Tales from FantasyCon 2012: Ask the Editor/Find the Editor

I’m in the Royal Albion Hotel in Brighton. It’s FantasyCon 2012. I’m sitting in the main lounge – lots of comfy seats, most of them full. It probably doesn’t look the way an outsider would imagine a Fantasy convention to look. There are no elves, nor dwarves, and while there is plenty of grey hair, none of it is topped off by pointy hats.

I’ve just arrived and can’t see anyone I know. I see faces I recognise but not necessarily well enough to go over to, shake a hand, buy a drink, share the news with. Members of the T-Party, a London Science Fiction Writers’ Group I’m loosely connected to will be around somewhere and I can always talk to them if I get lonely.

(Later I will bump into Ben Baldwin who does the marvellous covers for my short stories and for ‘Bloodjacker’ the novel that’s coming soon. Ben’s one of the nominees for the ‘The Artist’ category in the British Fantasy Awards. I also chat to some old writer friends who aren’t members of the T-Party.)

It’s difficult to know how to describe this convention to someone who’s never been to one. A lot of people here seem to know each other from way back when. I’ve been coming off and on now for about 7 years but I’m not sure at which point I qualify for ‘when’.

And here is the paradox which quickly presents itself to most newbie writers, and goes something like this:

This is your first convention. You’ve sold a couple of short stories to pretty good magazines and you have a novel in the can which has been turned down by some publishers, and a number of agents have assured you your work is ‘interesting’ but unfortunately they’re not looking to expand their list at the moment.

So, you go to a convention panel called, “How to Fail at Getting Published”, with five editors from leading publishing houses. The title is a joke, of course, so you’re hoping you’ll actually learn how to get published, only in a roundabout way. The panel is pretty informal, it seems, with the editors happy to admit they don’t know what they’re going to talk about. There are quite a lot of anecdotes relayed, which are amusing but don’t actually tell you very much.

Then, one of the editors spends five minutes telling you exactly what she wants to see in a submission. She describes the contents of the Advanced Information sheet, that she has to put together in order to sell your book to her acquisitions and sales committees. If you really want to score points with me, she says, send me your submission in the form of an A.I. sheet; then you save me the job of having to do it and you show me you know how to sell your work.

You scribble this all down fast, heart thumping with excitement that at last you have a form you can put your work in that an editor will take seriously – this editor, even. Why not her? You can add in your cover letter that you enjoyed what she said at the convention, etc . . .

You keep pen in hand waiting for more but there isn’t any. And you’ve just learned your first lesson about conventions, although it might take a few more of the same before you make it conscious. Which is that you may only learn one piece of useful information at a conference and/or make one useful contact. And that is a good result. It’s different for a fan, who scores dozens of good results at every convention. He gets free books  in his convention goody bag. He gets to buy lots more in the dealers’ hall. He gets to see lots of exclusive films, drinks loads, goes to the ball and next day can’t remember anything about it, shares fantasy news with other fans . . .

It’s just not like that for a writer. He’s not a participator, he’s a creator. But there is only so much space for creatives at a convention.

Towards the end of the panel, questions are taken from the audience. Often, someone, probably a new writer, will ask how he can get his work in front of an editor. It might even be you asking, trying to wear an expression on your face that suggests if one of those editors asks to see the first three chapters of your novel, which you happen to have in a nice strong envelope in your bag, they won’t be disappointed.

The editors will share looks and laugh at this, having heard the question so many times before. One of them will talk about how difficult it is to get your novel to stand out in the slush pile. She will say that a personal touch in your cover letter can help. Mention that you met her at this convention, for example, and that will at least get your submission read.

And here it comes . . . if you see me in the bar, she says, come and say hello. Introduce yourself. Buy me a drink – that always does it! Do that enough times and your name will stick. It’s a small world, she says, UK SF/Fantasy publishing. We editors talk to each other and we notice people we’ve met.

Your heart thumps even harder. It will be difficult but you’ll do it. Tonight, you’ll do it. Go to the bar and look for an editor. You commit all five panellists’ names to memory, matching them to the faces.

