John Kendall
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I accepted a commission that had been turned down by four other writers,butIwas hungry at the time.

Although starving in a garret had seemed a feasible enough plan a year earlier, the present realities of existence under the frozen eaves of a friend's aunt's house in a snowy January were such that without enough income to keep well fed and warm I was a knockover forarisky decision.

My state, of course, was my own fault. I could easily have gone out looking for paid muscular employment. I didn't have to sit shivering in a ski-suit biting the end of a pencil, hunched over a notebook, unsure of myself, of my ability and of the illuminations crashing about my head.

The spartan discomfort was not, either, a self-pitying morass of abject failure, but more the arctic doldrums between the high elation of the recent acceptance of my first novel for publication and the distant date of its launch into literary orbit. This was the downside after the heady receipt of the first advance payment and its division into past debts, present expenses and six months' future rent.

Give it two years, I'd thought, kissing farewell to the security of a salary: if I can't get published in two years I'll admit that the compulsion to write fiction is fools' gold and settle for common sense. Tossing away the pay-cheques had been a fairly desperate step, but I'd tried writing before work and after, in trains and at weekends, and had produced only dust. A stretch of no-excuse solitude, I'd thought, would settle things one way or another. Incipient hypothermia wasn't in any way diminishing the intense happiness of having put my toe into the first crack of the rock face.

I did as it happened know quite a lot about survival in adverse circumstances and the prospect of lean times hadn't worried me. I'd rather looked forward to them as atest of ingenuity. I just hadn't realised that sitting and thinking in itself made one cold. I hadn't known that a busy brain sneakily stole warmth from inactive hands and feet. In every freezing configuration I'd lived through before, I'd been moving.

The letter from Ronnie Curzon came on a particularly cold morning when there was ice like a half-descended curtain over the inside of my friend's aunt's attic window. The window, with its high view over the Thames at Chiswick, over the ebb-tide mud and the wind-sailing seagulls, that window, my delight, had done most, I reckoned, to release invention into words.I'd rigged a chair onto a platform so that I could sit there to write with a long view to the tree-chopped horizon over Kew Gardens. I'd never yet managed an even passable sentence when faced with a blank wall.

'Dear John,' the letter said.

'Care to drop into the office? There's been a suggestion about American rights in your book. You might be interested. I think we might discuss it,anyway.

Yours ever, Ronnie.

Why can't you have a telephone like everyone else?'

American rights! Incredible words.

The day warmed up miraculously. American rights were things that happened to successful authors, not to people struggling in an unfamiliar landscape, afflicted by self-doubts and insecurities, with a need to be told over and over that the book is OK, it's OK, don't worry so much.

'Don't worry,' Ronnie had said heartily, summoning me to his presence after reading the manuscript I'd dumped unheralded on his desk a couple of weeks earlier. 'Don't worry, I'm sure we can find you a publisher. Leave it to me. Let me see what I can do.'

Ronnie Curzon, authors' agent, with hissalesman's subtle tongue, had indeed found me a publisher, a house more prestigious than I would have aimed for.

'They have a large list,' Ronnie explained kindly. 'They can afford to take a risk on a few first-timers, though it's all much harder than it used to be.' He sighed. 'The tyrannical bottom line and so on. Still,' he beamed, 'they've asked you to lunch to get acquainted. Look to the bright side.'

I'd grown used to Ronnie's fast swings to pessimism and back. He'd told me in the same breath that I'd sell two thousand copies if I was very lucky indeed, and that a certain lady novelist counted her paperbacks in millions.

'Everything's possible,' he said, encouragingly.

'Including falling flat on one's face?' I asked.

'Don't worry so much.'

On the day of the American rights letter I walked as usual from the friend's aunt's house to Ronnie's office four miles away in Kensington High Street and, as I'd learned a thing or two by that time, I went not precipitously assoon as possible but later in the morning, soas to arrive at noon. Shortly after that hour, I'd discovered, Ronnie tended to offer wine to his visitors and to send out for sandwiches. I hadn't told him much about my reduced domestic arrangements;hewas naturally and spontaneously generous.

