This week I’ve posted an old story CIQ to the selection I’m archiving here. It was first published in 1999 in Pretext, the University of East Anglia’s now defunct prose journal, and it received a favourable, though brief mention in the TLS. For me, it represents the end of the something, the last moments of a phase.
In 1999, I was 29 and in my first year of teaching creative writing after completing my MA in 1998. In 1991, the year after I’d finished my BA I had worked for a short time in a call centre in Purley, Surrey. CIQ is based partly on something that happened during that phase (the Napier call). Call centres are now ubiquitous, part of the commercial and technological fabric. In 1991, they were new and rather flash. At the company where I briefly worked, the management talked as if they were pioneers, outriders, people from the future, our clean and gleaming, quickfire future. Post-internet, the world of CIQ seems a little quaint now. CIQ is the world of the call centre in 1991 as seen from the vantage point of 1999.
CIQ was the ninth short story I’d written. Prior to this I’d only written short stories as ‘something to do’ between novels. Until quite recently I saw them as calling cards. Before CIQ I’d written seven short stories and one that became the basis for my second novel, Impossible Places. Impossible Places was never published and is roughly approximate to Nathan Flack’s The Mess in Touching the Starfish. Characters from Impossible Places crop up in CIQ.
The other stories were all published in small magazines and anthologies. All of them make me wince if I think about them. They make me wince like sixth-form poetry makes us wince. This is probably unfair on the stories. My sixth form poetry (lower sixth, I hasten to add; the later stuff was better) was like this:
I thank you for the autumn wind
The dry leaves in your hair
The fields are gaunt and dying
The summer leaves the air.
Anyway, I digress.
CIQ: I wouldn’t write in this type of voice anymore. Until CIQ, all my stories were first person narratives. At the time it was fashionable to sound vocally regional and streetwise and I was often scared of sounding like myself, of sounding like I didn’t fit in (I’m no longer sacred of sounding like I don’t fit in). All my stories were either 3000 or 5000 words long. All of my stories were trying to prove something. I’m not sure what I was trying to prove.
What I do remember is that I wrote CIQ with one upbeat and up-yours-call-centre-Nazis ending in mind and then changed it to something more downbeat and thudding right at the last moment. I also remember that the next story I wrote after this had completely different shades and angles and a very different approach to narrative voice. I never went back to the sort of geezerish slang I used in CIQ, at least not very often. It’s interesting for me to put it alongside something like ALL ELSE IS PHOTOGRAPHS because I have recently made a few returns to the sort of subject material that CIQ explores (maybe we don’t change that much after all).
I said to someone recently, as a joke, that every crap job is a short story.
After I was fired from the call centre in Purley I worked until I was fired from the children’s department of a very famous London bookshop (the firing circumstances were not alike; that shop fired everyone after six months; there was a management style based on Stalin’s purges). A little while after CIQ I wrote Man to Man, about working in the children’s department of a very famous London bookstore. I will dig that one up from its sleep sometime soonish.