Medical memories

Ten years – where does it go?

In March 1998 I started work at a medical publishing firm that I shall for the sake of legal liability call InsanelyRun. I returned to work after my second Christmas there on Tuesday 4th January 2000 and by the end of Wednesday 5th January I had been given notice. My boss, who shall be called J, had obviously decided on this course of action before Christmas; he didn’t have to let me enjoy the break with a clear mind, but he did and it was kind of him.

I had a long rant prepared to mark the anniversary: then I realised I had already delivered a mini-rant, tantalising long-term readers with a few succinct details, to mark the tenth anniversary of the interviews that got me the job in the first place. So here’s some extra detail that I didn’t say first time round.

InsanelyRun published high quality, highly illustrated full colour medical textbooks, with a bent towards urology. Runaway success in building up a list had led to the reason they wanted me – they had a large backlog of manuscripts that they just didn’t have the resources to deal with and the whole publishing programme was behind.

Jerome was a very good commissioning editor. Unfortunately he had the mad compulsion to keep on signing up the same deadweight, non-producing editors and authors over and over again. One reason he had wanted me was because in an earlier existence I had got a list of academic journals back on schedule. However, that was with the full support of a boss who knew exactly what was what, and measures included sacking the dead weights and only using writers who actually wrote. It was only a last chance sanction; we gave the dead weights every chance and every warning, and many of them responded favourably and worked harder for us, or gratefully accepted the chance to step down gracefully. But some were straightforwardly fired.

At InsanelyRun, the dead weights were rewarded for their efforts by being given yet another book to do. They were authorities in their field. Their names on the book covers sold copies. Or would have, if we had copies to sell.

Time and time again, we came back to the dichotomy between Jonquil’s expectations and how the world actually works. A signature on a contract was, to Jolyon, just as good as an actual manuscript in hand. (And to be fair, it should be; a professional author doesn’t miss deadlines without a very good reason, and plenty of warning if it becomes unavoidable. But these weren’t professional authors, they were doctors.) I suspect that a lot of his signing up was in fact a friendly chat over a drink in a hotel bar, which elicited a vague promise to write something for us, which turned into a contract without too much further thought. He never looked them in the eye and spelled out how it was going to be: “you will provide x, in y format, by z deadline.” And he enjoyed the commissioning process too much to let me sit by his side and do the dirty work for him. Thus these busy professionals found they had signed a contract to do a lot of work for so little money that they were pretty well doing us a favour, and meanwhile the job they were actually paid to do involved saving lives and making people better. It’s not that surprising that the priority slipped down their timetable.

One book, a multi-author textbook on benign prostatic hyperplasia, did so well that a second edition was decreed, with updated chapters. The only problem here was that none of the authors especially wanted to update their chapters as it had only been a year or so since the first edition and the field hadn’t progressed that much. No one was actually ready for a second edition, except Justinian. Guess whose fault it was decreed to be that none of the chapters were coming in?

Or there was the time I failed to get hold of an author for whom I only had a phone number. No address, no email, no web presence, just a phone number, with not even a voicemail at the other end. The phone would ring and ring and ring until eventually it cut out.

Juvenal casually mentioned the author’s campaign. What campaign?

“Oh, he’s standing for the Scottish Parliament …”

The twit actually thought that a man in the middle of an election campaign would take time out to write for us.

The final nail in my coffin was a website for urologists which I shall call The idea was good: it would be a regularly updated, dynamic repository of all thing urological – news, articles, abstracts, happenings – with core material was to be submitted by an unpaid editorial board, who like most of InsanelyRun’s authors had signed up on a wave of goodwill and then suddenly found reality getting in the way. The editorial board almost universally failed to come up with anything. I phoned them and phoned them and phoned them, leaving message after message after message on their voicemails. I wrote letters and bombarded them with emails. Short of going round and holding them at gunpoint while they wrote, there was not much more I could have done to wring their words out of them. Then one day Jamal sent me an email. “I’ve just left messages with all the board members. What exactly is the problem?”

I went to see him and demanded to know what the hell he meant.

“I’ve left messages with each of them,” he said patiently, as if explaining to an idiot. “They will get their messages and send their work.”

As if. Needless to say, they didn’t. Unfortunately Jordan got it into his head that they did and that he had achieved, with a single phone call, what I had failed to achieve with many. And despite my efforts to point out the reality of the situation, he never failed to drag it out on future occasions when my failings needed to be highlighted. The last time I heard this repeated was the final meeting where he finally, mercifully fired me.

But for all that, InsanelyRun was not an unhappy experience. As individuals, Jeremiah and his business partner treated their staff well. Jedekiah let me use the office printers to run off my manuscripts, in those days before electronic submissions. On one occasion he decided the entire company should decamp for lunch to the Head of the River and we stayed there for the rest of the afternoon. (Which didn’t help the pressure on anyone’s work, but he was the boss …) The week always ended with wine tasting in the office from about 4pm onwards on a Friday. And the staff were lovely people, all with a considerably better idea of how one actually publishes books than our leaders had.

