In 1988, I was thirty-one years old. I was a writer in all the senses that count, apart from one: I hadn’t sold a thing, and there seemed to be no real prospect of me selling anything, either. I was working as a teacher in a language school in Soho, London; it was, I feared, exactly the sort of job you drifted into at that age, when you had no real chance of doing the work you really wanted to do. I was afraid of the future—of telling younger colleagues in the year 1999 or 2009, age forty-two or fifty-two, that I was a writer, but a writer whose stuff never got made or published. In the kinds of jobs I had been doing, I met people like that all the time, writers, actors, the occasional ancient musician. They scared me. Meanwhile, the friends I had made at university were all on a career ladder. They were academics or diplomats or journalists or accountants, and they were starting to make money. When I arranged to meet them, I was embarrassed by my own lack of advancement—embarrassed, too, that evenings out couldn’t involve food, because restaurants were too expensive.
If someone had told me that I was a couple of years away from being given a book contract that would change my life, then of course I’d have been happy enough to sit and wait it out. (And I’d have been amazed, too. I’d hardly written a paragraph of prose—all my efforts hitherto had gone into scripts, terrible things intended for the movies but which could just as easily have been performed on the radio, consisting as they did of a handful of conversations between two people.) But I didn’t know that. My suspicion was that I was kidding myself, and that the smart thing to do would be to give up the writing and find myself a proper teaching job, if only so that I could pay for my own pizza sometimes.
The principal of the language school was a few years older than me, a smart, dry, interesting man who, years later, for reasons too involved to explain here, became my psychoanalyst, a job he has held down to this day. He was still training for the shrinkhood back then, although it seemed entirely indicative of our respective prospects that his make-do, pay-the-way job was as a principal of a school, and mine was as a part-time, non-contract teacher. One day he offered me a little bit of extra work at the offices of a large Asian trading company that had just set up in London. “They’ll pay well,” he told me, and he was right: they offered me forty pounds for two hours’ teaching a week, an amount that probably amounted to about a quarter of my weekly wage.
I nearly didn’t take the job. They wanted me to work on Saturday mornings, and I couldn’t think of anything worse. (That is almost certainly true, I now realize. I’ve learned very little over the last couple of decades, but I do now know, regrettably, that there are worse things than setting an alarm clock on a weekend.) I played five-a-side football on Saturday mornings, I explained. They asked me what time the game took place, and I told them eleven o’clock, and they laughed—there was no scheduling clash, as far as they were concerned. They wanted me in at eight, before their day’s work started. (This was the first thing I learned about them: they worked extraordinarily hard, these young Korean sales executives, much harder than anyone in England. Their contracted hours were 8 a.m. until 8 p.m., Monday to Friday, and 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday. When the recession kicked in, a couple of years later, they were told to combat it by working Sundays, too. But those were just the contracted hours. Anyone with any ambition couldn’t be seen knocking off at eight, just as my friends with proper jobs couldn’t leave the office at five.)
I really, really didn’t want to work at eight o’clock on a Saturday morning. Friday nights were always late—my friends and I would often go to a cheap but utterly great nightclub in Kentish Town, the Locomotion, until two or three in the morning. (The music they played at the Locomotion I borrowed wholesale for the club that my narrator Rob ran in my first novel, High Fidelity.) And then there was the five-a-side, and then, every other Saturday, my team, Arsenal, played at home, and even watching football was tiring in those days: you stood, for two and a half hours, on concrete terraces, buffeted by fellow fans. But forty quid…
So I took it, and walked into their offices in Holborn still blinded by sleep and sometimes reeking of booze. I used to prepare a little bit, but mostly, I was told, they wanted conversation, so
I would take in photocopied articles from the Guardian and the Economist, and sometimes we would get around to reading them, studying the vocabulary, talking about the pieces and the week’s news. More often than not, though, the lessons didn’t happen in the way I planned them, and sometimes they didn’t happen at all. Most of them were too busy, at eight o’clock on a Saturday morning, to learn English, and the ones who did turn up needed urgent help with something practical—a letter to a solicitor about a patent or a terminated contract or something else I didn’t really understand. I presumed that they needed my help because the local staff didn’t and wouldn’t work on a Saturday morning, but later on I discovered that there wasn’t really a local staff. The company had so recently arrived, it hadn’t yet really got around to employing anyone.
After a few weeks of being asked about planning permission and the local council and the prevailing economic weather, an idea began to form. What if I offered my services on a regular part-time basis? Like, what if I came in every afternoon and helped them with anything that was going on, anything where it was easier to be English than Korean? My nationality was my main talent, as far as they were concerned, and I could see that, in this place, at that time in the company’s history, my main talent had an economic value. I went to see one of the managers, gave an oral version of the job description, and got offered a job on the spot.