Imisjudged things to the extent that the door of his own room was firmly shut, where normally it stood open.

'He's with another client,' Daisy said.

Daisy smiled easily, an unusual virtue in a receptionist. Big white teeth in a black face. Wild hair. A neat Oxford accent. Going to night school for Italian classes.

'I'll let him know you're here,' she said, lifting her telephone, pressing a button and consulting with her boss.

'He wants you to wait,' she reported, and I nodded and passed some time with patience on one of the two semi-comfortable chairs arranged for the purpose.

Ronnie'ssuite of offices consisted of a large outer room, partly furnished by the desks of Daisy and her sister Alice, who kept the firm's complicated accounts, and partly by a wall of box-files on shelves and a large central table scattered with published books. Down a passage from the big room lay on one side the doors to three private offices (two housing Ronnie's associates) and on the other the entrance into a windowless store like a library, where from floor to ceiling were ranked copies of all the books that Ronnie and his father before him had nursed to birth.

I spent the time in the outer room looking at a framed corkboard on which were pinned the dust jackets of the crop still in the shops, wondering yet again what my own baby would looked like. First-time authors,it seemed, were allowed little input in the design department.

'Trust the professionals,' Ronnie had said comfortingly. 'After all, they know what will sell books.'

I'd thought cynically that sometimes you'd never guess. All I could do, though, was hope.

Ronnie's door opened and out came his head, his neck and a section of shoulder.

'John? Come along in.'

I went down to his room which contained his desk, hisswivelling armchair, two guest chairs, a cupboard and roughly a thousand books.

'Sorry to keep you,' he said.

He was as expansively apologetic as if I'd had a definite appointment and waved me into his office with every appearance of being delighted by my presence. He showed the same manner to everyone. A very successful agent, Ronnie.

He was rounded and enthusiastic. Cuddly was almost the word. Short, with smooth dark hair and soft dry hands, wearing always abusiness suit over a white shirt and a striped tie. Authors,his presentation seemed to say, could turn up if they pleased in pale blue and red ski-suits and snow-defeating moon-boots, but serious business took place in sober worsted.

'A cold day,' he said, eyeing my clothes forgivingly.

'The slush in the gutters has frozen solid.'

He nodded, only half listening, his eyes on his other client who had remained settled in his chair as if there for the day. It seemed to me that Ronnie was stifling exasperation under a fac¸ade of aplomb, a surprising configuration when what he usually showed was unflagging, effortless bonhomie.

'Tremayne,' he wassaying jovially to his guest, 'this is John Kendall, a brilliant young author.'

As Ronnie regularly described all his authors as brilliant, even with plentiful evidence to the contrary, I remained unembarrassed.

Tremayne was equally unimpressed. Tremayne, sixtyish, grey-haired, big and self-assured was clearly not pleased at the interruption.

'We haven't finished our business,' he said ungraciously.

'Time for a glass of wine,' Ronnie suggested, ignoring the complaint. 'For you, Tremayne?'

'Gin and tonic.'

'Ah . . . I meant, white wine or red?'

After a pause, Tremayne said with a show of annoyed resignation, 'Red, then.'

'Tremayne Vickers,' Ronnie said to me non-committally, completing the introduction. 'Red do you, John?'


Ronnie bustled about, moving heaps of books and papers, clearing spaces, producing glasses, bottle and corkscrew and presently pouring with concentration.

'To trade,' he said with a smile, handing me a glass. 'To success,' he said to Vickers.

'Success! What success? All these writers are too big for their boots.'

Ronnie glanced involuntarily at my own boots, which were big enough for anyone.

'It's no use you telling me I'm not offering a decent fee,' Tremayne told him. 'They ought to be glad of the work.' He eyed me briefly and asked me without tact, 'What do you earn in a year?'

I smiled as blandly as Ronnie and didn't answer.

'How much do you know about racing?' he demanded.

'Horse racing?' I asked.

'Of course horse racing.'

'Well,' I said. 'Not a lot.'

'Tremayne,' Ronnie protested, 'John isn't your sort of writer.'

