Authors: Gordon Burn
And on the main editorial floor, only more of the same: whiteness and work-stations, complex information networks and database systems connected together by wires and modems; half-litre bottles of Evian thrumming cleanly in unison. And – eeriest of all – the stillness; the hospital hush, invaded only by the ambient tap and click, the sound of the new newspaper office working.
‘Mornin’, Dust,’ Des on Zone Red F (for ‘front’) Security said as the glass doors whispered closed behind me. ‘Chalky’ White, ‘Nobby’ Clark, ‘Spokey’ Wheeler, ‘Happy’ Day, ‘Dusty’ Miller. The names of yeoman England. Names that have gone the way of butts of sack and the closed-shop and the nine-hour lunch. Des is the only person left alive who calls me this.
‘Know what they say, don’tcha?’ he called after me, as I fed my
computer card into the turnstile post, not releasing it until I experienced that second of sensuous electronic suck or tug. ‘We’re practically looking at the world being linked by a fibresphere of almost incalculable capacity and efficiency. These new erbium-doped amplifiers will flash information of any size between machines at lightning speed. An ultimate realisable capacity of 75,000 gigahertz apparently, with an exponential rise in mips and terraflops and available bandwidths.’
As the escalator wafted me skywards through the atrium, I tried to decide whether this meant that even Des – good old nig-nog hating, leftie-baiting, council house-owning, queer-bashing Des – had gone native, and discovered irony. Then I stole a look back at him in his designer coop-cum-scullery – the electric kettle with its calcium scabbing, the packets of Hobnobs and coconut creams, the ballpoint secured to the visitors’ book with string and a yellow goitre of sticky tape, the marble counter stained to the colour of the back of his underpants by roll-your-owns and puddled coffee, the industrially soiled serge of his brown-with-ochre-trim livery – and decided: probably not.
‘Newsplex’ a fluorescent plexiglass sign says over the office entrance. It is in the same cosmic blue and the same stylised letters as the signs that hang over the (mostly untenanted) retail units on the lower levels. (So far the only items you can buy there are Nepalese fire lions, ‘Bo Bangles’, scented candles and forty varieties of nut.)
I watched a light on the motion detector glow red and the video camera turn silently on its mount as
athy on reception depressed the concealed button to admit me to work. (Like sikhs and their turbans and men wearing shorts at their desks in summer,
athy, a rap artist with a building reputation in the clubs, has received special permission to use the reverse-K on her identity patch in this way. ‘I like it,’ she told me the one time I brought it up, ‘because it’s more like, Hey, get out of my face. You know?’). As usual, I braced myself
for an electrostatic shock from the anodised aluminium doorhandle in the shape of a cornucopia, and as usual I failed to get one.
Howie Dosson was watching golf. The vertical blinds around his office were louvred open and a small figure was making the lonely walk along a rain-lashed fairway. But the hundred feet between where Tosser was sitting and I was standing was filled with something that was as much New Age encampment or squatter settlement, Peruvian
or Tunisian soukh, as the editorial floor of a national newspaper.
The brave vision of Boyd Allen and Partners, the architects, had failed to take into account the fact that the light streaming in through the ziggurat curtain walls, at the same time as achieving their aim of rendering the building transparent from the street, would also wash out the screens of the visual display units and fry the operators alive where they were sitting.
As a result, sheets, blankets, tarpaulins, squares of newspaper and anything else that might deflect light and heat have been gaffer-taped to the windows, creating a constant feral dusk. People sit in isolated mandalas of light with pyramid ionisers and personal air-deodorisers and cheap Korean plastic fans, insulated from the unpredictable forces eddying around them in the darkness.
The conditions, and the increasingly wildfire rumour that the present clean-desk policy is soon to give way to a no-desk policy (the ‘non-territorial office’ and ‘hot-desking’ are the new words we are currently hearing) have brought out something unmistakably tribal and primitive. The blocky inertness of many people’s computer terminals has been enlivened with post-it notes and picture postcards and bills and bumper stickers and every manner of printed ephemera, as well as Christmas cracker thingumajigs and furry little creatures wearing vests with slogans like ‘You’re no bunny til some bunny loves you’ and ‘Hug me, I’m dirty’, and rock star pictures and football pennants and Garfields delivering cutesy messages of love and hope. The terminals have taken on the funk-spiritual look of Third World shrines or the worship sites of some plump, bug-eyed folk deity.
The screens of the terminals that were logged-on but unattended showed hypnotic, swirling, maze-like patterns traditionally
associated with ritual, trance, meditation: meteors, spermatozoa, polygons, spirogyra, Escher birds, the patterns you see when you’re punched or nutted into a lamp-post, tumbling vectors and arcs and sacristy-coloured twill weave, shoals of weird reflective neon-patterned fish swimming in the electromagnetic radiation.
And materialising out of the real world chiaroscuro – formidable uniformed women with cover-girl smiles and airy spraywork hair, remnants of the American trainer/hostess teams, the Shandies and Mindies and Candies, brought in to help us confront the ‘informational isolation’ and insecurity we are programmed to feel when confronted with the new technologies; plus, tufted, leather-armoured motorbike messengers as scary as Bantu or Yoruba. If I hadn’t been drinking I’d have thought I’d been drinking.
In the outer office, Betty Cooper was on the phone talking to Tosser Dosson’s wife about the new holiday outfits they were planning for him and looking like a subsidiary character in the early, black-and-white days of
whose name I never knew but who was eventually killed off, although the actress, I believe, is still living. (The resemblance resides mainly in the area of the hair and the lightly salted-and-peppered upper lip and the enormous come-rest-your-head grandmotherly bosoms.)