My roommate was a management accountant, and he was paid what seemed to me to be a preposterous amount of money. I told them that I’d work every afternoon for half the salary he earned. They didn’t even blink. And if I had to isolate the single most important moment in my writing career, then that would have to rank in the top two or three. The eternal, moral-sapping question of how to earn money while writing had been answered, without any apparent deliberation on the part of those in a position to pay it. And I did write, too: I was disciplined about it. The first story
I ever sold was written in the mornings I had available, and the first chapters of my first book, and a lot of book reviews in newspapers…
I had a patron, and my patron paid for all that. But between 2 p.m. and 6 p.m., I was an Asian yuppie. On the Tube home, I could feel the ulcers developing, and I know that if I’d been asked to work in the mornings, leaving the afternoons free for writing, I’d just have put a cold flannel over my face and laid down on the floor of a darkened room. No stories or reviews or early chapters would ever have been written.
On the first afternoon, I sat down at the desk that had been found for me, and started to go through the day’s newspapers. I was told to photocopy anything that might be of professional interest and fax it to Head Office. I was happy. This seemed like the sort of job an English graduate who wanted to write should be doing—something that involved literacy, nothing too stressful, an entirely appropriate job for a would-be man of letters who needed money but didn’t want to break a sweat getting hold of it. After a pleasant hour or so reading the sports pages and idly circling an article about inflation, the company secretary called me in to his office.
“Mr. Nick.” (They never did drop the “mister,” in the three years I was there.) “We need the plans for the gardens of Hampton Court Palace. Urgently.”
I gaped at him.
This was an inappropriate question, one that I would eventually learn not to ask. Curiosity was permissible, at some point in the job, but my immediate, knee-jerk “Why?” was a snotty “Why”: it implied, as I meant it to, that I’d do the job only if someone could provide me with a good reason. It was the “Why” of a free-spirited arts graduate, not a company man, and if
I was going to do this job I had to be a company man.
I was new, so he answered me anyway.
“The chairman is building a replica in Seoul.”
This was my introduction to the character and interests of the chairman, a man who I would come to hear a lot about over the next couple of years. As far as I could work out, he owned the company, one of the biggest trading companies in the world. When he spoke, he was heard in a thousand different cities. Sometimes I felt sorry for him, because his whims and musings, it seemed to me, became solidified and real and troublesome when perhaps he didn’t mean them to be. Had he really said, “I want to build a replica of Hampton Court?” Or had he said, “Hey, it would be cool if we had a replica of Hampton Court here,” and then chuckled, the way that you or I might have done, possibly when stoned? It never would have occurred to him that he would thus be causing trouble and stress for somebody half a world away.
I took a train down to Hampton Court, which is in the southwestern suburbs of London. It was Henry VIII’s favorite palace. Its gardens are famous, a tourist attraction; there’s a maze that has been there for hundreds of years. When I got there, I wandered around aimlessly, asked the person in the gift shop if the plans were for sale, bought a guidebook, and went back to the office.
“I couldn’t find them,” I said cheerfully. Job done. Well, undone, anyway. But, you know, done as far as I was concerned. Done because it couldn’t be done, so it was now someone else’s problem.
“Tomorrow, please,” said the company secretary, with an awful finality.
I should point out at this point that there was no internet back then. There were faxes and telephones, although nobody had a cell phone. Research was laborious, and invariably involved going somewhere. I should also point out that I am a can’t-do person. If a job is hard, then my philosophy is that it’s best to give up on it straightaway, especially if it contains the potential for embarrassment. Writing was fine; you just had to write. Selling the work to anyone—an agent or publisher or producer—was impossible, though, because that might at some point involve a phone call that only a big-head or a show-off or someone with some sense of his own self-worth would make. (I may well have taken the afternoon job because it would allow me to write forever: I could stick my work in a brown envelope, send it to some people who would never read it, and then start on something else without ever having to speak to anyone.) I suddenly saw that this job might have the potential for endless, permanent, excruciating embarrassment. It might involve pestering people, for example—soon enough I would find out that it would involve phoning people who’d hung up on you ten minutes previously—and I could always see the reasons why they wouldn’t want to give me something I was asking for. Maybe this sympathy would be useful in my morning job, but it wasn’t much use to me here. When you’re an Asian company man, the ability to see another person’s point of view is a disadvantage.
In the year or so that had elapsed between my starting the Saturday-morning teaching job and the part-time office job, my weekly football had moved to a Monday-night slot. People had started having kids, and their weekend time was more precious. Coming out of the Underground station, I bumped into one of my teammates, a guy I didn’t know that well, and on the way to the sports hall, I started telling him about my new job. He was mystified by it, probably because I couldn’t really understand it myself.
