Through the Looking Glass

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By the end of the 1980s, in my mid-twenties, I’d been through university, a stint of unemployment, a couple of tread-water jobs, and come to a halt, a despondent Is this it? Not knowing what I wanted or expected, I sent off a flare of speculative letters, and by a strange percolation of nerve and chance I got an interview, and then a job, at Faber, the one publisher, with its eminent backlist and recent seedy glamour of The Buddha of Suburbia, I could put my finger on.

Faber’s offices at 3 Queen Square were modern, purpose-built. Arriving for the first time through the foyer doors was like walking through the Looking Glass – past the sleek, diagonal displays of books, the boxy black sofas for visitors. It was the greener grass, a fever-pitch of now that left no room for imagining. Betty was at reception, long-suffering and irredeemably middle-aged, or so it seemed to the gaggle of secretarial and admin assistants among whose juvenile ranks I was enrolled.

Heading straight for the lift, you were transported to the floors above: Faber Music, Publicity and Sales and, on the fourth floor, Editorial, where you’d emerge into a dark corridor of industrial brown carpet and 1970s hessian walls. The offices were ranged along either side. At the rear they looked out on to the metal funnels of restaurants, the fire-escapes of dingy hotels, and at the front the view stretched over the square’s airy gardens to the multiple windows of a hospital, a strip-cartoon of illness and mortality, as far removed as it could possibly be from our own lives.

‘Have you got a boyfriend?’ I was asked as I entered the room – a question that set the tone for the next few years. Emma was assistant to the Editor-in-Chief Robert McCrum, and she ruled the roost. She was unassailable, exuding a boarding-school confidence – ‘Never apologize, never explain.’ She was the first one granted a computer (the rest of us worked on heavy electric typewriters), and the only one tough enough to stand up to Robert’s moods, which were by turn jolly and thunderous. She gave new currency to the concept of ‘personal calls’, conducting prolonged exchanges with a vast array of friends, but her leonine efficiency, as the rest of us struggled to keep up, ensured she was beyond reproach.

Each morning our editors delivered trays of correspondence topped by a miniature cassette that we plugged into the tape machines worked by foot-pedals under our desks. Offers of publication, requests for contracts, New Book Information sheets – forms of tortuous concoction, of drummed-up ‘selling points’, page extents, blurbs. We’d set off in competitive gunfire, the impatient stamping of our treadles as we re-wound to listen again through the crackle of tape: ‘Fax to . . . Letter to . . .’, the ‘soul-destroying serfdom at the typewriter’, as I confided to my diary. Stultifying in the summer heat, in winter the office smelt of rabbit hutch from the baked potatoes we’d bring back to our desks. On special days there were lunches at Il Fornello or the Old Amalfi, where the elderly Italian waiters would dance stiff attendance.

After six months I was fully on board. We worked in furious bursts, staying late, as long as it took. Long days fused seamlessly into evenings when as waitresses we’d infiltrate the parties held high up on the penthouse floor – weaving between the boardroom and its balcony, a bottle of wine under each arm, slugs between rounds, until we were indistinguishable from the jostling mêlée. The summer parties were packed so tight that passions flared – hands would paddle, fists occasionally fly. There was a predilection for the Irish, and in the best gatherings the booziness was distinguished by the craic of writers like Seamus Heaney, Brian Friel, John McGahern, Paul Muldoon.

Faber, in spite of a spate of redundancies, was surviving the recession better than most, still afloat, if not fat, on t

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About the contributor

Jane Feaver is a novelist and short-story writer. Her latest novel is An Inventory of Heaven. She is a lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Exeter.

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