The effect aimed for (and achieved) in Howie Dosson’s inner sanctum is briary Rotary Club suburban: deep-polished cherry-wood desk and conference table; leather-framed family pictures and award certificates and citations; deep-pile blue rug with oriental motifing; miniature raked Zen pebble garden; low suspension ceiling; high-street stereo stacker system.
He always seems happier, less challenged away from all this, though, in the part of the office with the synthetic carpet tiles and unit seating and chipped and beaten smoked-glass table. Designated the ‘meeting module’, this area is mainly used for watching sport on television. Which is what he was doing when Betty Cooper, still mulling over the men’s beachwear possibilities at
Jaeger with Brittany Dosson (the second, trophy wife), nodded me through.
The television is mounted on a metal bracket high in a corner and, viewed from behind, which is how I was viewing them, Dosson and the two men with him looked like figures in a betting shop waiting for the off, or business passengers in the departure area of an airport on one of the remoter Scottish islands, anxious to get home to pick up the strands of their unravelling lives. This thought was probably prompted by the fact that they were standing watching a golf tournament that was taking place in a setting of craggy rocks and crashing waves and vicious dive-bombing gulls. On the screen was a man wearing plastic over-trousers, like something the elderly might wear for incontinence, inflated by the wind. He kept addressing the ball, and then pulling back from what looked like an easy chip with the six-iron. ‘For fuck sake,’ Dosson said. ‘Jeezus. Shit or get off the pot.’ And then, noticing me: ‘And here he is’ (I had the feeling he had rehearsed this) ‘– the Norman Mailer of The Dog and Trumpet.’
The level of light in Tosser’s office, because it is properly ventilated and blinded, was normal. But coming into it from the tarpaulined shanty town twilight, it seemed forensically over-lit. The light picked up the comb-through colouring in his hair and the perspiration shining his scalp and the metal filaments in his tie and trousers. He was wearing the button-down shirt (white, in his case) which is virtually generic in our profession, and the Windsor knot which, while strictly speaking proportionately too big, helps convey a useful sense of on-kilterness and symmetry and balance even when three bottles of Pomeroy to the good. His tie was a patriotic Manchester Olympics freebie. His suit – grey with an almost imperceptible window-pane check – was from the Savoy Taylors Guild. His shoes were a pair of the tassled loafers that his wife and Betty Cooper between them have probably decided give him that casual, careless, club-class, country-club ambience.
With Dosson was his deputy, Ronnie Duncan, hair still damp
from his morning run into the office with his driver following in case his cruciate ligament should go again or anything urgent should come over on the car phone. With the exception of the tie, he was dressed more or less identically to Dosson; they shared a version of the same shag-edged, high-backed fringe, from behind rising cliff-like above the same lake of freckle-flecked, rippled pink pate. They were a double-act, a familiar duo: two big men taking manly pisses shoulder to shoulder in the toilets of expensive restaurants at the conclusion of my-way-or-the-highway, stainless-steel-balled, conspiratorial lunches. (Yeah let’s go the extra grappa.)
The other person present was younger, shorter, fidgetier, balder. One of a recent graduate intake, Sebastian or Dominic-something had turned up on his first day wearing a flamboyant coloured shirt and slicked-up hair. But, immediately feeling the lash of Tosser’s aversion to – terror of – anything that might suggest ‘turd burglars’ or ‘botty bandits’ – ‘Watch out, folks!’ he had bellowed across the newsroom, sighting the FNG (Fucking New Guy), ‘There’s a botty bandit about!’ – had rapidly changed his style.
Permanently traumatised, perhaps, Sebastian-Dominic now had a set of exaggeratedly ‘masculine’ mannerisms – hearty yankings at his signet ring, staccato shootings of his cuffs, jacket-hitching rollings of his shoulders, jerking the corners of his mouth around, tough-guy fashion, between sentences – that made him look like an American borscht-belt comedian or Eurovision-vintage Cliff Richard. He had on a lightweight seersucker jacket and undemonstrative shirt and tie, and was wearing his hair in a way that admitted allegiance to none of the pariah groups or youth cults that the paper earns its reader-loyalty by ritualistically kicking seven kinds of shit out of. He was fragranced, focused, neato-keeno, with a tiny, light-seducing pin-hole in the burning lobe of his left ear.
‘Why are they all shirt-lifters or skirt-lifters?’ Dosson said, more or less as a reflex, as soon as the reason for my appointment, and the subject of Scott McGovern, was broached. He
lounged with his legs stretched out on the seats in front of him where he could go on watching the television; the three of us took our places on the other, shorter leg of the ‘L’. ‘We’d all smelled the elephant shit behind that big-top,’ Tosser continued, which in his case certainly wasn’t true.
Scott McGovern had never made any secret of his affairs with men. It was common knowledge in the circles in which he moved. Some of these circles also occasionally included Howie Dosson: the two of them had met periodically at the annual industry bun-fights and blow-outs, and at cocktail parties at Number 10; they had been David Frost’s lunch guests in his box at Lord’s and had both clocked up the requisite number of appearances at high-profile charity events. But it had never occurred to Dosson that Scott McGovern was a kidney wiper. How could he be? He had none of the limp-wristed, cartoon kidney-wiper characteristics. His handshake was dry and strong, his clothes unshowy, his back straight. He was married like himself, with two children. Apart from the obvious circulation-boosting reasons, this was partly why Tosser had got his teeth sunk so deep into the red meat of the McGovern story. He felt personally traduced; that he had been left looking like an idiot.