Excerpt of Fragrant Harbor by John Lanchester
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Part One : Dawn Stone
When I was a teenager I used to play a game called Count the Lies. The idea was pretty simple: I just made a mental note of every time I heard someone tell a porky, and kept a running total. It was a one-player game, a form of solitaire. Some days I started playing the game after some more than usually gross piece of hypocrisy or cant at school, some days it would be triggered by something I saw on TV or heard on the radio or read in a paper or magazine or book. Most of the time, though, what started me off on Count the Lies was my parents. It wasn't so much any specific thing they said as the whole family atmosphere. It was the air we--even that "we" was a kind of lie--breathed. Some days the lies I counted began with "Good morning" (why? what's good about it?), carried on through "We want you back by half past eleven" (no you don't, you don't want me back at all), and finished with "Good night" (the lie here being: Oh, so you care, do you?).
If I had to explain in a sentence why I came to Hong Kong and why I now do what I do, that sentence would be this: Money doesn't lie.
Money doesn't lie. It can't. People lie about money, but that's different.
I have no false modesty about my abilities--in case it ever seems as if I do, let me now state for the record that I think I'm shit-hot--but I nonetheless freely admit I wouldn't have done the things I have without four big breaks. The first of them was my job on the middle-market middle-England tabloid The Toxic. (Not its real name.) Prior to that my life went like this: home, school, Durham University, journalism course at Cardiff, job on local paper in Blackpool. I should explain that I am just old enough to have grown up in the days when you were expected to train in journalism on regional papers before moving to London and the nationals. This was back in the Paleolithic, before Eddy Shah took on the unions and Murdoch broke them. Mastodons roamed the banks of the Thames. Some tribes had not yet learned the secret of fire. Men were men, women were women, small furry animals lived in well-justified fear, and the only people allowed to operate the A3 photocopier in the corner of the office were members of the National Graphics Association. Say what you like about Mrs. Thatcher.
Nowadays someone as bright and ambitious and sassy as I thought I was would start hawking pieces to magazines and papers while still at college, and the plan would be to bypass all that grubby cloth-cap crap about reporting and head as quickly as possible for the clean, well-lit uplands of commentary, opinion, and a column with your second most flattering photo at the top. (Second most flattering, because if you chose the best one, [a] your colleagues would take the piss for being vain, and [b] people who met you would think, Oh, she looks nice in the photo but in real life she could pass for a boxer's dog.) This, however, was the old days. So I spent eighteen months in Blackpool at The Argus, doing all the usual stuff from local fairs to sport to news (Granny drives Reliant Robin over cliff, survives) to gradually more interesting court cases to features and eventually--yes--a column. Since the choice of snaps was provided by Eric the staff photographer, the idea of a flattering picture was relative. It was more a question of finding one that didn't make me look like Mussolini.
The other thing that happened was, I changed my name. I was christened Doris. Doris! These days I could probably sue my parents for damages. The trouble is that anyone stupid enough to call a child Doris won't have any assets worth suing for. "Dawn Stone" made an infinitely better byline.
There were lots of local papers. Blackpool wasn't a random choice. It was, is, regularly the site of party conferences, and I reckoned that if I couldn't make useful contacts with the nationals during party conferences I might as well give up and train as a solicitor (which was Plan B). I hope I sound as obsessed as I actually was with this issue of breaking out into the nationals. I daresay if I'd gone to Oxbridge I would have had a least half a dozen chums who fell out of bed and into useful, networkable positions on the kind of paper I wanted to work for. But I didn't, and I didn't, and I knew that I would have to make any contacts I would use. It was a comfort to tell myself that I wouldn't have had it any other way.
Copyright 2002 by John Lanchester. All rights reserved. This book, or parts therof, may not be reproduced in any form without written permission.