You go back to your hotel room and lie down for an hour or so. All those people, all that noise and concentrated Fantasydom has given you a headache. You pull the curtains, turn down the lights. Relax.

Later, when it’s probably about Bar Time, you have a shower – don’t want to put off an editor by smelling of convention. You pack your bag with the essentials: first three chapters of your book and a notepad in case the editor gives you any tips while you’re talking over the drink you’ll buy her.

Nervous but determined, you go downstairs and straight into the bar. You look around. You don’t see any editors. You go into the lounge and don’t see any editors. You go hunting for editors in the other bars and rooms. But you don’t find any.

You buy a drink and sit in a corner of the lounge, half reading one of the freebie books, half looking around. For editors. You buy another drink. A nice man sits next to you and you have a chat about, well, you’re not sure, really.

Then, going to the bar at around ten pm for your fifth drink, you see an editor! It’s the one who talked about the A.I. sheet. There she is, standing by the counter with, and you’re not sure how this can be, a golden glow around her. Is it just the light she’s standing directly under, or is it really her commissionable aura? The problem is, she’s not alone. There are five people standing in an arc before her. People who clearly know her well. They’re sharing jokes, possibly discussing wacky submissions she’s seen, like the one she mentioned at the panel, handwritten in purple on pink paper.

Worse still, she has a drink. It’s in her hand, and it’s nearly full. Can you buy her another? If you offer and she refuses, will that count against you when you send her your book? All these thoughts are academic, however, because you know you don’t have the nerve to break into her private circle, even if she’d sort of given you permission to earlier at the panel talk.

So you buy a drink and sit near the group, pretending to read your book but actually waiting until the editor is alone. When you can make your move. But a half hour passes and she is still talking to her crew. How can you join her crew, you wonder. You suspect there are no clear rules about such a thing, but there should be. She should advertise in Locus, then interview the most promising applicants. She should –

– she’s leaving the bar! With her crew. Probably off to another panel or a film or maybe even to watch Match of the Day.

You buy yourself another drink, go back to the lounge. The nice man you were talking to about something or other has gone. You read, finish your drink and go back to your room. Match of the Day has finished so you have to make do with highlights of the Championship instead.

There are of course writers who’ve gone to a convention knowing no one and come away with a whole batch of editors’ and agents’ contact details. But the reality for most writers is feeling constantly frustrated and uncommitted by not having made the contacts everyone says conventions are good for.

Which leaves you with that one piece of advice you wrote down about how that particular editor likes to see a submission shaped. Is it worth three days of your time, the cost of the convention, the hotel room and all those drinks? When you send her that A.I. sheet about your book, will she ask to see the whole manuscript? And if she does, but doesn’t take on your book, will it have been worth it?

Well, here’s the thing: no one can answer that but you. And you might not be able to answer it until you’ve been to twenty conventions, the risk being that at the end, you may decide it isn’t.

But that’s the stupidity and the glory of writers. Talent, yes. Hard work, yes. Commitment, yes. But even if you’re writing stories that are brilliant, getting them taken on by an editor can turn on just one small piece of advice that you got at just one of those twenty conventions.


* * *


If you want some detail of this year’s convention, the following are notes (fairly rough) I took of the ‘Ask the Editor’ panel:


Duncan Proudfoot – Constable & Robinson

Oliver Johnson – Hodder & Stoughton

Simon Spanton – Gollancz

Gillian Redfearn – Gollancz

Nicola Budd – Jo Fletcher Books


What’s more important – the commerciality of a book or that you love it?


(There was some contradiction in the answers!) All at first said they have to love a book; that you really can’t tell what’s going to sell. On the other hand, one said he couldn’t think of a single example when he’d pushed through a book he loved, against a negative consensus from the board. Another made the point that it’s more important that an editor knows what to do with a book (i.e. how it can be marketed).


Has the speed of getting out a self-published book affected the traditional industry?


Yes, and trad. publishing is lagging behind. Trad will become more instantaneous, particularly in genre. However (another said), you have to bear in mind that I might spend 6 weeks editing a ms; then the author another 6 after that; then say another 3 on line editing, all of which means 18 months is not slow; not if you want the book to be better. You can self-publish now but it might be crap. In 18 months, it could be great. In other words, ‘It might be worth the wait’.

