Being an Only Groupie - Valerie Mendes
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Being an Only Groupie

For Nicola Solomon, CEO of The Society of Authors

I’ve never really belonged to Clubs and Pubs. I get frightfully bored sitting on committees and, once I’d left Oxford University Press, I decided life was too short to try to become Vice-President of Global Everything. After I left school (I’ve never been back), tennis clubs, amateur choirs and singing wonderful hymns every morning vanished together with my boring brown uniform.

Nor am I the slightest bit domesticated in the stereotypical formats of womanhood. I’ve never made marmalade, I don’t really cook any more – I haven’t the time – I don’t knit, I can’t sew, crochet hooks aren’t my thing and I’m no longer allowed to decorate a room. When arthritis bites it’s agony. So I’ve ruled myself out of the WI and sitting around making eiderdowns for frozen children in snowy Bulgaria.

However, I love and do garden, clean everything in sight, endlessly polish furniture, design and redesign rooms and walk everywhere when time allows and it isn’t so windy I’m blown off my elderly feet into Blenheim’s Lake. My “hobbies” are essentially lone activities: useful work done preferably in blissful silence. They allow me to think about my working schedules and Chapters 2 to 89 on my own.

But, folks, The Society of Authors, which I joined more than 50 years ago, is an altogether different Kettle of Fish. The moment I became a professional journalist in London’s Soho, way back in the Golden Age of Freedom from Nappies when I was in my late twenties, I signed on SoA’s dotted line and paid up. And I’ve done so, with enormous pride, ever since.

Why?

Because The Society of Authors is not an aggressive Union that bashes individuals on the head and excommunicates them if they take on work they need in spite of publishing politics and below-the-belt spitefulness. They don’t jump to petty gossipy conclusions. They never black list. They ask the right questions and listen to honest answers. They understand. The answers may be shocking but probably they’ve heard them all before. They let their members make up their own minds about how to deal with their problems. The advice they give is sound, sane and always but always sensible.

Becoming and being a writer (unpublished) and then an author (published) is a tough, uncompromising and essentially solitary life. If you can’t abide spending time and lots of it on your own, day after week after year, don’t even go there. Join the cricket club instead. Train with RADA. Learn how to make a unique cologne for men in a black James Bond bottle. Sit in Canary Wharf in your bespoke suit and make millions. Drive around in a pink Mercedes and sell sixteen varieties of gin.

Being on your own in society today is a dangerous thing to be. It’s continually frowned upon. You will be labelled “a loner”, well on the way to becoming a budding lunatic and destined for the nearest asylum or nursing home. We are all supposed to be “bubbly personalities”, the
“life and soul of the party”, a perpetual laugh a minute and preferably more, continually chatting away like smelly drains at the tops of our voices to our dogs, cats, children, neighbours, drinking companions, postmen, milkmen, elderly relatives, clients, enemies and horses.

God forbid we wake alone in the dawn, drink our first magical cup of tea on our own, and say not a single word to anybody for the entire day because we are deep into our twelfth novel and frankly can’t be bothered to interrupt the flow. Indeed, woe betide anyone who does…

This “inner life” which buzzes continually in our heads, is the source, the fount, the deep backwater of all truly creative life. And when it’s threatened by small-minded idiots who understand nothing, it can lash out like nobody’s business in order to protect its own heartbeat. I’m known to have a temper very few people can withstand because I’m fighting for The Truth. When I’m furious, it’s always to some purpose.

And often I’ve turned to the SoA not for advice or encouragement but to copy them into my rage. They need to know what’s going on at the coal face. It’s a grimy old place in which to hang around. Boy, it can be cold and filthy down here. Nicola can’t possibly be everywhere. She’s travelling the world (before and after Covid), fighting for other freedoms and other causes. I do my bit for her, chipping away at that Rock Face time and again, until I have something solid and honest to show for it – and to prove to her with chapter and verse.

In today’s rough, complicated and swiftly changing world, it’s tremendous to have a woman at the head of the SoA. Only Nicola knows the strength it needs, the determination it demands, the patience and sanity she must have to continue our fight for freedom, justice, truth and recognition. Nobody who lives in a freezing garret can produce more than a cough a minute. In order to create a world that’s a greener, safer place we must put health, strength and continuity at the heart of our lives.

The SoA for ever, say I. So thank you for my Badge of Honour. I couldn’t possibly have earned it without you.