The Turnmill Year, by Alex Barr

When I played Pistol in an amateur production of The Merry Wives of Windsor, and Falstaff growled, ‘Go . . . to your Manor of Pickt Hatch’ I had no idea he meant a street where I recently worked. In an office in that street I spent the happiest year of my working life. There were three ingredients to that interlude. One was my fascination for that part of London. Another was a change for the better in my personal life. The third was the work itself. Why only a year? Let me explain.

Only last month I discovered that the street is famous. I learn (online, where else?) that picked meant spiked and hatch a half door, designed to prevent unauthorised entrance, and that Picket-hatch was a tavern-cum-brothel in Turnmill Street. (Which also enjoyed the name Turnbull Street.) Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair was set nearby in Smithfield, and Thomas Dekker pitied the whores as ‘the poor catamountains in Turnbull’. At that time Turnmill Brook ran down through Holborn and fed the mills that gave the street its name. (Thanks to The Dabbler for this history.)

My time there feels unreal now, slung between Elizabethan squalor and twenty-first century trendiness. Just now on Google Earth I had to look away quickly, unwilling to see the shiny new office block that replaced the unpretentious nineteen-thirties one in which I was happy.

My first encounter with Turnmill Street was on a visit to a friend. He lived round the corner on Albion Place in a small Victorian terrace house, now replaced by a large slick apartment block I also do not want to see. We must have got our wires crossed because when I arrived he was out, so I wandered back to Farringdon Station, cold and lost. On a wall outside was a poster of a horse’s head in marble, from the Parthenon via the British Museum. The caption read ‘The tired horse of Selene, goddess of the Moon, sinks below the horizon’. It was late and dark and I too was tired. I wandered back to my friend’s house – still out. But somehow – I do not remember – I found myself speaking to the friendly Polish couple next door. O Fortuna, velut luna! Fortune smiled. To my relief they offered bed and breakfast. A large photo of Churchill dominated the front room. Next morning my friend was at home. 

My second-floor office on Turnmill Street had an entertaining view of a man-made canyon, wide and deep, through which trains ran constantly. I wrote my first ‘proper’ poem, comparing Tube trains to red worms, green mainline locomotives to slugs, and a shunting engine to a blue bug. Beyond the canyon, on the near side of Farringdon Street, was a row of book barrows, and on the far side, in a row of low-rise Victorian commercial buildings, the offices of that bulwark of Communism The Daily Worker.

My journey home via Kings Cross was often in the ancient rolling stock of the Metropolitan Line, with those classic slammable wooden doors with glass adjusted by a leather strap, one door to each compartment. When I arrived for work – for some reason my clearest memory is arriving down Clerkenwell Road – I loved the scent on the air from the Old Holborn tobacco factory nearby.

On Turnmill Street itself I was intrigued by the cryptic cast iron sign ‘SEPULCHRE MIDD:’ set low into a wall. Ah, the internet! All these years later I discover that it referred to the parish of St Sepulchre, part of which lay in London, part in what was then Middlesex. Perhaps it marked the parish boundary. Is that sign still there? I doubt it, and do not plan to spoil my memories by going to look.

Every lunchtime, after a snack at a café on Farringdon Street, I would explore the neighbourhood, unless tempted by the book barrows. On St John Street I hatched a poem about ‘the loathsome streets of Finsbury’, and after nosing around Smithfield meat market was delighted to use in another poem the word for men in bloodstained white overalls and cotton caps: ‘bummarees’.

The firm, a small publishing house, produced three technical magazines. I had been appointed assistant editor of one – its only staff member. When I gave notice at my previous magazine, where I was an editorial assistant, I was told, ‘They’re getting a cheap editor’. My boss was the editorial director running all three. She was encouraging, approving, and mostly left me to my own devices. The only time we disagreed when I wanted to headline an article about a dairy ‘From Cow To Customer’. She objected to Cow but would not explain why.

She was a contrast to my two previous bosses. My first, back in the North of England (call him No. 1), was stressed, irritable, and slightly dishonest: his publicity brochures part fantasy and most of his enterprises flawed. No. 2, near Euston, was brusque. It was he who made the ‘cheap editor’ jibe. As for my Turnmill Street boss, No. 3, I still compare her favourably to each one I have had since. No. 4 in Pimlico was sociable (liquid lunches, jokes) and laid back. His superiors, two brothers, were remote but amazingly attentive, sending a gift of a dinner set when I married, and flowers to my wife when she gave birth. No. 5 back in the North was brusque but reasonable. (His superior, remote and totally unhelpful when I thought I had failed my month’s trial, was sacked during my year there.)

In America No. 6, stiff and disapproving, made it clear he did not like me (I had been appointed by his superior) and died of a heart attack a month after I left. Ironically I had always got on really well with his deputy, who took over. Back in Britain No. 6 was remote but forgave a serious mistake I made. No. 7, irritable and disapproving, always on the lookout for faults, had favorites, of whom I was not one. (His Christmas bonuses were turkeys – guess who got the smallest.) No. 8 was a gentleman of the old school, who liked to quibble but was fairly easy to please. His successor No. 9, my last boss, was self-consciously laid back, sociable, hard to pin down with a decision, forever floating unrealistic projects, and slightly dishonest in his handling of the departmental budget.