Editors no longer have to rely on agents or the slush pile. They look at self-published books that have passed the test – succeeded when the author has nothing to help but word of mouth. So we look at the Amazon Kindle charts, etc: now a very important contribution to trad. publishing.


Is there any point in a new author submitting to you, especially if he’s only got one book?


You’re looking to build a brand (out of an author). One book is fine but you need to have in place ideas for book 2, 3 and 4. As a new author, what you write about is crucial – because you don’t have a name. So if you write about a detective monk you have to be willing to keep writing about him; and to take direction (in this) from your editor. OJ (John Grisham’s editor): John Grisham got rejected a lot of times until his agent went to a publisher and said, I have ‘The Firm’ here and ideas/outlines for 12 more legal thrillers. He was signed because the publisher could get his vision.

All agreed: a ms free of spelling mistakes and with good grammar will get you a look in.

As an editor, you can teach structure but you can’t teach ‘it’, and an author must have ‘it’.

Don’t put your ms out to too many readers; it will dilute it. You just need a couple of readers who know your genre.


How important is it that an unpublished author has web presence and/or success in short fiction?


Very important. We all look at the short form and sometimes approach writers because of it; and they use it in their approach to us.

Web presence is important. We’re looking for writers who don’t hide behind their books. However, we recognise the contradiction, in that writers spend most of their time alone with a screen, with the world shut out; yet we want them to be sociable too.

I don’t want an online nutter, though. I want to be able to tell from your online presence that you’re not mad, that you don’t pick fights with people in the industry, that I’d feel comfortable with you in the room.

Don’t forget that your job is to write books. No point in having a great online presence if you aren’t actually writing any books.


Quality vs quantity?


The industry hasn’t needed self-publishing  to get crap out there.

It’s a myth that everyone has a (good) book in them. When we reject your book saying something like, the characters are great but the world-building isn’t quite there, it’s not what we’re looking for at the moment – do we want you to re-write it and send it back? No. We’re being nice. We probably really mean it’s crap but we don’t want to crush people – even though our lawyers tell us to be honest.


Do you use readers?


Not any longer – no money now. So, a book gets put in front of a senior editor, say, and if he likes it, he’ll pass it down the food chain to an assistant or someone in Marketing. If they like it, he’ll take a look.


Are you affected by marketing trends?


(Again, some contradiction here.)

General consensus was that you can’t anticipate or follow trends. Trends happen for various reasons, e.g. reader/viewer taste translating (eventually) into what writers write. The ‘hive mind’ plays a part too, e.g. when several publishers put out the same kind of book at the same time. However, there was also agreement that publishers will occasionally jump on a trend, like with ’50 Shades of Grey’, and that is not a very noble thing, especially when it always quickly leads to rubbish and spoof.


Are you affected by stylistic trends in writing? e.g. a lot of YA Fantasy novels hit the ground running, plot wise and don’t let up until the end, even if at the expense of character.


General agreement was that there are stylistic trends, and that books for children/YA are affected by short attention spans and games/TV/movies where action plots are essential. On the other hand, good writing is good writing whatever the style.


* * *


Incidentally, I asked them that last question. I’ve found it something of a trend with modern YA Fantasy novels, that they are often very action-based, usually sequentially. What tends to happens is I tear through the first hundred pages or so, put the book down and realise I’m exhausted. Then I often don’t pick it up again and I think the reason is I don’t care enough about the characters: insufficient time has been spent building them, in and around all that action.

Tales from My Subbuteo Soul: Thirty-Seven Years on My Mind

Shedders is over from California, working hard with business clients for a few weeks, then he’s back to the West Coast and all those Ss we’d like more of in the UK.

We’re sitting in a Pret A Manger in New Oxford Street. All around us are well-dressed, healthy-looking people, most with laptops or smart phones, a few with both. They’re drinking real coffee and eating sophisticated sandwiches.

