Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Issue 12: Operating out of your depth

Although we “take” the Guardian in our house on Saturday, I often wonder if the wife puts the paper into our shopping trolley just to ensure that I have a rant, which I suspect she enjoys more than the rag itself. The Guardian’s Weekend magazine is the first section we turn to, but, sadly, for the wrong reasons. Its women’s fashion spread, “All Ages”, is as far removed from Vogue as you can imagine, a dreary serving of maladroit mishmash, where expensive clothes are thrown together with such little thought that you have to assume the stylist, Priscilla Kwateng, is blackmailing somebody in the Guardian boardroom. It’s criminally poor – I might call the police. This sort of ostentatious cluelessness is an anomaly in the newspaper world. Usually, if you’re not up to the job, you’re quickly found out. But Kwateng has an immunity that defies belief.

Although I’m a writer, I was once erroneously employed by the Mail On Sunday as a freelance designer. I stuck if out for three days before bailing. It remains the toughest freelance booking of my entire career. I’d just returned from a stint in Japan, writing gadget pieces for British magazines. It wasn’t the happiest time. I soon realised I’d made a dreadful mistake flitting to Tokyo – not helped by my arrest at Narita airport as a suspected industrial spy. Back in London, desperately in need of graft, a design pal called Kev asked if I fancied a few days at the Mail On Sunday as, I assumed, a sub-editor.

The cash was great – this was 1998, and it was a better day rate than I’m on in 2013. I walked into the Kensington office with a big smile, thinking I’d made it. I was met by Kev, who seemed anxious to have a quiet word. “Now Lee,” he said in low tones, “I’ve got you in as a designer, no, listen, all you need to do is sit next to me, do a bit of scanning, make lots of tea, and by the end of the week you’ll have enough cash to get a round of canny eeyels in.” Eeyels = ales; Kev’s a Geordie. He didn’t say canny, but I’m using artistic licence. Probably didn’t say eeyels, either.

I’ve never known minutes to tick backwards before. This was a newspaper, remember, where hard-boiled, extremely capable writers, subbers and designers plied their trade. No hiding places – this was the real deal. I felt like a child sitting next to my big, art Apple Mac and scanner. I’d never scanned anything in before, but quickly learnt – I wrote down instructions in my notebook. For the first two days, when Kev went to the toilet, I felt as exposed as a British soldier at Dunkirk, waiting in line to board a troopship. By Wednesday, I was a wreck. Just before dinnertime on Wednesday, Kev nipped to the lav, leaving me staring at a half-designed double-page spread on my massive computer screen. No sooner had he left the office than the angry editor, a furious woman, drifted with visible agitation in my direction like a glowing spectre from Poltergeist. “Please don’t come to me, please don’t come to me,” I said. My words were like a magnet to her.

“Oh, you’re the designer, aren’t you?” she cawed. “Could you get Lord Arlwood’s food column on the screen, because I want to make some severe, very tricky alterations to the layout that would take even a competent designer to the edge of his training and capability?”

At first, I thought I’d disregard the command or pretend that I was hard of hearing, but you can’t go around ignoring editors, so I replied, “Err.”
“The food page, the food page, be quick, I haven’t got all day.”
“I’ve been… told… by Kevin… to specifically… specifically not to touch that page, because he wasn’t… happy… with the final… typeface.”
“Typeface, there’s nothing wrong with the typeface! I’m the editor, let’s make a start and he can contribute when he gets back from lunch.”

Lunch? Had he buggered off for an hour and not told me? I glanced at the server, which was by now a jumble of words. I’d gone dyslexic. Your body can be your worst enemy in these situations. “Let’s have a little look,” I said slowly, stalling, stalling, stalling. With some agony, I managed to locate the file and just as I was about to click on it, which would have spelt personal disaster and a great deal of awkwardness and embarrassment, Kev rushed back to his desk.
“I’m just about to work on the cookery page,” I told him, “the page you told me not to touch.”
“Lee, go and take your lunch, mate, I’ll sort this.”

Outside, on Kensington’s wide pavements, I breathed like Andy Dufresne in Shawshank Redemption after he’d escaped from prison, taking in the sweet air of freedom. For an hour, I lay on some grass in a park, thinking, wondering what I was going to do. Pickles were alarmingly frequent during this time. When I returned to the office, I admitted to Kevin, “I can’t do this any more, I’m dying here – today will have to be my last day. I’ll be found out.”
Kev seemed to find the whole scenario amusing and said, “Orkee.”
“It’s getting to the point where I’m having to follow you to the toilet,” I added, “like I’m frightened, like a Mary Ann.”
“I’ll cover you if you can stick it out till Friday,” he said.
“The editor suspects I’m a halfwit,” I told him. “This is like representing Great Britain at swimming with armbands on – but I do appreciate what you’re doing for me.”
Kev let me leave at 5pm. I think I drank four pints in quick succession once I’d reached the nearest pub.

