No I haven’t got a job just now and I don’t actually want one, but thanks for the offer – it’s a very kind thought but I have far too much on, unfortunately. But that wasn’t always the case. At one point I was desperate for a job – almost, but not quite, any job.

The author’s leaving card from Associated Book Publishers, 1985

I found this object the other day. It’s a “we’ll miss you” leaving card from December 1985, from my first job after I came to London from Oxford. As I wrote in The Lost Thesis, it was with great relief and joy that, in July 1984, after months of unsuccessful applications, I found employment in Britain’s glorious publishing industry and left the neuroses of Oxford behind me. The company, which occupied half of a 12-storey block at 11 New Fetter Lane (demolished in 2005) bore the unprepossessing name of Associated Book Publishers; however, its many imprints included Methuen, Chapman and Hall, and Sweet and Maxwell. When I arrived, they were riding high on the back of Adrian Mole. There were two or three legendary publishing folk around the place: for example, chief executive Michael Turner, who sported a publisher’s bow-tie, had translated Tintin (thus inventing, along the way, household names like Snowy and Captain Haddock).

My colleagues were a friendly bunch, many of whom it was a pleasure to socialise with. Looking at these signatures brings back memories – though there are some missing and others I don’t remember at all. By one of those inscrutable mysteries of fate, Linda (message top left) is now a near neighbour.

I wonder how many actually did miss me, and for how long?

I learned a great deal in that job about marketing and printing processes (camera-ready copy, type area, solus, loose insert, bromide paper, ozalid, chromalin, white out of black, spot colour, linen tester, marking up, casting off… ) Another thing I discovered was that, despite employers spending time and money in appointing and training you there is very little loyalty shown to staff. They expect absolute loyalty from you, naturally. But when push comes to shove, you will be shoved. That’s just the way it is, and don’t kid yourself otherwise.

I was, and perhaps still am, a rather naïve person

What I didn’t realise that my immediate boss, a young woman, saw me as a threat. I respected her experience and ability, and thought we got on well. Of course I was ambitious and I probably let it show. On one occasion I mentioned that our MD, John Naylor, had loaned me a book by Peter Drucker on management. She must have thought: why did he give it to him and not me? (Answer: because I had asked his advice and she hadn’t.) I also liked to go out of a lunchtime with “the lads” (the few of the male persuasion), which entailed a trip to the pub once or twice a week. (I was working at home most evenings to make up for it, but that did not show.) After six months I was casually informed that my probationary period was to be extended, which meant I was stuck on £6,000 a year and couldn’t apply for other vacancies within the company. Apparently “they” thought I was an academic at heart who wasn’t really interested in publishing as a business. But I wasn’t given the opportunity to discuss it.

Thanks very much for the feedback…

It was a low point, and I admit I felt rather sorry for myself. I had just arrived in London, I had very little money and I seemed to be working harder than anyone, because the telephonists put every book-related query through to me (hence I had to work late to catch up). My private life was a shambles, I already felt stressed, and now this! A month or two later my manager decided to leave to become a teacher and, in the absence of her boss on maternity leave, I had to organise a card and collection for her. We collected so little money that I doubled it out of my own pocket to make up a respectable sum! Then I had to choose and buy a present and make a speech to someone with whom I had zero rapport. It was an exercise in hypocrisy.

One year into my new job, I finally saw how things stood. No-one was going to look after my interests but myself. Right then. First, make those little corrections to my thesis so I could collect my M. Litt and get that part of my life out of the way. I had a new manager, the recently-appointed marketing director, so I made sure that I got myself promoted and acquired my own assistant. More responsibility, more money and more control. And then the aforementioned Linda came back from the New York branch. She knew everything about marketing books and helped me a lot.

Time to find another job?

I’ve never believed in the “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” philosophy, but there are times when you have to toughen up and take control of your life. I found a new abode near Clapham Common – just one large room in someone’s house but much more comfortable. Now living in London wasn’t such a struggle.


One September day, my assistant, the lovely Polly, was looking at THES (we advertised in it) and suddenly said “Colin – here’s a job for you”. She was absolutely right: it was a Sales Promotion position in the British Library’s publishing office. I applied and got it. They wanted me to stay on for a while but, strangely enough, I didn’t feel inclined to do them any favours and took a week’s holiday. In due course Polly got my old job, so everyone was happy.

The job advert that changed my life

And so I joined the British Library in January 1986 and only left in March 2015, when I retired at the age of 60. But although I was supposed to be “an academic at heart”, I never became a curator, nor wanted to be. “They” were wrong. So there.

One thought on “Getting a job – then leaving it

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