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WHEN I WAS A TEENAGER I used to play a game called Count the Lies. The idea was pretty simple: I just made a mental note of every time I heard someone tell a porky, and kept a running total. It was a one-player game, a form of solitaire. Some days I started playing the game after some more than usually gross piece of hypocrisy or cant at school, some days it would be triggered by something I saw on TV or heard on the radio or read in a paper or magazine or book. Most of the time, though, what started me off on Count the Lies was my parents. It wasn't so much any specific thing they said as the whole family atmosphere. It was the air we-even that "we" was a kind of lie-breathed. Some days the lies I counted began with "Good morning" (why? what's good about it?), carried on through "We want you back by half past eleven" (no you don't, you don't want me back at all), and finished with "Good night" (the lie here being: Oh, so you care, do you?).
If I had to explain in a sentence why I came to Hong Kong and why I now do what I do, that sentence would be this: Money doesn't lie.
Money doesn't lie. It can't. People lie about money, but that's different.
I HAVE NO FALSE MODESTY about my abilities-in case it ever seems as if I do, let me now state for the record that I think I'm shit-hot-but I nonetheless freely admit I wouldn't have done the things I have without four big breaks. The first of them was my job on the middle-market middle-England tabloid The Toxic. (Not its real name.) Prior to that my life went like this: home, school, Durham University, journalism course at Cardiff, job on local paper in Blackpool. I should explain that I am just old enough to have grown up in the days when you were expected to train in journalism on regional papers before moving to London and the nationals. This was back in the Paleolithic, before Eddy Shah took on the unions and Murdoch broke them. Mastodons roamed the banks of the Thames. Some tribes had not yet learned the secret of fire. Men were men, women were women, small furry animals lived in well-justified fear, and the only people allowed to operate the A3 photocopier in the corner of the office were members of the National Graphics Association. Say what you like about Mrs. Thatcher.
Nowadays someone as bright and ambitious and sassy as I thought I was would start hawking pieces to magazines and papers while still at college, and the plan would be to bypass all that grubby cloth-cap crap about reporting and head as quickly as possible for the clean, well-lit uplands of commentary, opinion, and a column with your second most flattering photo at the top. (Second most flattering, because if you chose the best one, [a] your colleagues would take the piss for being vain, and [b] people who met you would think, Oh, she looks nice in the photo but in real life she could pass for a boxer's dog.) This, however, was the old days. So I spent eighteen months in Blackpool at The Argus, doing all the usual stuff from local fairs to sport to news (Granny drives Reliant Robin over cliff, survives) to gradually more interesting court cases to features and eventually-yes-a column. Since the choice of snaps was provided by Eric the staff photographer, the idea of a flattering picture was relative. It was more a question of finding one that didn't make me look like Mussolini.
The other thing that happened was, I changed my name. I was christened Doris. Doris! These days I could probably sue my parents for damages. The trouble is that anyone stupid enough to call a child Doris won't have any assets worth suing for. "Dawn Stone" made an infinitely better byline.
THERE WERE LOTS of local papers. Blackpool wasn't a random choice. It was, is, regularly the site of party conferences, and I reckoned that if I couldn't make useful contacts with the nationals during party conferences I might as well give up and train as a solicitor (which was Plan B). I hope I sound as obsessed as I actually was with this issue of breaking out into the nationals. I daresay if I'd gone to Oxbridge I would have had a least half a dozen chums who fell out of bed and into useful, networkable positions on the kind of paper I wanted to work for. But I didn't, and I didn't, and I knew that I would have to make any contacts I would use. It was a comfort to tell myself that I wouldn't have had it any other way.
I had my first brushes with the nationals about two months before my first party-conference season, during a missing-child case that turned into a search for a body and then, about six months later, into a murder case. (It was the stepfather. Imagine everybody's surprise.) The story would normally have been out of my league at the paper, as a new arrival, but I had written the initial "Where's Little Jimmy?" item and so I stayed with it, on and off, until I left. The London hacks were all over it from the start, richer and pushier and yobbier than I had expected, though the man I met and became friends with, Bob Berkowitz, was none of those things. He turned up at the office one day looking for Ken, an old mate from the Brighton Courier, now The Argus's chief reporter. I looked up from my manual typewriter-there's a Flintstones-era detail-and saw a short, shy man with dark curly hair and glasses, carrying a coat and looking tactically bewildered; bewildered in that way people look when they want you to notice and offer help.
