50 Not Out

Today, 28th August 2018, marks a personal anniversary. Fifty years ago, on this day, I started my career as a fulltime freelance writer, unsupported by anything other than what I could earn with my typewriter and my brain. I had no private income, no hoard of shares, no wealthy family. I never imagined that I would be able to keep going for fifty years, but it seems I could, and did.

I am usually vague on dates, regularly forgetting anniversaries and birthdays, sometimes my own, but this particular date has always stuck in my mind.

On 28th August 1968 I was single, living alone in a cheap bed-sitter in an expensive part of London: it was close to Gloucester Road underground station, in South Kensington. The condition of becoming a freelance had been initiated by two straightforward words uttered by my last boss: “You’re fired.” For several months before this I had been wondering endlessly if I would ever have the guts to give up working in jobs and try to survive as a writer, but suddenly the decision was made for me. Rather than trawl around London looking for another dead-end job, I decided, with the support of the young woman I was soon to marry, to give it a go. I had almost no money – in fact, I had only my final month’s salary, paid on the Friday of the previous week, together with a few savings I had scraped together. The total was about two hundred pounds, which I reckoned could with care keep me going for about four or five more weeks. My wife-to-be was a student and was receiving an annual maintenance grant of ninety pounds. (That’s £90 a year.) She too had a small flat in London, and at the end of September, after a minimal wedding, we moved together into another rented flat, this time in suburban Sutton. The rent there was £9 a week, or £39 a month, payable monthly.

On that first Monday morning, still in Kensington half a century ago, I walked down in bright sunshine to the local Post Office and with a feeling of symbolic significance bought myself a self-employed National Insurance stamp. (It was the first one I ever bought, also the last. I never did it again – years later, the authorities caught up with me and I had to find a substantial back-payment.) I then walked back to my tiny bed-sitter and started writing.

I didn’t have many prospects but I did have a plan of sorts. Part of it was for the short term. In previous months I had sold a few short-short stories to a tabloid-type magazine, which paid £20 a time for twist-ending crime fiction, and I reckoned that if I could sell one or two more of those a month, that would keep the hounds at bay. I was also in touch with another young writer who was overloaded with writing hack articles for a group of ‘glamour’ magazines – constantly bored and fatigued by the mindless garbage they wanted, he sometimes let me chip in and write a few of the terrible things for him, for which I received tiny payments. Even so, I needed every penny I could lay my hands on.

The other half of my plan, the long term bit, was to develop the serious side of my writing and try to sell some short stories and, if possible, a novel or two. During the final months of my employment I had sold a 10,000-word novella called “The Interrogator” to the New Writings in SF series, edited by E. J. Carnell. Thirty quid flat. Mr Carnell was cautiously encouraging, so I wrote a sort of sequel (same characters, same setting, story different) at another 10,000 words. With great speed, and immense courtesy and gentleness, Carnell rejected it, explaining that his occasional book series disallowed sequels. On the day it seemed like a bitter blow, but soon afterwards I rallied. I put the two novellas together, drafted a kind of emergency plot outline for more of the same, and my brand-new literary agent, Janet Freer, submitted it to the Gollancz publishing house. Not long afterwards they rejected it. Ms Freer, more optimistic than I was, then sent it to Faber & Faber, the only other major publisher who was publishing this kind of material at the time. I saw Faber as a class act way beyond my hoped-for level (they published Brian Aldiss, Kit Reed and Edmund Crispin, not to mention their profoundly literary authors like Golding, Beckett, Larkin, Durrell, and so on), but in it went. In the meantime I hacked away at my short term survival plan: cod horoscopes and filler articles pinched and rewritten from the tabloid newspapers. Awful, shameful stuff, but my initial two hundred quid had almost all gone.

In the first week of the new year Faber announced that they would publish the novel. To say I was surprised and pleased would not even approach the delirious feeling I had. I immediately abandoned my shame-faced hackwork and drafted the novel. I followed the synopsis I had dashed out in a few mad minutes, believing I had to now that Faber had read and accepted it. The result was OK, but I think only just. It took nine weeks, and I called the finished manuscript Indoctrinaire.

Faber paid me an advance of £150.00 – £135.00 after Janet Freer had taken her well deserved commission. It was in three instalments of £45 each, to be paid over the next 18 months. It seemed the long term plan was going to be no more lucrative than the short. The struggle went on.

(Eventually, Indoctrinaire showed its legs. Although it has never made me much money, over the years, all fifty of them, it has produced a trickle of income from various reprints, paperbacks and translations. It was even re-issued as a paperback in 2014 by Gollancz, who appear to have forgotten they had already rejected the same book four and a half decades earlier. Good for them.)

Memories of what followed the writing of Indoctrinaire are no longer so distinct. I went on writing, I kept on writing, and I have done so ever since. Life has had its extremes of problems and satisfactions – I make no complaint about the former and do not brag about the latter. But I will never forget those early weeks, which have permanently instilled in me a general sympathy and sense of comradeship with other new or young writers who have followed me. A writer’s life is never an easy one, but now, on this anniversary evening, I do look back in the full knowledge that given the chance I would do it all over again.