“Like, what sort of thing?”
“Today they asked me to find the plans for the grounds at Hampton Court. I mean—”
“Oh, we’ve got them,” he said.
I looked at him. He was serious.
“I’m a landscape architect,” he said. “We’ve got all that stuff.”
I called in to his office on my way to work the following day, and then marched in to my office brandishing the photocopies they needed. I was gleeful and somewhat amazed: I’d actually achieved the hard-looking thing they had asked me to achieve. They were politely grateful, but not amazed in the least. This was what they had paid me to do, and I had done it. It was no big deal.
At the beginning of the following week, they asked me to buy an equestrian center. There was a note on my desk, waiting for me. “PLEASE BUY EQUESTRIAN CENTER,” it said. (Why? Because the company was going to be sponsoring its country’s equestrian team at the next Olympics, and England, it had been decided, was the best place for training.)
When you’re a can’t-do kind of a guy, this isn’t a message you want to read. And, as luck would have it, they’d picked another area of life about which I knew literally nothing. I thought of a couple of counties in the southern half of England where, it seemed to me, equestrianism might be going on, phoned a couple of estate agents, asked if they had any equestrian centers for sale. They didn’t. I went back to reading the sports pages and circling the inflation articles.
Two hours later, my boss called me in.
“Have you found an equestrian center?” he asked me.
“No,” I said. “But, you know. Early days.”
This was supposed to be a piece of comical understatement, a joke about how he was expecting an equestrian center less than one hundred and twenty minutes after asking for one, but it was a joke that could work only if my boss and I shared the same sense of time passing. We didn’t. These were not early days to him. These were late days. I, meanwhile, had privately estimated that this job would take between six months and forever. My plan was to leave messages with a couple of estate agents every week for a while or as long as I could be bothered, and the word would get out that, in the unlikely event of an equestrian center coming on the market, we would snap it up. What more could be done?
“So what will I say to Head Office tonight?”
“I must give a report tonight.”
This was now officially hilarious. I was working for people who saw no reason why an equestrian center couldn’t be located and bought in a day. And they had employed me, a man who could only just manage to locate and buy a packet of cigarettes in a day.
“Tell them we’re scouring the country.” My boss didn’t know the word scoured. He was pleased to make its acquaintance, and I went home feeling as though I’d achieved something.
I was learning quite a lot about the company quite quickly, if only because I had to recruit local secretarial staff for the Asian sales managers. Quite often, I had conversations like this:
“So… you need an assistant?”
“What shall I say you do?”
There would be a long sigh and a shake of the head.
“Ah, very bad job. Sports shoes and pianos.”
I stared at him, to see if he was pulling my leg, but it wasn’t a leg-pulling kind of place. He really was supposed to sell sports shoes and pianos. His competitors were Nike and Steinway, both at the same time, and he was entirely on his own, although I was about to provide him with a seventeen-year-old assistant. Once I spoke to a man who was running the company advertising agency. He was on his own too. No creatives, no account directors, no basketball hoops, nothing, apart from a smallish desk in an open-plan office. Head Office was expecting him to poach business from Saatchi, Saatchi, Ogilvy, and Mather. Back home, the company sold everything there was to sell, and it had its own chain of department stores to sell it in. The London office was beginning to make me sad: it reminded me of King Lear, robbed of his power, unable to understand quite why the entire country wouldn’t jump to attention when told to. In a way, it was good that they’d employed a can’t-do guy, because it seemed to me that they had to learn that some things can’t be done. The manager running the ad agency was as can-do as you can get, but it wasn’t going to help him.
I phoned my half brother, who had grown up in a different place from me, and went riding a lot when he was a kid.
“I have to buy an equestrian center,” I told him.
He laughed for a long time. He knew I had no interest in horses, and he also knew that I had absolutely no ability to accomplish anything that men in suits accomplished during their working days. (I wore a cheap suit to work, by the way. A cheap suit, a cheap tie, and a cheap shirt.)
“So what should I do?” I asked when he had stopped laughing.
“I don’t know. Phone the guy at the place where I used to ride. He probably knows about other equestrian centers.”
So I phoned him, and he laughed too. But he was laughing, it turned out, because he’d been dreaming for years of receiving a phone call like this one. He was desperate to get rid of his establishment. By the end of the week, my employers had visited him and had an offer accepted. (A few months later, it turned out that they had bought the wrong size of equestrian center, and they had to sell up and buy another one.)