"Can I help you?" I asked, almost certainly in a not very helpful way, a twenty-four-year-old girl scowling over a desk.
"Is Ken around?"
"Out on a story."
He looked at his watch, frowning. "But the pubs are shut," he said. I gave him one of those laughs you do to show you appreciate the effort someone's made in making a joke, and we got talking.
Berkowitz was a cut above the usual reptile-that was part of the signal he sent. He wrote longish reportage for The Toxic and was out-of-the-closet-except-to-his-mother-who-probably-knew-but-it-was-never-spoken-about gay. One evening at his flat near Tower Bridge he told me he was "an intellectual," thus becoming the only working journalist I ever heard use the word about himself. We hit it off right from the start.
"It's not so much a piece about the kid's disappearance per se," Berkowitz explained to me later, across the road, in the pub we called The Dead Brian. (Real name, The Red Lion.) "I'm interested in the effect of these crimes on people and on communities. The aftershocks. What happens in the time when the story isn't on the front pages anymore? How do people get on with their lives?"
I was able to help him out with some contacts and background stuff, and he was nicer about asking for it than people from the nationals usually were; they tended to come over all smarmy and "We're all in this together" when they needed a favor, and the rest of the time act like they had it on good authority that their own shit didn't smell. This was something I got a good look at during that conference, Kinnock's second as party leader, the one after the one when he fell on his bum in the water while trying to walk along the beach looking dignified and visionary. That conference has happy memories for me, because it was the occasion of my first break. I went out for a few drinks on the last-but-one evening with Berkowitz and a couple of his London friends. One of them was a broadsheet hack, another was a Tory apparatchik, a back-room boy for one of the big shots, in town for a bit of spying and to write a think-piece for one of the right-wing papers. Berkowitz left early to file some copy, and the rest of us ended up at my flat, where we got exceptionally drunk. I don't remember how the evening finished, other than being sick and going to bed at some point around five, having somehow called a cab for the apparatchik before passing out. The hack was on the sofa, having conked out a while before.
Gosh, how I don't miss so many things about my twenties. I had to work the next day. The morning was heavy going. I kept sneaking off to the loo and dry-retching. At lunchtime there was a buzz from Reception saying someone had come to see me. It was the Tory back-room boy. He was wearing dark glasses and looked as hungover as any human being I had ever seen. At close range I noticed he was trembling slightly. He had changed his suit but still smelled of drink.
"Can we go somewhere?"
For a split second I wondered if we had had sex at some point in the depths of the night before. No-I might be blurry on the details, but I was confident I'd remember that.
There was a crappy hotel with a crappy bar not far away. We went there and he ordered two Bloody Marys. By this time I found I could remember his name: Trevor.
"Feeling a bit rough," he said, playing with the swizzle stick. When he took the shades off, his eyes were bloodshot. We took his-and-her swigs of our drinks.
"Bit out of line last night," he said. "Thing is, I told you a couple of things I shouldn't have. You know. Real D-notice stuff. I'll have to ask you to keep it, er, them, under your, er, hat. I could lose my job."
He was having trouble with his tone. That last remark wasn't sure whether it wanted to be a plea or a threat. I put my hand on his wrist for a second.
"I won't breathe a word."
"I can't tell you how grateful I am."
"Think nothing of it."
"I won't forget this."
He finished his drink. He looked at his watch.
"Don't let me keep you. Thanks for the drink."
"No, thank you."
He scuttled off.
I had then, and have still, no idea what secret he was talking about, but six weeks later I had a call from the diary editor of The Toxic, who had been at university with our Trev. He asked if I could send some clippings and "pop down to London for a chat." That was my first break. ROBIN ROBBINS, diary editor of The Toxic, was the first posh person I ever got to know well. He had a posh person's affectation of using language that either exaggerated or minimized the amount of effort involved in doing something. In his world, people "strolled" over to the East End to cover a gangster's funeral, and "hurtled" to the stationery cupboard to get a new typewriter ribbon. To "pop" meant to take a six-hour round-trip to London by train, and to "chat" meant to undergo a job interview.
