From a Publishing House

Perhaps this is a lockdown experience or perhaps it’s a reversion to earlier ways of living and working. We, like so many other families, find ourselves working from home, each in our separate spaces. Bertie’s in the attic, laying-out books with Indesign; Francis somewhere downstairs trying to find the right angle of physical endurance for solid hours of Private Eye deadlines and me … well, to be honest, I’m most characteristically surrounded by WW2 naval memoirs, copies of Lloyd’s Registers and overflowing scribbled papers … in bed. Together with my faithful laptop, miraculously fact-checking and emailing, tweeting and posting. Thus Golden Duck (UK) ltd keeps busy.

One of my favourite Margery Allingham novels Flowers for the Judge (1936) tells the story of Barnabas and company, publishers since 1810 at the Sign of the Golden Quiver. It’s a perfect setting for a classic murder mystery: an enclosed location, limited number of suspects, distinctive atmosphere, range of possible motives – some of which are obvious (greed, jealousy, fraud) and others more interestingly psychological: the festering resentments, unuttered discontents and petty family tyrannies that may have lain dormant for years until, in the detective novelist’s view, Murder shines the spotlight. Allingham had a lifetime’s insight into the tensions of home working …

When I first surfaced, about the age of six, I discovered myself to be the odd 
man out in a community which did nothing but sit in silence and write. We were a successful Edwardian family living on the edge of the Edwardian salt marshes and keeping our own peculiar hours. My father had married his first cousin in his late thirties and had given up editing a London magazine to live in the country and devote himself to writing the rolling melodrama stories […] The other writers were visitors, friends of my father’s, from his days in Fleet Street. There was always someone extra upstairs, working to a press date or finishing some long speculative task.’  

Allingham remembers ‘the exasperated housemaid who once snatched a ragged notebook from my hand and exploded, “Master, missus and three strangers all sitting in different rooms writin’ down lies and now you startin’!”’ Margery joined the ‘fiction factory’; her brother Phil, didn’t – and later fled

I wonder what comment Bertie’s little dog Solo, or Georgeanna’s Nyx, would like to make as they observe us peering at our serried ranks of screens – flinching slightly at the p-dings that announce the arrival of yet another email, then sitting up straighter, giving the hair a comb, trying not to frown, speaking into the glare ...? Although there are no other visitors are not physically writing in the same house, it’s hard to ignore everyone else  ‘working to a press deadline or finishing some long, speculative task’. 

 Francis has the hardest time with deadlines. Now that the staff at Private Eye can’t spread all their pages across a physical wide table and make them up with scissors and paste, in a way even the Allinghams would have understood, they have become uber-organised with constant mini-targets and a world where SLACK means anything but at ease:  ‘Productive teamwork happens in channels’ ‘Stay in the loop, not out’ ‘Give focus a chance’…

A time of isolation and connectedness -- Claudia Myatt, locked down in her Suffolk houseboat might have panicked in March as the gift shops closed and her art students vanished. Instead she sharpened her pencils, focused her thoughts and produced One Line at a Time: why drawing is good for you and how to do it which she beamed to Bertie’s attic. He used his digi-magic to lay out OLAT’s pages, after which the book had a brief paper presence as it spread across my bed for a proof-read. Then all its mega-bytes were bundled up again and We-transferred to King’s Lynn where it’s currently being printed. Publication day 31.7.2020. I recommend it.

In the attic
Some weeks longer will be needed before Golden Duck’s next book -- a 'long speculative task' -- takes the same journey. I’m copy-editing, and Bertie will be typesetting, an ambitious local history project from Waldringfield in Suffolk. It’s the history of a very small village beside the River Deben and has been many years in the making. It’s highly illustrated, ranging from photos taken on glass plates by the son of a c19th rector to C21st drone shots. What has me personally hooked into this project is that one of the houses included by the WHG (Waldringfield History Group) compilers was my grandmother and uncle’s home when I was a child, long,long ago. Immediately after WW2 my father had started his yacht agency there, using some redundant stables. It was where my parents met when my mother came to buy her first boat and as children we were in and out the house every weekend.