But, at some point over the last summer, work relations with Jasper reached a new low (once again he dragged out the story of how he had phoned round the editorial board with allegedly more success than me) and I was actually given written notice that I should show signs of improvement. At the Frankfurt Book Fair in October I specifically asked: “are you happy with my work?” His answer wasn’t quite so specifically “yes”; he talked about how he had had concerns, and those concerns seemed to have been addressed, so yes, he probably was happy.

The year rolled on and into 2000 …

It would have come as less of a surprise if, at Frankfurt, he had just said “no”. Out came the litany of my alleged failings (including, yes, the time he called all the members of the editorial board) augmented by some brand new ones: complaints apparently received from the production manager and the senior editor, neither of whom had at that point come back from their Christmas break. Their version, when I heard from them, was a little different: he had come to them and made them wrack their brains for something, anything in my work that hadn’t been quite up to scratch. They obligingly came up with a few instances all of which (they hastened to add, to me) came well within the remit of usual glitches – no production process is ever perfect. But it was enough for Jestocost. I was given written notice and two months pay.

I was a sacrificial lamb. InsanelyRun was strapped for cash. It was eating up money, it badly needed to be getting its books out for its special sales and I was perceived as an obstacle in the flow. Jedekiah didn’t even appoint a replacement. The senior editor was given my job on top of her own, which took all her time anyway, with no commensurate increase in salary. She later confessed to me that she had never even looked at the pile of manuscripts I left behind.

Unpleasant though it was, I still maintain getting fired was one of the best things that ever happened to me for its knock-on effects that last to this day. I may or may not mark more tenth anniversaries over the next few years. Depends how bored I get. I will however share one more memory of InsanelyRun: in tomorrow’s post. It will make you smile …

Seeing off the year

I realised that if I didn’t write something today then there wouldn’t be an entry for December 2011, which would be a shame. What has happened to this blog, once a goldmine of every kind of creative outpouring?
I blame Facebook. This blog used to have everything from single-line pensées to longer pieces like this. Nowadays the shorter stuff goes on to Facebook, which is where most of its likely readers are anyway (those who aren’t, get over there; chances are good that I know (of) you so I’ll accept Friend requests) and it’s much easier to share and interact and generally carry on the conversation. Of course I could put it here and stick a link in Facebook – but even then, all the carry-on and carry-over stuff would probably stay on Facebook. So there it goes.
Don’t get me started on Google +.
So anyway. 2011.
The downs immediately come to mind, but there were ups too. A couple of very enjoyable holidays in Vence, Provence, France and in Sweden; singing in Messiah; a nicely lucrative slice of ghostwriting; and Bonusbarn finally entered the wonderful world of higher education. Of course, being Bonusbarn, he couldn’t do this the easy way, i.e. embrace the system that is there to help him, No, no. Of his first two choices he put the one he actually wanted second; and when he got offers from both of them, he declined the first one when he should have asked them to reject him, which meant he automatically went into clearing and officially had no offers at all. Ho hum. But it all worked out.
The biggest downs of 2011 are that I started the year having no friends with cancer and ended with two. More accurately, I suppose, they both probably had it a year ago but it was only diagnosed in the intervening months. No further reports to add on this – consider it a work in progress, and as one of them so eloquently expresses it, “poo to Mr Crab”.
What made the biggest impact on me was being made redundant halfway through the year. Previously I had been quite enthusiastic about the new marketing regime but I underestimated their desire to sweep clean. I wasn’t the target and was merely caught by the edge of the broom, as shown by the fact that they wanted to keep me on as a freelance provider. There was no malice involved; it’s just that being marketing types with no grasp of the small details, minds too full of the big picture, it was handled so ineptly that I had to think very hard about whether I really wanted to stay. I should have remembered my previous conviction that marketing is like the church and the military: you want it on your side but it should never ever be given power.
The redundancy offer was statutory but still generous, so the pressure to find work immediately was off. This also coincided with the start of the ghostwriting, which got me the equivalent of a novel advance for a month’s work. So I gave the old place the benefit of the doubt and signed a contract that would guarantee five days work a month; more important, it guaranteed I would be paid for five days a month. If I didn’t do five days, well, I could owe them a bit more work the next month.
All well and good, until they insisted on me billing them for July, in which month I had had a two hour meeting and that was all. At one stroke, I owed them nearly a month’s work, and they carried on persistently not using me. I had seven years’ experience that could have helped in so many ways, but no, I was the tool kept on the shelf for when they wanted some scribbling, or for when a job was too boring to waste the salaried staff on it.
Outside of the old place, I honestly intended to give the freelance life a workout, but external factors conspired to convince me that it isn’t for me. I had several leads, all given to me by people I trust and who had proven experience that these leads should work … but this is Austerity Britain and No One is Hiring. Not one of those leads actually led to anything. Sure, I could have done more – actively tout my CV around the numerous science parks that dot our landscape in this part of the world – and perhaps I would have if I really had no choice. But the thought of doing that for the rest of my life … no. Just, no. At the old place I was doing more than just writing: I was engaged on many levels; I was contributing to an enterprise I really believed in. I wanted that back.
The most enthusiastic proponents of the freelance life – the two people I was reporting to at the old place, both of whom coincidentally had well-paid fulltime jobs – tried to assure me that freelancing is wonderful and rewarding, you can choose how much work to do … well, maybe on the fees they get, but at my level you need to keep working regardless. You might also think, might you not, that with all this free time on my hands, the extracurricular writing career would burgeon? Well, no, not really, because I don’t currently have any work under contract. It’s all on spec at the moment, and when you’re writing on spec, you’re not earning. So, no. The writing suffered too.
I know successful freelancing is possible, even in my sort of field, because I know people who do it and enjoy it; but none of them as far as I know had it thrust on them at a moment’s notice. I lacked the patience and the willpower to tighten the belt for the next few years to make something happen.
And then, out of the blue, along came the dreamed-for job ad – a maker of scientific instruments that required someone with just about my full skill set. Sent off the CV, got a call that same evening inviting me to an interview, got sent an editing test, got invited to a second interview, came away convinced I’d blown it and then got invited back. Terminating my freelance contract requires two months’ notice, so for the time being I’m on three days a week until I can go fulltime at the end of February. The old place should squeeze one more newsletter out of me, and quite probably a quarterly report too, if they have any sense.
So, I finish the year in an unexpectedly different place to where I started it, but no hard feelings. I have a student stepson, an added arrow to my writing bow that wasn’t there before, and my wife is lovely as ever. Happy new year, and poo to Mr Crab.

