By Naomi Gryn
“Once I was like you,” Norman sighed, resting his cigar stub in the ashtray. “Hungry for work and no idea how to find my way in the world.”
Paul moved his microphone closer, wondering if he should interrupt the old man’s flow with a question. Sitting in the bar at the East India Club, it was hard to imagine that Norman Clark, now in his 80s with a carved walking stick resting against his leather armchair, had ever eaten baked beans straight from a tin to save on his next gas bill.
This was Paul’s first feature for The Times, and he wanted to make a big impression. Sharing a one bedroom flat in Stockwell with a medical student was far from the dream that had led him to leave Liverpool. They had a rota for who slept in the bedroom and who got the sofa bed. Working twenty hours a week teaching English as a second language was about as glamorous as cutting toenails and it only barely covered the rent.
He had sent an email to the features editor suggesting an interview with Norman Clark, the reclusive owner of a group of newspapers, and had yelped with joy when he got an answer. Just one line, no capitals: “1200 wds on spec by end of week.” His godmother, Sally, the resident astrologer on one of Clark’s papers, had suggested the assignment and helped him make contact with the tycoon. Okay, so it wasn’t exactly a commission, but at least he hadn’t been ignored and besides, what else would he be doing today? Reading a book at the lido?
“Is that thing on?” Norman asked, gesturing towards Paul’s MiniDisk recorder. “Don’t want to have to repeat myself.” Paul checked. Yes, it was recording; the levels were fine. Maybe he’d be able to sell the interview to a radio station as well. Paul nodded.
“You probably think things weren’t as difficult in the thirties, before women got it into their daft heads that they could interfere in a man’s world, before every half-wit with a laptop computer fancied himself as a writer, but actually things have never been easier. Especially for outsiders.”
“Outsiders?” Paul queried.
Norman raised his eyebrow. “You know, foreigners. Aliens. I’m what they used to call a kike, a clip-tip, a front wheel skid. What’s the hip slang for us these days?”
Paul flushed, a little embarrassed. He had read that Norman had come from Vienna after the Anschluss in 1938, a teenage refugee, but Jews were always so well-connected, especially in the media, he had half-imagined that Norman’s path to Fleet Street had been strewn with rose petals. “I’m sorry, do go on. How did you get started?”
“My name in those days wasn’t Norman, it was Siggy, Sigmund Kahn. My friends in
Vienna called me Freud, but no one in London in those days was going to give a job to a cheeky chap called Siggy.
“It was a summer’s day, a bit like today, and I didn’t have a bean in my pocket. I was sharing a room with another refugee who was working nights so I had to be out in the day while he slept. Anyway, one day I was busting for a piss but didn’t look old enough to go into a public house, and had better manners than to relieve myself on the street.
Paul couldn’t see what this had to do with Norman’s career as a newspaper proprietor, but from the faraway look on his face, the old man had gone back in time and Paul thought it better to let him ramble for a while. “Where was that, sir?” asked Paul, deferentially.
“Piccadilly Circus, I recall. Just a few hundred yards from where we sit right now. Funny that, you can travel a whole lifetime and hardly move from the spot. Anyway, I saw a penny on the pavement and picked it up, pretending I was tying up my shoelaces. I headed straight for the nearest public convenience, the one next to the Eros statue. Maybe it’s not there any more. Heaven knows I wouldn’t go into one of those places these days, what with all those junkies and perverts and God knows what other troglodytes. Where was I? Oh yes, by amazing luck, one of the toilet doors was opened, so I had my pee and still had my penny as well.”
Paul couldn’t see where Norman’s story was leading, and was vaguely starting to regret having followed his godmother’s advice. If he wanted to work regularly with The Times, this interview would have to be an ace of spades, not a joker.
“With that penny, I bought some pencils from the market, and took them down to Ludgate Circus, where I sold them for a nice profit to journalists rushing to work and then bought some more. The following week I added notepads and erasers to my wares and set up a little stall. I enrolled in an evening class in English and another in shorthand and started jotting down some stories myself. One day, one of my regular clients took the trouble to ask me a bit about myself, where I was from, what I wanted to do, that sort of thing. I showed him one of my articles. A piece about the bowler hat, I think it was. He asked if he could show it to his editor and they gave me a job. Not writing at first, of course, but making tea. And I brewed the best tea any hack has ever drunk, weird though I thought it was in those days that you Brits put milk in your tea. Where I come from, you only drink milky tea when you’re sick.
“The thing is, son, I didn’t have anything to lose, and since my roommate was out every night, I figured I needed to improve my lot more than I needed the sleep, so I spent those hours writing up little vignettes about British life and eventually one of them got published. But I hadn’t forgotten my lesson about the pencils and knew that to get out of that vulnerable situation, I had to start a newspaper myself. The Fleet Street Messenger I called it. I wrote under several pseudonyms and sold copies myself outside St Paul’s station. Amazingly I ran out of every copy from that first print run. I invited readers’ contributions and published those too in the next issue.”
Norman paused as he drew on his cigar. Paul was now listening attentively. He wondered if Sally knew Norman’s story and had sent him on this mission for an existential lesson on how to get on in life.
“I bet you’d like to thank whoever dropped that penny.”
“No,” said Norman. “The man I’d like to thank is the one who left open the door of the toilet.”
© Naomi Gryn 2006