to have fun:
We’d usually start off in the Barley about nine-ish. After a couple of drinks though, we’d be off down The Dale and up Yeoman Street to where the Kings Head stood by The Cross.
You’d walk up dark Yeoman Street towards the lights and throbbing noise. Open the door and the two bars were a solid mass of people. A blow-up sex doll being passed over the packed heads. A row of dancers strutting and twirling on the red leatherette bench seats opposite the bar. New ones clambered up through the night to replace those returning to their drinks. A few drinks down the road, I would take my turn, but not yet.
Fancy dress was optional – if you fancied it. Mark Gatley, the farmer, and his mates always did it as a group – crusaders, Wild West. Robin Hood get ups one year – for the lads it was an opportunity for bulging tights and obscene gestures with bows; plaits, long clinging dresses and plunging décolleté for the girls. One of the lads would do a Maid Marion too of course.
The vast Hughes family had gone for a Star Wars theme and there were the usual gladiators, Aladdins and over the top odds and sods. Behind the bar, Arthur and the staff were all in Casualty outfits. Practical for people who’d be on their feet till the morning and allowing for a good helping of saucy nurse horseplay for those so inclined.
And of course, there was the usual complement of lorry drivers in drag. One year I’d stood in my backyard waiting for the dog to have his final sniff and pee before we went out. Watching the stars, thinking about the year just gone and the year to come. Two doors down the Simmons’ bathroom extension jutted out. The light came on and I watched as against the hazy glass, the outline of a slender diva strutted and preened – big hair, tight frock, jutting breasts – it was Mike of course.
That might have been the year he’d got hold of the extra thick permanent lipstick from the joke shop and gone round snogging the whole pub to leave us all with big red clown mouths.
Five o’clock one New Year’s morning we’d been stumbling slowly home and seen Tom Marshall tottering back to the Simmonses. His beautiful blonde hair sticking out, tights laddered, a few black chicken feathers floating past where they’d come adrift from his neckline. But still prettier than many a real girl and still as joyous and sweet as ever, though incoherent.
There was a big streak of androgyny among the Simmonses and their mates – sometimes edging into out and out transvestism. Tall red headed Jim sometimes turned up as Julie in full drag and no one turned a hair and, well, I believe I’ve mentioned Patrick and his nipple ring before. It was a house where big tall good looking men turned their hand to quarrying, building, and lorry driving during the week, with caving and serious partying at weekends. All of them transforming into stunning women when they had a mind to.
The real women, Nadine and her sister Lesley were short and round faced, loud where the men were quiet, plain where the men were striking. Dark thin Nadine and mousy fat Lesley, devoted to their 6 kids. Telly on all day long and open house, bacon butties and mugs of tea always on the go.
Anyway, to return to the Kings Head. The thing was to get into a big gang, base yourselves on some seats and just drink for as long as you could keep going – the pub wasn’t going to close on you. Trips to the loo, squeezing through the press of bosoms, bellies and bums topped with laughing shouting faces, you’d stop for visits to other groups, lean on a chair back and chat or join the dancers for a number or two.
Around 10.30 there’d be a stir as the young people left for the Pav in Matlock Bath, following their taxi drivers out in a flurry of kisses and shouted good wishes – sentimental from the mums and grans, bawdy from the dads and uncles. It didn’t mean there was any more room for us oldies though. A steady stream of people would be coming in. Duty done to friends and relations elsewhere, they were aiming to see the New Year in here.
Countdown time. Behind the bar they’d turn up the radio and we’d all shout out along with Big Ben. Then a great cheer and everyone turned to kiss and hug first their loved ones, then their friends and then the people next to them and outward to everyone in the bar. Some years people got particularly affectionate – once Geoff Billet gave me that extra long kiss that turned sexy and went on and on. I went back for seconds. Now every time I see Geoff, even though we’re both happily married and usually with our respective spouses, I always give him a big smile and remember that kiss.
Hugging, shaking hands, well wishing. Auld Lang Syne would start up somewhere and soon all hands would be linked and everyone singing. Some years people went out to sing around The Cross – we did on Millennium Night, and because there were fireworks then. Other years there’d be a conga snaking unsteadily through the bars outside and back in again.
And that was it – we went on drinking of course, often for hours. The pub didn’t close until the last drinkers left. It was how much your head, stomach and wallet could stand. That was how we used to spend New Year’s Eve in the village.
Journals, far too many of them. Who’s ever going to read them? They go back to 1965, skip the lost decade of the 70s, then plough on to the present as I get ever more detailed and obsessive about only Black & Red hardbacks. I buy them in packs of 5, I index each book when I finish so I can see at a glance what events it covers.
Sometimes I do Morning Pages religiously and a book is filled in 3 months, other times it hangs around for ever.
I had this brilliant idea that I would feature ‘The Random Journal’ on this blog. Pick a date, find the nearest journal entry then offer the pearls therein to the world. I tried it, and there’s an awful lot of dross and maundering self obsession.
What’s a journal for?
If you’re in the habit of them, a journal is a great comfort – the friend who’s always listening
It’s a very selective and partial record of events
A way of dialoguing back with books I’m reading
A place to put anger and self-pity instead of dumping it on others
A place to try out parts of my own writing and reflect on it