Sheds and I have known each other for 37 years and always have something specific to talk about, besides just catching up. Today, I want to discuss the time we first became friends, to see what he remembers. This is for the memoir I’m writing, called ‘Subbuteo for the Soul’. I’m 20,000 words or so into it, although quite a lot so far has been written about what happened after we became friends. I then went back to the beginning of my serious table soccer journey and wrote a chapter called ‘Front Room Champ’s Bacon is Threatened by the Full English’, which you can read on this website. It’s about when I was 13 and played my first non-front room Subbuteo player, who just happened to be the English Champion. He beat me 8-0 without even concentrating much on the game. Essentially, I had to make a big decision: whether to stay as a front room champion or change everything I knew and start again.

The second serious decision I made in my table soccer journey was with Shedders, 12 years later. It was in Swansea 1975, where I lived then, before there were mobile phones or personal computers or sophisticated sandwiches. Where, instead of Pret there was Bob’s Cafe, which would never be allowed to exist today. Bob didn’t open until about ten at night, and then only let people in that he knew or liked the look of. Hippies and students were the main clientele, although there were always a few suits, too. People played chess or read books or just talked. There was no background music. If you wanted a sandwich, Bob would make you one with white Mother’s Pride bread and a slice or two of processed cheese. If you wanted a hot meal, he’d grab a pie and ram it on the steam pipe that he used to make frothy (instant) coffee, for a minute or two.

One of the reasons Bob didn’t open till late was that he and his wife spent the day removing down and outs from the gutter and taking them to their hostel where they cared for them until they could go back on the streets in a reasonably together state. Bob didn’t get government funding. No one monitored his activities or checked his finances. I think the cafe paid for the hostel, but don’t know for sure.

“I remember,” says Shedders, “you and Annie’s room. Their was a bed with a potty – ”

This is true. Annie and I shared the house with three girls, and we were on the ground floor. So I had a potty under the bed to save me going upstairs during the night. One Saturday, I got up late, put on my blue and gold-bordered night coat that barely came down to my balls, and my bright green boots,  picked up the nearly full potty and walked into the hallway, long hair and beard like a surprised bush. Which was when Brenda came in the front door with her mother. They were from a rather posh area of Amanford and Mother very much looked the part, like an uptight Mary Whitehouse. Her expression on seeing me and all my bits/gear and lightly steaming potty would have done the Amanford Parish Council Moral Investigation Committee proud.

” – a big bay window, coal fire, shelves with stacks of LPs and books, stereo next to the chimney, table football pitch in the middle of the room and a sofa along the right hand wall. That was the first time I heard ‘Born to Run’. We played it a lot while we talked about what we wanted to do with the game.”

He and I had played in the English League for a few years but this was the first time he’d been to see me socially. We’d spent the previous day on the Gower Peninsula, with a friend of mine who, like Paul, was a bird spotter. I recall the Judge, as he liked to be known, throwing stones and swearing at a guy on the cliffs at Worms Head who was stealing eggs from a nest. And on the other side of the Gower, in a wood, he’d got us to help him push over a gun hide.

The next day, I cooked a macaroni cheese with peppers and we got talking.

“We realised,” says Sheds, “that we felt the same way, that our love of the game was being smothered by the egos who’d taken it over.”

“Yes, we were both on the verge of giving up; felt frustrated by the personal agendas of some of the big names.”

“Mike Watson and his drive to brand the English Table Soccer Association, designing Rose logos and all that bollocks. Nigel Greaves and his control of everyone via the travel fund.”

“So we formed the Freemasons of English Table Soccer.”

He laughs. “Well, we didn’t really know what freemasons were. The idea was to eradicate ego and the threat of personal plans that linked to Subbuteo’s drive to kill off the flat-figure game.”

Two years after we formed our pact, I was invited by Subbuteo to a meeting in Holland, along with the other key European Secretaries, where the director of the company offered us a million pounds to stop playing table soccer and play Subbuteo instead. All the top players used flat playing figures because they span better than Subbuteo’s three-dimensional ‘OO-scale’ men. Worse still, the players made their own equipment and no longer called the game ‘Subbuteo’.

“We dropped the ‘free’,” Sheds says, “because we realised the Freemasons are all about secrecy, being select, supporting suffocating agendas.”