When I started the job at Turnmill Street there was little to distract me. I was single, living alone in a bedsit, recently moved from the North. None of my dates with women were successful. The work was so satisfying I asked for a key to the building to let me stay late, often well beyond eight.

I revelled in my autonomy. The work was easy – edit copy, write headlines, arrange layout. I sent a memo to the printers in Dorset (‘Don’t space between paragraphs’ for example). I kept the body type as Plantin and the headlines as Bodoni (still two favourite fonts) but gradually, with almost mouthwatering satisfaction, transformed the dull graphic style with little tags (what Americans call ‘bugs’), sidebar boxes, punchy illustrations, and carefully cropped photographs. There was an art to cropping mug shots close to the face without destroying the likeness. 

Finding articles was no problem. Most were based on press releases from trade organizations. These often came with an invitation to a ‘press do’ at select venues such as the Dorchester, flowing with gin and canapés. One such, in Bracknell, Berkshire, was so pleasant some of us ended up in a West End pub listening to songs from Gilbert and Sullivan. I went to look at new flats in Southend, a paper mill in Kent, a coal depot in New Cross. For a sister magazine I translated an article from Spanish. For another sister magazine I visited a brass foundry and relished the sight of hot metal poured from long ladles. 

Spring gave way to summer. I took a holiday in France on my own, planning to repeat a successful hitchhiking trip of two years before. Something had changed. I could live alone, with friends dropping in now and then to stay the night, but I was no longer equipped to spend hours with only my thoughts. I fled back to London. O Fortuna! Her wheel turned and she smiled again. I invited a girl I met at an amateur dramatic society for a walk on Hampstead Heath. Suddenly life was good. A few weeks later – could it really have happened so quickly? – we were engaged to be married. And we still are. Married, I mean. For which I am forever thankful.

My confidence in the job grew as the year progressed. I hired a dinner jacket and attended the National Coal Board annual dinner. I translated a long article from a French magazine, full of mathematical symbols it was a nice challenge to get printed correctly. I managed stalls for the magazine at trade fairs. I indulged myself in the ‘Cow to Customer’ article, taking the train east via Stratford to the dairy in Manor Park a few times, enjoying unfamiliar landscapes.

I insisted on meeting the person named as consulting editor. He turned out to be an old Scots academic, more interested in relaying anecdotes about scientists (‘Poor Soddy – those experiments on radioactivity ruined his health’) than discussing the magazine. I wrote a leading article suggesting temperatures should be quoted in Celsius rather than Fahrenheit and drew a polemical reply from a magazine in the same field. ‘Boiler ratings would have to change,’ they moaned. I replied in my next leader, ‘Why not?’ In December I produced a thorough index for the year’s issues, imagining readers carefully preserving them in binders.

In January, on a roll, fired with ambition, I decided a step change was needed. A readership survey would achieve it. I imagined sorting through the replies, implementing the best suggestions. I would ask to be promoted to editor. Life was good, I was getting married in July . . . what could go wrong?

‘Readership survey? Definitely not,’ said my boss, that friendly lady who had been so encouraging and approving. As with the Cow headline, she wouldn’t explain. I appealed to her co-director. He too said a firm no. I carried on, but the atmosphere had changed. My friend in the next office, who edited a sister magazine, whose name was that of a character in King Lear, with whom I had conversations about language and love and music, to whom I could wave through the glass partition, left. A man with a grating voice replaced him. And I began to realise why the bosses said no.

The readers were zombies. Dead souls. They never read the articles, or pretended to when the supervisor was watching. They might read the diary listings and the ads, but that was all. I should have wondered why there was no letters page. All trade magazines of that ilk sat on people’s desks like ornaments. There was probably some accountancy benefit. The only real readers were rival journalists.

I was like a master mason who, in the middle of building a cathedral, realises he does not believe in God. I left. The next job I found was in Pimlico, under Boss No. 4, who edited a magazine for sales executives. At least it had a letters page, though the editor wrote half of them himself. I was part of a small team, no longer autonomous, often bored. How I missed the atmosphere of those streets in EC1! I exchanged the charm of Hatton Garden, Leather Lane, Chancery Lane, and Holborn Viaduct for the uninspiring bustle of Vauxhall Bridge Road.

Different landscapes make us different people. But that year in Turnmill Street they can’t take away from me. 

About the contributor

Alex Barr’s story collection ‘My Life With Eva’ was published in 2017 by Parthian Books in Wales. ‘Take a Look At Me-e-e!’ a book of stories for children about farm animals, based on his experience as a smallholder, was published by Gomer Press in 2014. He won first prize in the 2016 Doolin Writers Competition in Ireland. Before moving to Wales he taught architecture at MMU, Manchester.

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