One of our regular long-term clients at Admiral pops in every other Tuesday, regular as clockwork (or at least as regular as a clock that takes in fortnights as well as seconds, minutes and hours), and adds more material to his collection.
He is not one of my customers who stops for a chat, and he always has a preoccupied look on his face as he comes in, unlocks his container, deposits something from his briefcase, and then walks out again.
But just recently he seemed a little lighter in his step, and there was a fraction of a smile on his face, so I took the opportunity and made so bold as to ask him what it was that he used the service for.
He gave me a long and penetrating look for a few seconds – the sort of look that is generally only delivered by those who spend an awful lot of time on their own – before finally replying.
“Imagine,” he said, “that you worked full time, five days a week, sometimes maybe even six or seven days a week, but didn’t get paid.”
“Why would I not be paid?” I asked, but he put his hand up, rather imperiously I thought, and clearly wanted to go on.
“Then after six or nine months, you might start getting paid for the work that you had done in that period, five, six, or seven days a week. Not all the money you were owed, but a little bit of it. And not even very regularly, but once every six months.”
“But why would I put up with such a situation?” I asked, not unreasonably I thought.
“Because the work was the only work you could do, and was the work that you loved,” he replied.
“And what is that work?” I asked.
“I am a writer. I sit at home, alone, writing, day after day. At the end of writing my book I hand it over to the publisher who might, if he is feeling generous, give me a small advance. Thereafter every six months he gives me a little more, depending on how the sales have gone.”
“And if I may ask,” I asked, “do you get paid much at that stage?”
“If the book sells for £10 in the shops, I get 75p,” he said, looking doleful.
It seems an awfully small amount of money, and I suggested this, and a slight flicker of a smile passed over his face.
“Now imagine,” he continued, “that you could do all this work but then suddenly, just as you were about to finish it, it all vanished. The work had gone, you had not been paid, and now you would never be paid because it simply wasn’t there anymore.”
“That would indeed be terrible,” I agreed, “to have worked and then lost all that work without ever being paid. But does this happen?”
“To me, no,” he replied. “But there are apocryphal tales of writers who do work for years on projects and then leave the only typescript on the train, or whose computer is wiped clean by a virus, or who carry the laptop through a magnetic field…”
“But these things never happen to you?” I asked.
“No, but that is because I take precautions.” He looked at me with what I took to be a meaningful look, and then on feeling he had received the nearest approximation to such a look as I could deliver, he continued.
“Every day I make a backup of the latest addition to my work and I email it to my sister who lives in New Zealand, so that if the UK is swallowed by a volcanic eruption, there is still a chance of survival for the work. Every other day, I make a copy of my work thus far and email to myself on my backup computer which I keep at my cottage on the Dorset coast. And every two weeks I print out everything I have so far, and bring it here and add it to the folder in your excellent storage facility.”
“And have you ever had the need to access any of these backups?” I asked.
“Once, before the days of us all having computers I hand-delivered a copy of my work to the publisher, only to find that some three months later they asked me to send over another copy as they had lost the original.”
“And did you have another copy?”
“Yes, fortunately, but only one, and I spent the next three days photocopying that second copy in the public library. Cost me a fortune and made my arms ache.”
“I had no idea that being a writer could be so troublesome,” I said, and he nodded solemnly, and took his leave back to his computer where I imagine even now he is adding another 1000 words to his latest volume.
Indeed it was only after he left that I realised I had not asked him what sort of books he writes. I shall try to remember to do that next time around, and if I do, I shall report further.