“And we wanted the Masons to be open to anyone who loved the game and wasn’t going to see it killed off. I seem to remember we invited three others to join us right at the start.”

“But they didn’t respond. It was like a dog whistle they couldn’t hear.”

“A shame, because it was very liberating, to make that promise to fight the egos.”

He sips his coffee. “We formed a friendship based on a purpose; it brought us alive; it was a recognition of passion and love of the game – a real Subbuteo for the soul moment; it kind of leapt out and soared.”

I smile at the softness of his tone, speaking about things that meant so much to us, and still do in many ways.

“Something precious was at risk,” I say. “We took responsibility for being its guardian.”

“Drew a line in the sand.”

Just like Bob, I think now.

I recall the equal parts thrill and fear I felt at making such a commitment. Normally, friends just sort of fall into place, sharing common interests. But Paul and I were proposing we start right out with a purpose, a mission; something we would hold ourselves too; and we did.

Later, back at the street, I go for a drink with Nige in the Ladywell Tavern.

I tell him I met an old friend today, that we talked about how we met through table soccer.

“You used to be a Subbuteo champion, didn’t you?” he says. “Christ, my knees are still dodgy from all that kneeling around the pitch on the front room carpet. Not to mention strategically kneecapping your opponent’s number nine. Those little bleeders were never the same after you’d stuck ’em back together with UHU.”

I think about the time I played in the Europa Cup in Holland in the 70s, shown on Dutch television, hundreds of supporters; beautiful hand-made tables, all the equipment made by small companies serving the players. Everybody using flat figures, not Subbuteo’s OO-scales that the company believed were more like ‘real’ footballers.

“Did I ever tell you about the time Subbuteo tried to buy the game off the players?” I say now.

“I thought they were the game.”

I wait for him to tackle one of his three last-minute pints before I reply.

“In the 70s,” I say, “the game got pretty big and Subbuteo were worried because the players weren’t using their crap equipment. Our game was based on spinning and their 3D men span about as good as a Mars Bar. They decided to buy us out before things got really out of hand. So in 1977, they flew the Secretaries of the four main European Associations to a hotel in Holland. I was there as the England secretary. Their director opened the meeting by saying, ‘We’ll give you a million pounds’.”

Nige actually breaks his own etiquette by putting down the pint before it’s completely swallowed.

“You took it, of course,” he says, fixing me with a no-joking gaze.

“But there was a price,” I say. “He told us that in return, we had to call it ‘Subbuteo’, not ‘table soccer’; had to use Subbuteo’s equipment, not our own; and we had give precedence to the junior competitions, being that little boys were their target market.”

He smiles. “And you turned the bastards down. Plonkers.”

“More like, I turned them down. The other secretaries had dollar signs spinning in their eyes. But I made this passionate speech about how our players didn’t want to use Subbuteo’s stuff and help them sell tons of it to little kids who want to believe they’re Manchester United in miniature.”

“So, what happened next?”

It’s my turn to take a long swallow of beer. “Not long after we turned them down, they got a lucky break. Our European champion turned up at the Europa Cup and played with Subbuteo’s OO-scale men.”

“The one’s that don’t spin?”

“That’s the thing: he’d thought laterally. Realised those little buggers were nice and heavy, compared with our flats. So he polished the bottoms of the bases and then just slid them in straight lines; didn’t bother even trying to spin, and their greater size and weight had advantages.”

“Don’t tell me: he won?”

“Yup. But Subbuteo still lost out. They never could keep up with the players. And they even failed to produce figures that capitalised on sliding. So the players made their own again, and still use them to this day.”

“So, no one won in the end?”

I think about this. It’s true that Subbuteo is now a spent force, obliterated largely by computer football games and their own pig-ignorance about the needs of the people who actually love the game. The players’ game thrives at an underground-ish level. Millions remember the game with affection, knees wrecked in the process.

“I reckon me and Shedders won.”

He finishes his second pint in one swallow. “How so?”

“We’re still best mates.”

