New Statesman, February 2016
For this story, I intend to take you back 25 years, to the days when no one in the world had email. It’s quite important that you can picture the primitive scene: we are in the dusty and characterless offices of a small-circulation weekly magazine, staffed by care-worn editors and sub-editors, all old before their time. The prevailing smell is cuppa soup. There being no computers or internet, the all-important contributions arrive sometimes by fax machine, sometimes by hand, mostly by post. For me, as literary editor on the second floor, the least effective form of delivery is, oddly, fax. This is because the person who sits beside the fax machine (downstairs) makes it a rule never to inform colleagues when a fax has happened to come for them.
Now, at this time I had a particular contributor who suffered from a strange and infuriating complex, by which he a) was incapable of meeting any deadline but b) always swore blind that he had. “Where is your book review, Geoffrey?” I asked, routinely, on the phone. “What?” he said, in mock disbelief; “Isn’t it there? I posted it two days ago/popped it through the letter box myself!” But then he would seem to remember something. “What’s your address again? Well, this explains why you didn’t receive it. I got the address wrong. Tell you what, I will type it out again tonight!”
I knew he was lying, of course. “Just send me the carbon copy,” I would say. But what do you know? In a freak outbreak of tidiness, he had always thrown the carbon away, or he’d simply forgotten to make one. “Why don’t you take photocopies, Geoffrey?” I would say. “I hate to think of you typing it all again.” “I WILL TYPE IT AGAIN TONIGHT, LYNNE,” he would insist. And the next day, the piece would duly turn up, and it would be fine.
But how I railed. Why did I have to go along with this charade? My colleague Susan – tougher than me – said I should just drop him. And then, one day, the matter came to a head. A review was late again. I sent a message via a third party: I wanted his review, but I did not want to hear he had already sent it. Half an hour later, however, there was a message for me that he had already sent it, actually, but would re-type it tonight. Fuming, I burst into Susan’s office. “He’s done it again!” I cried. “He says he already sent it, and I’m so sick of this every time, so sick of all the lies, lies, lies!” At which she said the most wonderful five words of my working life, “Tell him you got it.”
It was the most liberating thing. In a million years, I would never have come up with this solution by myself. I sent him a fax, saying, “Sorry Geoffrey, you were right, I found it on my desk! Great piece. Well done.” And it felt absolutely fantastic.