He took me to lunch. The restaurant was airy, light, noisy, and metropolitan. The waiters wore blue-and-white-striped aprons cut open across the back to show their bums. One of them flirted with me, which helped me to feel, albeit very faintly, as if I knew what was going on. Robin did a certain amount of Durham/Cardiff/Blackpool small talk, and asked me how I knew Berkowitz, who he said had "something terribly New York about him." (This meant that Berkowitz was Jewish.) Robin asked me what I thought about Princess Diana's dress sense. I called her Lady Diana and he corrected me by using the right locution without any emphasis. Something about him made me aware that for the first time in my life I was meeting someone who would genuinely, literally, given the right circumstances, sell his grandmother. It was an exciting feeling.
"What's the most important thing for any diary journalist?" Robin asked.
I thought: Self-hate. I said:
By the time we got to coffee he was talking about the job.
"The Diary is where new talent gets its first try on the paper. It's our nursery, our colts team, our apprentices' workshop. It's where most people started, present company included. As I said when I rang you, this is not a permanent job, as such. Three months, with the prospect of more work after if we get along, from your point of view as well as ours. By the end of that time you'll probably be my boss, or editing one of our rival papers."
And if it doesn't work out, tough shit. For my leaving do in Blackpool, we went to The Dead Brian and then drunk-drove dodgem cars. THE DIARY WAS a gossip column, and the page-"Dexter Williams's Diary," after its notional founder-was the usual mix of anonymous innuendo and spite and half-truth, concentrating on the worlds of media, showbiz, politics, and the explosively burgeoning field of the famous-for-being-famous. Nothing wrong with that, you might well say, given that it's what the customers are known to want-and Toxic market research showed that Dexter was one of the first things the punters turned to in the morning. The trouble was, I hated everything about it. To get stories you needed contacts, and I didn't have any; plus, not having done anything like it before, I found that I couldn't bear the whole business of picking up fag ends, working stories up out of nothing, and all the rest. One of the ways in which people usually made a start as diarists was by shopping friends-i.e., taking things friends had told them in confidence and turning them into salable pieces. Posh people and people with London connections had a big head start.
To make it worse, I was not the only person who had been taken on to do "my" job. This was standard management practice at The Toxic, part of the culture: you would give two people the same job description and resources, see who came out on top, and then sack the other one, usually by moving them sideways and down to a job they couldn't possibly accept. As a management technique this was impressively horrible. The person given the same job as me was a chubby public school boy called Rory Waters.
On my first day I arrived a careful three minutes early to find him sitting at the next desk, already typing something (what? what?).
"Er, I'm Dawn," I said.
"How d'ye do," said Rory.
"This is Rory," said Robin, arriving out of nowhere and looking, as usual, like the obvious murder suspect in a production of Agatha Christie. "He's just joined us, and he'll be helping us out a bit here too. I'm sure"-this with a hint of menace-"you'll hit it off famously."
Rory was posh, pushy, and thick. He had a round white face with a pink shaving rash around the collar of his striped shirt, and like all the other boys on the diary, he wore suits all the time. Worst of all, everybody at The Toxic seemed to love him. I suppose that was because he didn't mind being a bit of a joke; this made him easy to tease, to laugh with instead of at, and therefore to work with too. The way in which he and the other men on the diary-it was Robin, four other men, and me; I was also the only one educated in the state system-slipped instantly into male-bonded mode could not have wound me up more. I was uptight, on the defensive, constantly aware of being on probation, in a new job, a new city, despising my colleagues and wanting to fit in with them at the same time, doing work that was completely unlike what I'd expected and for which I had no aptitude. Every morning I woke up feeling as if something I'd swallowed was working its way around my stomach.
At the end of my third day at The Toxic, after I'd put together a world-shaking item about some D-list cokehead actor telling a paparazzo to fuck off outside San Lorenzo's, Berkowitz invited me to go for a drink in the Paranoia Factory, as the office wine bar was known. He told me that he was going to leave The Toxic to go and work for a broadsheet I'll call The Sensible.
"They want me to write explanatory narrative pieces," he said, adding, somewhere between pride and sheepishness, "Apparently they liked the stuff I did about little Jimmy in Blackpool."
I felt, not tearful exactly, but the possibility of tears. I knew only one person at The Toxic, and he was leaving.
"Great," I said. "Just great. I'm thrilled for you."