Everything I know about banks, I learned from Paddington

That was a good weekend, that was. Friday was a performance by the Osiligi Maasai Warrior Dance Troupe at Christ Church in Warminster: 90 minutes of hypnotic close harmony singing and chanting and dancing and jumping. They do it to raise money for their community back home and very good they are too. Like a low-budget Peter Gabriel concert but even better.

The Saturday was BristolCon, which I enjoyed more this year than last probably because the discussions seemed more book-themed than media-themed. Also I wasn’t spending the sessions beaming ineffective telepathic death signals at the prune from SFX who gave The New World Order such a braindead review. And I got to meet Philip Reeve.
And in the 45 minute train journey from Warminster to Bristol I read a brand new copy of Paddington Abroad, which I found in my parents’ spare room. Apparently it was a freebie giveaway by the Daily Telegraph. I even remembered bits of it from when I was 5 or 6, though my reading speed may have improved since then. It’s one of the first books I remember.
The gist of it – what we would nowadays call the story arc, I suppose – is unsurprisingly that Paddington and the Browns go abroad, on holiday to France. This was in the days when you drove your car onto a plane, which dates it a bit. I remembered bits of it, like Paddington going to see a fortune teller, who tells him to cross her palm with silver. He obligingly does so. She explains that he’s meant to stop halfway and let the coin go. She is then puzzled by his very long lifeline, which turns out to be a chunk of marmalade.
I also remembered the cheerfully Francophobic scene where the Browns tuck into a delicious dish of escargots, prepared by Paddington, before reacting like any smugly complacently ignorant middle class Brit would when learning what escargots are.
I had forgotten the pictures – the wonderful line drawings by Peggy Fortnum who manages to catch everything that is so earnest and loveable about our hero bear in just a few lines. There was one that made me laugh for a good five minutes. Paddington is invited to play the bass drum in a French marching band, but because the drum restricts his view he doesn’t realise when the band have turned round so he keeps on going. The picture stretches across the top of both pages. At top right is the band, just very small silhouetted stickmen, marching off the page in one direction. At top left is a very small silhouetted bear marching off the page in the other, still earnestly beating his drum.
I’ve very glad that the statue of Paddington at Paddington is based on the Fortnum version, rather than the TV puppet.But the real gem which has stuck with me all these years is the second chapter, where Paddington goes to the bank to take out some money for the trip. I remember my father explaining the jokes to me.

The bank is called Floyds. I learned there is a bank called Lloyds.
First he learns that his savings have accrued about 10p of interest, which he doesn’t find very interesting. I learned about interest.
He is shocked to find that the number on the note he is given is not the same as the number on the note that he handed in. In fact, the coins are different too – different dates and not highly polished like his were. I learned about the fungibility of money, though probably not the word “fungibility”.
The cashier also explains that his old notes has probably been burned by now. I learned … well, in short I got a pretty good idea of how banks work. For a 5 year old.
Paddington complains that his note had a promise to pay bear the sum of five pounds on demand. The cashier explains that the word was bearer.
Of course, this being Paddington it all ends in chaos, with him convinced that his savings have all gone up in smoke and the emergency services being called in. Quite prescient, really.
Eventually all is smoothed out and he is offered a nice new bank note to make up for it all. He prefers to keep the old one as he now has so little faith in the banks he would rather have a note that’s been tested.
With that off my chest here are the Osiligi Maasai warriors again, singing in a church somewhere (not ours). This was a more restrained performance, possibly because it is apparently a hymn they are singing.