Is every working day like that for Kwateng? Has she become a shivering pigeon, terrified that the next email or phone call will spell the end? I somehow doubt it  – she’s been at the Guardian for donkey’s years. Kwateng’s either bone idle, doesn’t give a s***, or believes she has the Midas touch. I firmly suspect it’s the latter. Has anybody ever taken Kwateng to task, and had the guts to say, “By crikey, lady, you must think we’re tapped!” If I was the Guardian editor, I’d race towards Kwateng’s fashion cupboard, kick open the door, fling her keyboard, clothing rails and contacts book out into the hallway, and then holler, “Out, out, out, out, out, out, out, out, out, out, out, out! You’ve taken too much from this place already! What do you think you are, radged? Skedaddle!!” How is it that Kwateng can dress women in a series of car-crash fashion statements, yet be assured a stonking pay packet every month? It’s completely wrong in my book.

Well, that’s women’s fashion covered. On the subject of male dress sense, it’s a very troubling time for footwear. Unless you like brogues popularised by Messrs Silly, Noisy or Small, pointy estate-agent slip-ons, Dickensian chimney-sweep’s boots, Lord Fauntleroy dandy slippers or flimsy shoes with Wall’s ice-cream wafers for soles, you’re effectively left with the Tarzan option – wear nowt on your feet. Liking a shoe is difficult enough nowadays, but even in the rare instance that you can live with a style, the fit is often crippling. It’s said that you have to wear in decent shoes. Recently, I bought a pair of traditional Dr Martens 1461 shoes that, over the space of year, refused to yield. They had a lifetime guarantee, but ended up at the Red Cross shop on Green Lanes. No doubt they’re wringing some poor devil's feet in North London as I write.

Dr Martens 1461 shoes certainly look the business, but they chew your heel into a bloody pulp, like an inverted kicking from a skinhead! Walking down a street in 1461s is like stepping across an oak floor in bare, bruised feet. Basically, any DM with a heel gives me problems – I’ve learnt that the hard way. Stick with a wedge sole and you’ll be fine, because the weight is evenly spread. In 2011, DM sold a superb casual shoe in blue, black or red called the Valin Monkey. With a white wedge sole and white stitching on the Tectuff leather, they’re the most fantastic shoes I’ve ever worn. They lasted a year. Hugely comfortable and a real standout piece, as soon as DM knew of my love for the Valin Monkey, the varmints halted all production and burnt the instructions on how to make them.

I contacted Air Ware International, DM’s parent company in Northampton, pleading with them to re-start Valin Monkey production, but they told me they had no intention of ever making them again, that they were s***, that they were embarrassed they’d ever designed them, and that if they found any for sale on any website, they’ll buy them and destroy them. However, if you’ve got monstrous gorilla feet, you can still find the odd pair of size 12s or 13s on eBay or Amazon – but be quick, because DM want to wipe them from the face of the earth.

In London’s Fred Perry Laurel Wreath shops at the moment, there’s an interesting monkey-boot collaboration with George Cox, yours for a stiff £150. They’re menacingly cool, albeit well clear of my price bracket. But if you take a look in Sherry’s of London (, just off Carnaby Street, there’s a very passable monkey boot on sale for £50 – and they’re pretty comfortable, too. I bought some on Monday. On the tube the next morning, with oxblood skinhead monkeys replete with yellow stitching and yellow laces and a copy of One Hundred Days: The Memoirs Of The Falklands Battle Group Commander by Admiral Sandy Woodward in my hand, I may have resembled an aggro merchant with much to say on the topic of immigration. At least I got some space in the carriage – and anyway, the rate of actual racist skinheads was pretty low, I’m led to believe.

I’m desperately short of round-neck T-shirts right now, so do let me know if you see anything I might like. Swedish fashion brand Fjällräven, my favoured north European outfitter for casual matters since 2005, with its exotic umlauts, seem to have stopped making tees completely – maybe Dr Martens has bought the company and specifically ceased production of the items I like. When it comes to fashion, it certainly pays to be a big fat bloater. If you’re XL and have feet that could easily fill out two canal barges, you can effectively cherry pick the best fashion and footwear from the last five years at knockdown prices. I might have to buy an 808 State or New Order T-shirt to see me through, or start stuffing my face with pies.

It was my magazine’s annual awards ceremony in a swanky Central London location earlier this week. It was a black-tie event, but I steer clear of dicky bows. You’ve got to be a man’s man to pull off a style like that – Daniel Craig’s James Bond looks fantastic in the full dinner-jacket ensemble, but it makes me feel like a fraud. A true alpha male will always wear an evening suit well; I noticed that Michael Douglas, Sir Bobby Charlton and Wilko Johnson from Dr Feelgood were perfectly at ease in their formal get-up, but if you show any fear or weakness, a dinner-jacket with dicky bow will wear you. Instead, I just get my funeral tie out of the drawer and that suffices.

Me and the wife got talking to artist Tracey Emin for 20 minutes, in which we covered such diverse topics as Margate beach, the swimming pool in her London studio, synth groups (“Oh, I love New Order,” Emin declared) and the meaning of feng shui. She was a dream conversationalist. And then, unlike almost any other star I’ve spoken to, Emin asked what me and the wife did for a living, and took genuine interest in our less-than-glamorous existences. At the end of the chat, Emin made her excuses – she had to mingle. But before she whipped off, she mentioned, “Do you know what, I don’t think I’ll meet more lovely people than you two tonight,” and with that she sauntered into the crowd. Now, that’s style.