'A writer's a writer. Anyone can do it. You tell me I've been wrong looking for a big name. Very well then, find me a smaller name. You said your friend here is brilliant. So how about him?'

'Ah,' Ronnie said cautiously. 'Brilliant is just... ah . . . a figure of speech. He's inquisitive, capable and impulsive.'

I smiled at my agent with amusement.

'So he's not brilliant?' Tremayne asked ironically, and to me he said, 'What have you written, then?'

Ianswered obligingly, 'Six travel guides and a novel.'

'Travel guides? What sort of travel guides?'

'How to live in the jungle. Or in the Arctic. Or in deserts. That sort of thing.'

'For people who like difficult holidays,' Ronnie said, with all the indulgent irony of those devoted to comfort. 'John used to work for a travel agency which specialises in sending the intrepid out to be stretched.'

'Oh.' Tremayne looked at his wine without enthusiasm and after a while said testily, 'There mustbe someone who'd leap at the job.'

I said, more to make conversation than out of urgent curiosity, 'What is it that you want written?'

Ronnie made a gesture that seemed to say 'Don't ask', but Tremayne answered straightforwardly.

'An account of my life.'

I blinked. Ronnie's eyebrows rose and fell.

Tremayne said, 'You'd think those race-writing johnnies would be falling over themselves for the honour, but they've all turned me down.' He sounded aggrieved. 'Four of them.'

He recited their names, and such was their eminence that even I, who seldom paid much attention to racing, had heard of them all. I glanced at Ronnie, who showed resignation.

'There must be others,' I said mildly.

'There'ssome I wouldn't let set foot through my door.' The truculence in Tremayne's voice was one of the reasons, I reflected, why he was having trouble. I lost interest in him, and Ronnie, seeing it, cheered up several notches and suggested sandwiches for lunch.

'I hoped you'd be lunching me at your club,' Tremayne said grouchily, and Ronnie said vaguely 'Work' with a flap of the hand to indicate the papers on his desk. 'I mostly have lunch on the run, these days.'

He went over to the door and put the same section of himself through it as before.

'Daisy?' He called to her along the passage. 'Phone down to the shop for sandwiches, would you? Usual selection. Everyone welcome. Count heads, would you? Three of us here.'

He brought himself in again without more discussion. Tremayne went on looking disgruntled and I drank my wine with gratitude.

It was warm in Ronnie's office. That, too, was a bonus. I took off the jacket of the ski-suit, hung it over a chair back and sat down contentedly in the scarlet sweater I wore underneath. Ronnie winced as usual over the brightness of my clothes but in fact I felt warmer in red, and I never discounted the psychology of colours.Those of my travel-agency friends who dressed in army olive-browns were colonels at heart.

Tremayne went on niggling away at his frustration, not seeming to mind if I learned his business.

'I offered to have them stay,' he complained. 'Can't do fairer than that. They all said the sales wouldn't be worth the work, not at the rate I was offering. Arrogant lot of bastards.' He gloomily drank and made a face over the taste. 'My name alone would sell the book, I told them, and they had the gall to disagree. Ronnie says it's a small market.' He glowered at my agent. 'Ronnie says that he can't get the book commissioned by a publisher without a top-rank writer, and maybe not even then, and that no top-rank writer will touch it without a commission. See where that gets me?'

He seemed to expect an answer, soI shook my head.

'It gets me into what they call vanity publishing. Vanity! Bloody insult. Ronnie says there are companies that will print and bind any book you give them, but you have to pay them. Then I'd also have to pay someone to write the book. Then I'd also have to sell the book myself, as I would be my own publisher, and Ronnie says there's no way I'd sell enough to cover the costs, let alone make a profit. He says that's why no regular publisher will take the book. Not enough sales. AndIask you, why not? Why not, eh?'

I shook my head again. He seemed to think I should know who he was, that everyone should. I hardly liked to say I'd never heard of him.

He partially enlightened me. 'After all,' he said, 'I've trained getting on for a thousand winners. The Grand National, two Champion Hurdles, a Gold Cup, the Whitbread, you name it. I've seen half a century of racing. There'sstories in all of it. Childhood... growing up... success. .. My life has been interesting, dammit.'