Once Head Office found out that I was working there, I began to receive faxes addressed to me personally. These faxes were always marked “TOP URGENT,” and would frequently contain a request that seemed so extraordinarily eccentric that on occasions I began to feel like a Candid Camera victim. “WHAT IS DEFINITION OF DRINKING WATER IN UK?” “WHAT WAS SCIENTIFIC BACKGROUND OF WRITER JONATHAN SWIFT?” “WHAT IS A GOOD SPACE IN A MUSEUM?” “HOW MUCH DOES ORPAHANGE COST?” And invariably it turned out that I knew someone who knew something, just as I had done in the Hampton Court case, and the equestrian-center panic. I discovered that my friend Sarah, for example, was friends with a museum consultant. (I discovered at exactly the same time that this was an actual job.) But we employed him, and he wrote us a report on the space that was being offered for sponsorship in a prestigious London museum. They never read it. They looked at its thirty or forty pages with some alarm, and said to him, “Good space? Or bad space?” There was never time for nuance.
It was all weird, and stressful, and sort of satisfying, and then, one day, there was a message on my desk that changed everything. “PLEASE BUY PEDIGREE DOGS,” it said. “CRUFTS WINNERS ONLY.” Our chairman, I discovered, was one of the most avid dog breeders in South Korea. He loved his pedigree dogs, and he wanted to buy the best. Crufts is our big dog show. In the U.K., it’s proverbial. Owners groom their dogs and train them and send them to the hairdresser and put little cardigans on them and teach them to talk, and the BBC puts the whole thing on TV, or used to, anyway. Now it probably has its own cable channel.
I am not a big fan of the dog, but then, I hadn’t been a big fan of Jonathan Swift or horses or water or any of the other things I’d been doing. It didn’t matter. It was just another job. I went to the newsagent, bought a magazine about dogs, turned to the classified ads at the back, and started ringing around.
This was probably sometime in 1990, a couple of years after the Seoul Olympics, and it seemed that people had retained two facts from the entire event. The first was that Ben Johnson took drugs to make him run faster; the other was that Koreans ate dogs. My conversations with owners of Crufts-pedigree puppies went like this:
“Oh, hi. I’m ringing on behalf of a Korean multinational company, and we’re interested in…”
“Oh, hi, I’m ringing on behalf of a multinational company, and we’re interested in buying any puppies you might have for sale.”
“What’s the name of the company?”
(I told them the name of the company.)
“Where are they from?”
These puppies would have cost tens of thousands of pounds. And though the chairman of our company was rich, even he wasn’t going to spend that kind of money on a meal. It never did any good, though, when I tried to explain that. The dog owners were not about to let their teased and blow-dried babies go off to make soup on the other side of the world.
Eventually, after weeks of embarrassment and pestering and calling people back who had just hung up on me, I opened a dialogue with a pedigreed-dog owner. He wouldn’t sell us a dog; he would, however, be interested in talking to us about what we were prepared to do to outlaw Korean dog-eating. We opened a dialogue with an animal-rights organization. The animal-rights organization opened a dialogue with Head Office. Two of my superiors flew over the Arctic in a helicopter to see the work that the animal-rights organization was doing in the field of seal-clubbing. (They wanted me to go with them, but I couldn’t see how a trip to the Arctic was going to fit in with my afternoon hours.) Within a few weeks of receiving the initial fax, I was overseeing an intricate web of discourse involving literally hundreds of people, animals, and welfare groups. Even my can-do Koreans were daunted, seeing as they all had day jobs as well, selling microchips and sports shoes and pianos.
Finally, after many, many hours of dinners and visits and top-urgent negotiations, we had done enough: we were allowed to buy a puppy. We collected it, put it in a little cage, and sent it to Seoul. And the chairman ate it! Just kidding. But the puppy we sent did provoke in him a huge hunger for more and more and more puppies. I was no longer an all-rounder, the guy who took care of the letters and the recruitment and the museum sponsorship; I was the full-time dog purchaser. My despair was real and profound, and ended only by an advance for my first book.
Soon after I’d left, the company stopped trying to sell everything and concentrated on selling electronic goods; within a few years, it had earned itself a household name. It was hard to see that happening while I was there, but then, I missed all the signs: the dedication to somebody else’s cause, the hard work and discipline, the willingness to bury irritation and dissent. I just thought that everyone except me was nuts. In the meantime, my can’t-do spirit remains undimmed, although luckily I work for myself, in the field of the arts, so any tantrums I throw have to be understood, tolerated, indulged.
And, like the business I worked for, South Korea’s economy continues to grow. It grew 6 percent last year; it grew even during the global financial crisis. I’m sure there are many reasons why this should be so—most of them beyond the scope of this essay and the comprehension of the person writing it—while economies in the West lurch from crisis to crisis; I’m just as sure that one of the reasons is the recognition that, for a country to do well, its people, even those with education and ambition, have to do stuff they don’t want to do. Meanwhile, my patron paid my rent, while
I trained to be someone who could do what he wanted for the rest of his life. For a couple of years back there, afternoons only, I was somebody else.