Ticket to Detroit

There’s a piece by Robert McCrum that’s been widely circulated and on the face of it paints a good elegiac portrait of life after Britain’s publishing boom. We all know the story. Back in the day writers got too much money and not enough exposure (Martin Amis said that he wasn’t asked for an interview until around book four). Now, there’s too much exposure and not enough money. McCrum: ‘After a period of prosperity and tranquillity for British fiction that ran for about a generation (circa 1980 to 2007), writers are now being confronted with the hardship of literary artists through the ages.’ And: ‘since the credit crunch of 2008 writers have been tightening belts, cutting back and, in extreme cases, staring into an abyss of penury.’

But then, we get this:

Rupert Thomson is the author of nine novels, including The Insult (1996), which David Bowie chose for one of his 100 must-read books of all time, and Death of a Murderer, shortlisted for the Costa Novel of the Year awards in 2007… In short, he’s an established and successful writer with an impressive body of work to his name.

After working seven days a week without holidays, and now approaching 60, Thomson, you might think, must be looking forward to a measure of comfort and security as the shadows of old age crowd in. But no. For some years he has rented an office in Black Prince Road, on London’s South Bank, and commuted to work. Now this studio life, so essential to his work, is under threat. Lately, having done his sums and calculated his likely earnings for the coming year, he has commissioned a builder to create a tiny office (4ft 9in x 9ft 11in) at home in his attic, what he calls ‘my garret’.

The space is so cramped that Thomson, who is just over 6ft, will only be able to stand upright in the doorway, but he seems to derive a certain grim satisfaction from confronting his predicament.

After I posted this on Twitter I got intelligent responses from an admirer of Thomson’s. I’ll say again that I appreciate the scary aspects of financial insecurity in old age. I’ve read some of Thomson’s books and I wish him well. But can we hear the plaintive strings of the world’s smallest violin? Could not the article be rounded of by at least an acknowledgement that most writers cannot afford studio space on the South Bank?

Maybe I’m being harsh. Perhaps this could be the next Guardian’s Christmas appeal. ‘Just £11,765 of your spare change will buy two months’ lease on a delightful Belsize Park walkup with gorgeous views of the Heath, an antique black Occa Maison writing-desk and a restored 1920s gramophone for that perfect midlister working environment’.

Here’s a classic post from SJ Bradley, for that sense of perspective that you don’t get from Thomson and McCrum:

Accept that your life will not follow a usual trajectory. You’ll see your peers have lovely things; they’ll wriggle up the career ladder at work, while you concentrate your energies on writing. Your friends will most likely live in a bigger, nicer house than you. You, in contrast, will spend hours scratching away at a desk, making up stories in your head, earning no money, and receiving legions upon legions of form rejections (or at least, at first)… I don’t have any answers for this, other than that if you want to live in a big house and have a steady, reliable stream of income, you might want to rethink your career options.

Quite so. It’s a tough old world.

Still, if all else fails, we can move to Detroit!


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