Words temporarily failed him, and I thought that everyone's life was interesting to themselves, tragedies and all. Everyone had a story to tell: the trouble lay in the few who wanted to read it, the fewer still who were ready to pay for the privilege.

Ronnie soothingly refilled the glasses and gave us a regretful summary of the state of the book trade, which was in one of its periodical downswings on account of current high interest rates and their adverse effects on mortgage payments.

'It's the people with mortgages who usually buy books,' he said. 'Don't ask me why. For every mortgage there are five people saving into the building societies, and when interest rates are high their incomes go up. They've more money to spend, but they just don't seem to buy books with it.'

Tremayne and I looked blank over this piece of sociology, and Ronnie further told us, without noticeably cheering us up, that for a publisher in the modern world turnover was all very well but losses weren't, and that it was getting more and more difficult to get a marginal book accepted.

I felt more grateful than ever that he'd got one particular marginal book accepted, and remembered what the lady from the publisher's had said when she'd taken me for the getting-acquainted lunch.

'Ronnie could sweet-talk the devil. He says we need to catch new authors like you in their early thirties, otherwise we won't have any big names ten years from now. No one knows yet how you'll turn out in ten years. Ronnie says that all salmon are small fry to begin with. So we're not promising you the world, but an opportunity, yes.'

An opportunity was all one could ask, I thought.

Daisy at length appeared in the doorway to say the food had arrived, and we all went along to the big room where the central table had been cleared of books and relaid with plates, knives, napkins and two large platters of healthy-looking sandwiches decorated with a drizzle of cress.

Ronnie's associates emerged from their rooms to join us, which made seven altogether, including Daisy and her sister, and I managed to eat a lot without, I hoped, it being noticeable. Fillings of beef, ham, cheese, bacon: once-ordinary things that had become luxuries lately. Free lunch, breakfast and dinner. I wished Ronnie would write summoning notes more often.

Tremayne harangued me again over the generic shortcomings of racing writers, holding his glass in one hand and waving a sandwich in the other as he made his indignant points, while I nodded in sympathetic silence and munched away as if listening carefully.

Tremayne made a great outward show of forceful self-confidence, but there wassomething in his insistence which curiously belied it. It was almostas if he needed the book to be written to prove he had lived; as if photographs and records weren't enough.

'How old are you?' he said abruptly, breaking off in mid flow.

I said with my mouth full, 'Thirty-two.'

'You look younger.'

I didn't know whether 'good' or 'sorry' was appropriate, so I merely smiled and went on eating.

'Could you write a biography?' Again the abruptness.

'I don't know. Never tried.'

'I'ddoitmyself,' he said belligerently, 'but I haven't got time.'

I nodded understandingly. If there was one biography I didn't want to cut my teeth on, I thought, it was his. Much too difficult.

Ronnie fetched up beside him and wheeled him away, and in between finishing the beef-and-chutney and listening to Daisy's problems with scrambled software I watched Ronnie across the room nodding his head placatingly under Tremayne's barrage of complaints. Eventually, when all that was left on the plates were a few pallidly wilting threads of cress, Ronnie said a firm farewell to Tremayne, who still didn't want to go.

'There's nothing I can usefully offer at the moment,' Ronnie wassaying, shaking an unresponsive hand and practically pushing Tremayne doorwards with a friendly clasponhisshoulder. 'But leave it to me. I'll see what I can do. Keep in touch.'

With ill grace Tremayne finally left, and without any hint of relief Ronnie said to me, 'Come along then, John. Sorry to have kept you all this time,' and led the way back to his room.

'Tremayne asked if I'd ever written a biography,' I said, taking my former place on the visitors' side of the desk.

Ronnie gave me a swift glance, settling himself into his own padded dark green leather chair and swivelling gently from side to side as if in indecision. Finally he came to a stop and asked, 'Did he offer you the job?'

'Not exactly.'