View from the design studio

I can only once remember being allowed up to the top floor. That was where my uncle had his design studio with easels and technical drawing tools, rolls of thick tracing paper and wooden half-models. The view across the river was inspirational and if you looked down, you looked onto the boatyard where (in theory) the products of the drawing board were becoming actual wooden objects.  (Later they were GRP as well – but not at that boatyard and not with much enthusiasm from the designer – except as they staunched his spiralling overdraft). The middle floor of the house was where my uncle lived and from there I have only an mixed impression of silk dressing gowns, expensive shirts, a whiff of aftershave and the indefinable atmosphere of ‘goings-on’…

Waldringfield boatyard & moored yacht
viewed from a top window on a stormy day in 1949 

One of the photos I’ve unearthed for the book looks out across the flooded boatyard to a black-painted, foreign-built yacht tossing at her mooring.  I know she was owned by one of my uncle’s particular friends. My mother, who was always the closest woman in my uncle’s life, nicknamed her ‘the Black Barque of Sin’. It was a joke with a frisson. Now I sit at the sign of the Golden Duck – copy-editing – and read the reminiscences of an older village lady who remembered the yacht owner’s bright yellow socks (I remembered them too – and his trademark cravats). She recalled how her mother used to tell her to look away when the skipper and his friends were swimming ‘as nature intended’.  Ah, the black barque of sin…I begin to fantasize about Waldringfield as the setting for a novel, a murder mystery...?

One need escape -- even from the happiest publishing House. Flowers for the Judge begins (and in a different way ends) with a leap out of the everyday world of office drudgery and family pressures into a world of colour and carnival. My daughter, Georgie is offering a ‘streamed’ version of her Dixie Fields country music festival this Saturday, Zooming her audience to Nashville, Tennessee, from a laptop in Essex. Most of her artists, like us, are sitting in their bedrooms or conservatories or back yards, not exactly strumming a guitar and dreaming but grappling with bandwidths and up-load speeds. Will it all work, on Saturday, will the combination of Moonshine and music lift us over the wall into the golden sunset?

I get fed up sometimes with the pressures and the deadlines and the tasks.So I pull the plugs out of my ears, shove the laptop off the bed and read. 

Making his getaway


Jan Needle said…
Ah Julia, Julia, how good it does my heart to read your deathless prose and imagine your amazing literary hothouse in the wilds of Essex. Up here in the frozen north (well, cold and dampish, anyway) life is not dissimilar, with Viv one floor below me wrestling with her historical behemoth about the mad Fifth Marquis and me putting the finishing touches to a Swiftian style fury-outburst about our very own Gang of Two (with a touch of Vain-Govey on the side). Last week it was the awful truth about Shakespeare (I hope you got the paperback I sent you, btw) next week who knows - lockdown she's a funny aminal, ent she? Like you, I guess, I've been dreaming of boats, and glory be, the Welsh have finally agreed to let us Sais across the border, so tomorrow we're driving down to y Felinheli to see my beautiful Shakesbill. Judging by the forecast, looking will be the only thing, but never mind, love moves in mysterious ways, don't she? And Viv will be able to visit the marquis's grave down the road. Two happy bunnies!

Wishing Georgie all the luck in the world for the festival, but tell her to look out for vigilantes. I asked Google to play me (to my mind) one of the finest songs of all time, Travelling Soldier, by the Dixie Chicks, and she obliged instantaneously - 'playing you on Spotify, Travelling Soldier, by the Chicks'. Yup, I heard they were changing their name to get rid of the offending word - but this was instantaneous! I bet Trumpie doesn't know...he'd be appalled.

Roll on tomorrow, and the Menai Strait.
Lydia Bennet said…
Lovely to think of your creative family working away getting stuff done! Good luck with all your projects xxx
Umberto Tosi said…
Only three of you, yet the possibilities seem exponential if not endless. Thanks for this inspiring post that I will save to read again whenever I hit a wall in our quarantined abode.

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