There may be people who do their best work in an environment where they feel friendless, isolated, paranoid, conspired against, tokenized, objectivized, and chippy. I'm not one of them. I will spare the details of the next three months. In Blackpool I had lived in a high-ceilinged flat with a view over the sea; I could come and go without bumping into anyone, and if I had a half-pint of milk in the fridge when I went to bed, I could get up in the morning and be confident it would still be there. I didn't have to listen to anyone else's music, field anyone else's phone calls, console anyone else for their troubles, or remove anyone else's pubic hair from the bath plug. In London, living as I was in a shared house in Stockwell with a solicitor friend from Durham and three of her new London chums, none of that was true. There were sex noises, London noises, bathroom noises, argument noises ("You're the drama queen"); when I came home from work, wanting only to crawl into my burrow and drag the door in after me, I was instead reimmersed into the ongoing, reeking sitcom of communal living. It felt like a major step backward. And although I was better off in notional terms, everything in London was so much more expensive that in practice I had less money. That stank too.
To make things worse, my love life-one of those phrases where you can put inverted commas in any configuration: my "love life," my "love" life, my love "life"-had not thrived. In Blackpool I had been going out with a photographer called Michael Middleton. Or rather, a "photographer" is what he would have called himself if he'd been American; being English, he would tell people that he worked in a bookshop, and let them only gradually realize that photography was his chief interest, his main talent, and the whole of what he wanted to do for the rest of his life. (The British see this kind of thing as a form of modesty. Americans-foreigners in general-see it as an especially invidious form of boasting and superiority complex. Nowadays I agree with them.) He used his wages from the bookshop to subsidize the time he spent taking trendily desolate pictures of Blackpool holidaymakers, the piers and the arcades, condoms washed up on the beach, discarded bags of chips, boarded-up shops, dead seagulls, et cetera.
It was in his place of work, the town's only half-decent bookshop, that I met Michael. I was standing at a shelf of staff recommendations, fingering a copy of Angela Carter's Nights at the Circus with a label on the shelf below it that said, "Her best yet!" signed MM. The other two books on the shelf were the 1985 Good Food Guide with a label reading, "It'll make you hungry: Kevin," and Martin Amis's novel Money with the label "Amy says: Fabulous prose stylist." I was standing there thinking, I'll read this eventually, why not take the plunge now? On the other hand, I was also thinking, £8.95 for a book? And I suppose another part of me was liking the idea of being the kind of twenty-four-year-old femme sÈrieuse who bought new fiction in hardback.
"It's dead good," said a voice behind me with an educated Geordie accent. I turned: a boy my age, skinny, good-looking, black jeans and T-shirt, slightly floppy but the accent worked against that. "I'm the one who put it on the recommended shelf," he added, with a nicely friendly "We Angela Carter fans are in this together" air.
"So it's better than The Bloody Chamber?"
"If you don't like it," he said, "and as long as you don't tell the boss, bring it here and I'll give you your money back."
I bought it, read it, liked it, came back a week or so later, got chatting, went out for a drink, and so on. We started seeing each other.
Michael-and-me went brilliantly at the start, as these things do when they go at all; then we had the usual getting-to-know-you rows, and then settled into a basically pretty good relationship. The trouble was that I made no secret of wanting to move to the nationals in London, whereas Michael, determined to stick to his policy of "It's better oop north," had a big thing about not doing that; so we had no implied future. In fact, those very words used to pop into my head at times, when I thought about Michael and how much I liked him: No implied future.
Few relationships benefit from the people involved living two hundred fifty miles apart. When I moved to London everything began to work less well, including, for the first time, the sex, with me keen to see Michael roughly every other weekend but less keen to spend the entire two days in bed, which is what he wanted to do. I was glad that he wanted it so badly, while at the same time not wanting it quite as much myself. And I must admit that I wondered what he got up to when I wasn't there, since Michael was a good-looking boy, and Blackpool a holiday kind of town. There were also complicated amounts of feeling invested in the fact that if I failed in London, one of the big obstacles to our living together would disappear: I would be free to move back to Blackpool, or wherever, and Michael would be free to move in with me, which is what he said he wanted. So I at some level suspected him of wanting me to fail. I felt I had to soft-pedal my doubts and general downness about The Toxic, because he was enjoying, or taking comfort from, hearing them. Not good, in short.
The day before I moved to London, Michael told me that the business with the staff recommendations shelf had been a scam. He and Amy had switched books so that they could accidentally-on-purpose approach customers they fancied, with their chat-up line already scripted. Amy hated Martin Amis, and Michael had never read a single word Angela Carter had ever written. Kevin, an asexual fatty, had made the only heartfelt choice.
From Fragrant Harbor by John Lanchester (c) June 2002, Putnam Pub Group, used by permission.