Tales from My Head: Writing – Don’t Coyote Over the Cliff Edge

            I’ve been reading a collection of top Science Fiction short stories. Probably because it’s on the Kindle, I haven’t been jumping around the stories, just working my way through them in order. I’ve read four so far and enjoyed them all, except for one common fault: their endings suck!

            I feel like I’ve been Wile E Coyoted right over the cliff edge: I look down and realise there’s nothing there, then plummet to – might as well milk the analogy – rock bottom.

            In the case of one story, I actually turned over the Kindle, convinced it must be continuing on the back. Which, let’s face it, is about as intelligent as the man in the audience who got offended by a ventriloquist’s act so went on stage and punched the dummy . . .

            I feel that two of the stories represent the polar ends of the problem; the pole itself I’ll call Drive. Let’s call one end Character Drive and the other Plot Drive.

            At the start of the first story, which I would say is an example of Character Drive, the main character has what at first he thinks is a chance meeting with an old associate. They’re in a European city, let’s say Berlin for the sake of this article. In the opening pages, we’re introduced to an alternative Europe and USA that have experienced different kinds of revolutions. We also meet a whole posse of the hero’s friends, and his wife; get shown their apartment; we sit in on several long discussions between his friends and the ‘chance’ acquaintance, who slowly reveals his master plan . . . We also get lots of interesting details about post-revolution Berlin. Then the story moves to a mass demonstration in which a fantastic display of new technology may or may not have taken place –

            – and here we’ll pause for a moment, because at this point we’re nearly at the limit of words that normally constitute a short story. Yet I’m aware of several lines of the story that are still wide open, both at plot and character level. The hero’s wife, for example, has a job she hates but which is safe: will she break out and do something she’s more passionate about? Will the revolution(s) be overturned? And so on.

            But what actually happens is that after the demonstration, all our characters retire to a bar to discuss whether or not the display they’ve just witnessed is genuine. The hero has a flash of inspiration and realises that the demonstration was intended to mask the German’s real technological discovery and –

            – and that’s it. The story just stops. But, but, but – I want to know what happened to all these new, interesting people I’ve just met, and the unusual worlds in which they live, and the wife’s job, and, and, and –

            It reminds me of the old Russian folk story where the devil makes a deal with a farmer: that he can have all the land he’s able to walk around in a day. But if he’s not back by sunset, the devil takes his soul.

            So the farmer starts out at dawn and it being a long summer’s day, he heads out wide, figuring he’s got plenty of time to circle back. He’s relaxed; he takes in lots of details, extends his circle a little to include that especially fertile-looking meadow over there; then that dark, mysterious wood his children will enjoy playing in; and, oh, let’s have that bend in the river, too, where he can sell the fishing rights . . . and a little further out he goes again.

            But he notices that the sun is directly overhead and his circle is not half-way drawn yet. So he thinks he’d better flatten out the return curve and speed up a little. But he can’t resist fanning out just a little more to include that rich-looking peat bog, and that stand of valuable oak . . .

            Before he knows it, the sun is setting behind his home hill, and the devil’s long shadow is directly in front of him. With horror, he runs, all thought of endless profit gone from his mind. But he’s too late: just before he reaches the devil, the sun disappears below the horizon . . .

            On the other hand, there would have been a different problem, story-wise, if the farmer had instead sprinted out in a long, frugal oval, diligently turning back at noon (or just before) and rushing back to make sure his soul was safe.

            Which brings me on to the other end of this particular bar, to Plot Drive.

            My other story example starts with a murder. The killer could be a female robot that looks and acts exactly like a human. Two cops are on the case, male and female. They have to interrogate the robot which must answer their questions truthfully; in fact, she shouldn’t be able to do anything else. And yet, there is more than a hint that she might have been thinking for herself . . . The story thunders along, setting up a fascinating scenario where the robot will testify in court, where her guilt or innocence depends on just how human she has become. The female cop goes home to prepare for the court case and –

            – it just stops! No court case, no decision . . .

            This was the story that had me turning over the Kindle, staring at the blank scene, going, “No, no, no!”

            Both stories should probably have been novels. Both drove off the cliff edge – one like a sprinting Wile E Coyote, the other like the Magical Mystery Tour bus that just didn’t manage to turn in time.