'My advice to you would be not to think of it.' He gave me no time to assure him that I wouldn't, and went straight on, 'It's fair to say he's a good racehorse trainer, well known in his own field. It's fair to say he's a better man than you would have guessed today. It's even fair to agree he's had an interesting life. But that isn't enough. It all depends on the writing.' He paused and sighed. 'Tremayne doesn't really believe that. He wants a big name because of the prestige, but you heard him, he thinks anyone can write. He doesn't really know the difference.'

'Will you find him someone?' I asked.

'Not on the terms he's looking for.' Ronnie considered things.'I suppose I can tell you,' he said, 'as he made an approach to you. He's asking for a writer to stay in his house for at least a month, to go through all his cuttings and records and interview him in depth. None of the top names will do that, they've all got other lives to lead. Then he wantsseventy per cent of royalty income which isn't going to amount to much in any case. No top writer is going to work for thirty per cent.'

'Thirty per cent... including the advance?'

'Right. An advance no bigger than yours, if I could get one at all.'


Ronnie smiled. 'Comparatively few people live by writing alone. I thought you knew that. Anyway,' he leaned forward, dismissing Tremayne and saying more briskly, 'about these American rights ...'

It seemed that a New York literary agent, an occasional associate of Ronnie's, had asked my publishers routinely whether they had anything of interest in the pipeline. They had steered him back to Ronnie. Would I, Ronnie asked, care to have him send a copy of my manuscript to the American agent, who would then, if he thought the book saleable in the American market, try to find it an American publisher.

I managed to keep my mouth shut but was gaping and gasping inside.

'Well?' Ronnie said.

'I... er... I'd be delighted,' I said.

'Thought you would. Not promising anything, you realise. He's just taking a look.'


'If you remember, we gave your publisher here only British and Commonwealth rights. That leaves us elbowroom to manoeuvre.' He went on for a while discussing technicalities and possibilities his pendulum way. I was left with a feeling that things might be going to happen but on the other hand probably not. The market was down, everything was difficult, but the publishing machine needed constant fodder and my book might be regarded as a bundle of hay. He would let me know, he said, assoon as he got an opinion back from the New York agent.

'How's the new book coming along?' he asked.


He nodded. 'The second one's always difficult. But just keep going.'


He rosetohis feet, looking apologetically at his waiting paperwork, shaking my hand warmly in farewell. I thanked him for the lunch. Any time, he said automatically, his mind already on his next task, and I left him and walked along the passage, stopping at Daisy's desk on the way out.

'You're sending my manuscript to America,' I said, zipping up my jacket and bursting to tell someone, anyone, the good news.

'Yes,' she beamed. 'I posted it last Friday.'

'Did you indeed!'

I went on out to the lift not sure whether to laugh or be vaguely annoyed at Ronnie's asking permission for something he had already done. I wouldn't have minded at all if he'd simply told me he'd sent the book off.Itwas his job to do the best for me that he could; I would have thought it well within his rights.

I went down two floors and out into the bitter afternoon air thinking of the steps that had led to his door.

Finishing the book had been one thing, finding a publisher another. The six small books I'd previously written, though published and on sale to the public, had all been part of my work for the travel firm who had paid me pretty well for writing them besidessending me to far-flung places to gather the knowledge. The travel firm owned the guides and published them themselves, and they weren't in the market for novels.

I'd taken my precious typescript personally to a small but well-known publisher (looking up the address in the phone book) and had handed it to a pretty girl there who said she would put it in the slush pile and get round to it in due course.

The slush pile, she explained, showing dimples,was what they called the heap of unsolicited manuscripts that dropped through their letter-box day by day. She would read my book while she commuted. I could return for her opinion in three weeks.

Three weeks later, the dimplesstill in place, she told me my book wasn't really 'their sort of thing', which was mainly 'serious literature', it seemed. She suggested I should take it to an agent, who would know where to place it. She gave me a list of names and addresses.

'Try one of those,' she said. 'I enjoyed the book very much. Good luck with it.'

I tried Ronnie Curzon for no better reason than I'd known where to find his office, as Kensington High Street lay on my direct walk home. Impulse had led to good and bad all my life, but when I felt it strongly, I usually followed it. Ronnie had been good. Opting for poverty had been so-so. Accepting Tremayne's offer was the pits.