On the way to work I’m greeted by a flattened wreath and bundles of Christmas trees all grouped together on the corner of the street. Pine needles are all over the pavements along with puddles of urine. The little dogs (they are mainly little round where I live) are back from their holidays. The bus is rammed to the rafters and it’s not helped by the fact that some bus stops have been closed and so there are larger groups of people at some of the stops than usual.
In Caffé Nero I drink my coffee and read the paper. A couple of headlines stand out. One on obese hedgehogs in need of home improvements and another saying that if you have too much stomach fat your brain will shrink. Oh dear! I wonder how much my brain will shrink when I lob the apricot croissant that I have just bought down my throat at about 1 o’clock. Caffé Nero is eerily empty. Maybe everyone has decided to save the pounds they spend on coffee in January.
All decorations are cleared from the shop and we have a tonne of deliveries.
I eye the over one hundred books on Elvis we still have. We’ve had them for rather a long time now. No one can bring themselves to throw them away. It could be said that we are caught in a trap. There must be someone out there, mustn’t there, who longs for these books? Over one hundred books on the King. Come on …
A book comes in called Mortification. The subtitle is: Writers’ stories of their public shame. Obviously I have to have it. It is followed by Michel de Montaigne’s essays. Someone has stuck a dinosaur sticker on his left ear so it looks like a rather unusual earring. It’s fab. I decide to buy this as well and I do not remove the dinosaur. I think Montaigne would approve.
Customers come in with tales of woe. A mother came for Christmas she caught a cold and now she has heart failure. January is always filled with death and disease. Business isn’t exactly clipping along. I could do with a little less conversation of the gloomy kind.
At the very end of the day a shifty looking man asks how much our audio cassettes are. We have a huge box of them. There is a group discussion and we arrive at the price of £1. When I tell him he says, ‘More like 50p,’ in a sort of sneering snarl and I want to hit him between his mean little eyes. It is amazing how often people come into the shop and try and bargain down our prices. Their thinking, I imagine, is that you got this stuff for nothing so you can sell it to me for less. I hate them. My colleagues are better at dealing with this than I am. I tend to shame people by repeating the phrase, ‘We are a charity…’ about 100 times followed by, ‘We have a duty both to the charity and to the people who donate to us to get a good price for the items/books they give us. We have to respect the effort they made to bring the books to us.’ Because it is an effort. And they could take them elsewhere. There are about three other charity shops along our street. But it’s never a good idea to get into a face-off and in my heart of hearts I don’t believe in shaming people, however much I might dislike what they are doing. And to be honest if you’re bargaining over prices in a charity shop you are probably beyond shame anyway, so there we are. As I leave, I see the man scavenging over our donated books which have not yet been priced up. He is also looking at the Elvis books. My suspicious mind does not think he will be making an offer on them any time soon. Oh well, the next shift can have the pleasure of dealing with him and his blue suede shoes. No, he didn’t have any but I couldn’t resist…
On the bus home I glance at Mortification and can’t help noticing that out of 72 contributors only 15 are women. The editor in the introduction says that he asked for contributions from an equal mix of men and women. I wonder if women are affected more by shame, feel it more deeply and therefore found it too painful to contribute and then I feel really, really angry.
So here is my story of writerly mortification.
The first book of mine that was published was part of a large promotion of nine debut crime writers. Four of us were from the UK, five from abroad. The ones from abroad had all been published, I think, the year before in their respective countries. One from Italy, one from Alaska, and three from America. They all had some kind of publishing history and I’ve no idea how much they were paid for their books. The group nature of the way that we were published was unusual and it meant that we ended up spending quite a lot of time together, wine was drunk etc. It emerged that one of our UK number, X, had been paid an advance roughly four times the rest of us. He was also the one most worried that he might have been paid the least, so he had gone round asking us all what our advances were. The reason he had been paid four times the rest of us was unclear – it always is – none of us had been published before. But it might have had something to do with the fact that he had worked for a well known media outlet and publishers are complete tarts for journalists or anyone involved with the media because they think they have useful contacts that they will exploit on their own behalf. In my opinion his editor or someone at the publishers should have told him to keep his mouth shut about what he had been paid but they hadn’t and he was a loose canon. It was just one of those WTF moments in a writer’s life that you have to suck up but I was younger then and naive about the publishing business and the whole thing made me feel sick, very upset and well, mortified. You see, I didn’t think his book was four times better than mine.
Later, I ended up doing an event with this same writer. It was a crime panel in Newcastle and the title of the panel was ironically Making Crime Pay. On the panel was the crime writer Sheila Quigley, who had had a very well publicized advance for a two book deal of £300,000 which was roughly 38 times what I had been paid. She had a fantastic back story was a very nice woman and I didn’t begrudge her a penny of it. But it was also clear that she had made a spectacularly better job of making crime pay than me or indeed X. It was also obvious that everyone had come to see Sheila, (her books are set in the North East) all the questions were for her and afterwards a long queue formed for her to sign her book. I remember simply not knowing what to do with myself. I started sort of spinning on the spot, maybe in the hope that I would turn myself into enough of a blur so that I would be rendered invisible or perhaps that I might turn into Wonder Woman and fly off somewhere. Does Wonder Woman fly? Or maybe I was looking for the exit. I remember desperately searching for wine and not finding any. I remember feeling as if I had lock jaw. I remember X who had a certain boyish demeanor being surrounded by a group of youngish women. One of the organisers very sweetly came up and asked me to sign a copy of my book. It was the only one I signed. Eventually they took us all out for a meal. My last contact with X was watching him insist that a taxi he was taking somewhere quite far out of town would definitely be paid for by the organisers.
Well, there we are, that wasn’t so bad was it? Give me another twenty years and I might even manage to make that funny.