            One was mainly overcome, I think, by Character Drive, the other by Plot Drive.

            But here I should pause again for a moment to reflect. Both stories sold to very good magazines, and both were selected for a top collection. So does it matter that they don’t end satisfactorily? (For me, at least.)

            Whether or not the authors intended to finish where they did is difficult to tell, but my writer’s gut instinct is that they didn’t actually plan it that way. I suspect they set out on their different drives then at some point had to make the decision whether to extend into a novella or novel. Or to cut things short.

            I’m sure both authors could argue convincingly about why they ended where they did. And these are the decisions writers have to make, which are rarely totally right or totally wrong. However, I do feel that where short stories are concerned, they’re more likely to fully satisfy readers if the author has pitched his mind to an ending before he starts to write. This can be the expression of a fine feeling, the conclusion of a set of meaningful actions, or the making of a moral point. He then draws his story-mind along the line connecting the start with the finish.

            He may in fact subvert the ending when he gets there. Or take it a couple of steps further.

            But what he doesn’t do is Coyote over the cliff edge.

Tales from My Street: Searching for the Perfect Lube

“I’ve been looking for the best bike oil–sorry, lube,” I say to Nige, figuring he’ll be interested in a technical discussion. I spent half a day on the internet yesterday, reading all the customer reviews on the leading lubes. “I’ve been a Purple Extreme man up to now but I’m finding myself attracted to Finish Line.”

“Well, it can’t be easy getting your purple extreme over the finish line, Tel.”

We’re in the Jolly Farmers, on the edge of Lewisham. It’s Tuesday and not a Quiz or Singalong night, which means there are only a few of us at the bar. Harold, a regular whose hair I’ve watched turn grey and shoulders irreversibly stoop over the years, is nodding slightly on his stool. One day, the barmaid will ask him if he wants another and there’ll be no reply.

I’m planning to use a lube analogy with my writing group. Maybe I’ll tell them that in order to write well these days, you have to take some apparent backwards steps, back to a time when people did all their own decorating, repairs and, well, lubing.

“What’s wrong with 3-IN-ONE?” says Nige. “I use it for everything.”

“Well, I used it too, when I was a kid,” I say. “When we did all our own bike maintenance. But that was before lube technology improved so much.”

“Yeah, right. Improved about as much as paint brush technology.”

“Do you know,” I say, determined to get on with the analogy, “that people take their bikes into the shop these days, just to have a puncture fixed.”

I snort to show that I do at least fix my own punctures.

“I can see the sense in that,” he says. “I mean, how long does it take you to fix a puncture?”

I think about this for a few seconds, remembering the last time I mended one. As usual, I’d forgotten the exact process, so, what with all the remembering, then the struggle with the tyre levers, and the even bigger struggle getting the damn thing back on the wheel — “Oh, about half an hour,” I say.

“And how much does the shop charge to fix a puncture?” he says.

“Eight quid, I think.”

He wags his head from side to side, calculating. “So, if you work in the City and make say £50 quid an hour, half an hour’s going to be £25 of your time, ain’t it? Cheaper to pay someone else to do it.”

“Yes, but no one’s writing is going to improve if we don’t fix our own punctures.”

He laughs, then sips daintily at this lager, in strong contrast to the half-pint gulps he’ll be taking two minutes from closing time in an hour or so. “How are you going to have time to write if you’re fixing your own punctures?” he says. “And doing the gardening, cleaning, decorating and all that other boring crap?”

“Yes, but it’s not just about saving money, is it? It’s about doing something under your own steam, getting fitter and knowing you’re going to arrive at work on time.”

“As long as you don’t get a bleedin’ puncture.”


Several years back, when I’d first decided to cycle to work, I’d thought carefully about the kind of bike I would need. Taking into account the weather, the need to carry stuff, the short winter days, and the largely flat journey, I’d concluded that the ideal commuting bike was a solid job with a basket at the front, three hub gears and a dynamo lighting system, probably no more than a hundred and fifty pounds the lot.

So I went into Action Bikes, Victoria branch, clear in mind about what machine I needed and therefore sure I’d be in there for no more than a few minutes.

However, the last time I’d been in a bike shop was 1969 when there were only two types on offer: the practical kind I now had in mind and the ‘racing’ model with drop handlebars and five gears (ten for the seriously sporty).

Things had changed since I was seventeen. I was prepared to ignore ‘racing’ bikes, no matter how attractive, since I knew their wheels were too delicate for pot-holes. And I was clued in enough to realise that the ‘mountain’ bikes one now saw everywhere were energy-inefficient in that their wide tires provided too much friction with the road surface.

What I wasn’t prepared for was a new category of bike – the ‘hybrid’ – apparently the perfect combination of the style and speed of the racer and the rugged strength of the mountain bike.

In the modern manner, there were several dozen variations of hybrid to choose from and after an hour or so my mind had become curiously numb towards pure practicality. So it was that I found myself shelling out five hundred pounds on a Trek with twenty-one gears and suspension. Well, there is a bit of a hill up to Brockley Cemetery so the eighteen extra gears should come in handy.

My model did not come with mudguards, lights or anything to carry stuff in. So I spent another hour choosing accessories with the knowledgeable and bike-mad Kiwi assistant. We could have spent a lot longer on lights alone, since I learnt about several different dynamo arrangements I could choose from; then there were all the battery systems, ranging from around ten pounds a set to over five hundred for the twin headlight nickel cadmium rechargeable halogen trail search beam specials. But I think we both realised I wasn’t seriously bike-aware after our cycle shorts conversation.

“These are lycra shorts?” I said.

“Yes, mate; they prevent chafing, around your bollocks mainly.”

“Are they easy to wash?”

“Well, yeah, I guess.”

I was thinking about the special short style mudguards I’d just purchased. I could have got the old-fashioned type which cover most of your wheels but don’t look so good. Kiwi had assured me that the stylish ones would “keep most of the crap off your arse, mate,” but I had the distinct feeling that I would still be sporting a brown skid-mark on the outside of my lycra shorts whenever it rained. And they didn’t seem to make shorts in brown.

“I don’t suppose you sell specially thin underpants to go with the shorts, do you?” I joked.

“You don’t wear ’em with pants, mate.”

We both looked at each other in disbelief.

The vision of skid marks on the inside and outside of my shorts ended my fashion coma, and from that point on we moved swiftly through the rest of the accessories.

Mind you, the carry rack, specially designed waterproof panniers, lights, mudguards, luminous vest, high-pressure pump and tungsten steel lock came to another hundred and fifty pounds, making six hundred and fifty in total.

Well, that was the price of a year’s season ticket at the time, so the bike would be paying its way in about twelve months. Although I should really add on the cost of a yearly service, replacement parts like the brake blocks (Shimano specials at a mere sixteen pounds a set), having to take the train when the weather’s too bad at non-season ticket rates and therefore probably looking at about ten years before I broke even. But at least I’d save the odd eight quid mending my own punctures and lubing my own chain.




It’s now eleven-nineteen and Nige has just reached for his last pint. I’m feeling a little light-headed, either from the beer of the realisation I don’t have a clue what to teach my writing group tomorrow.

“3-IN-ONE really lubes everything?” I say.

Nige swallows half the pint, frowns. “Well, I wouldn’t recommend using it for foreplay with your missus, Tel. And in my case, given the continuing hiatus in my sex life, I’d probably do better starting with WD-40 the next time I get lucky.”

I finish my pint and put down the glass so it’s half on and half off the beer mat, something I know really annoys Nige’s inner spirit level. “Most of my writing group finds it hard to actually sit down and just take off,” I say. “So I’m going to tell them that they can’t wear pants and lycra fashion shorts .”

“Which means what exactly?” says Nige, glaring at the barmaid to come take my glass away.

“That whatever way you ride, you can’t afford to worry about your skid marks showing.”

The barmaid still has her back to us so Nige reaches out and moves my glass to the centre of the beer mat. “I know what you should tell your writing group,” he says.


“To quit searching for the perfect bleedin’ word and just 3-IN-ONE it.”