The phone call came out of the blue one Sunday afternoon, and it changed my life. It was Charles Platt asking if I’d like to be the Art Editor of New Worlds. I said that I would and continued reading Gormenghast, which was just reaching its exciting climax. This was in 1969.
I had been doing occasional illustrations for this New Worlds, which had started out as a straight science fiction monthly years earlier but under Michael Moorcock’s flamboyant editorship in the 1960s had become the leading forum of what would soon be termed the New Wave, rejecting most of the well-worn SF ideas in favour of more experimental, avant-garde writing with J.G Ballard at the helm. Those of us who cared about such things found it wildly exciting and I — a PhD student at the time — was thrilled at the prospect of being an integral part of it. Charles was officially the designer but he also acted as a sort of business manager, doing his best to make sure that the magazine appeared on time each month, and it seemed that he liked my work.
The only problem was that New Worlds already had an Art Editor in Nigel Francis, a young fellow that Charles had recruited from his old school. “Don’t worry about that,” said Charles, but I felt uneasy as I mounted the stairs to the New Worlds office for the first time. It was in a very run-down terraced house at the shabby end of Portobello Road, and the banisters had been removed (for firewood? We were all desperately poor) leaving a sort of cavity below the upper flight. This was filled with a heap of what looked like old clothes, but as I passed it the heap stirred (rats?) and from it emerged Nigel. “Hello,” he said, seemingly without rancour.
It transpired that although Nigel was a neat and careful designer he was very slow. He had apparently spent the best part of a fortnight creating a small title-piece from smoke, spending hours waving a candle beneath various pieces of art board that he had treated with gum. Somehow it worked and his smoke-lettering did appear in the magazine, but for Charles it had been the last straw as deadlines had come and gone, and I was soon installed at the design table in the corner of the main office.
Nigel evidently lived in the heap under the stairs, and over the next few weeks as I beavered away getting the magazine out on time he would occasionally materialize behind me, looking at what I was doing but saying nothing. This wasn’t particularly disconcerting, however, as Nigel proved to be a gentle, amiable soul who never gave any hint that he might resent my presence. I came to like him a lot. He was certainly eccentric, though. After consulting some sort of guru he shaved his head and changed his name to Simon. OK, now we all have to call him Simon.
With winter approaching he decided that he needed an overcoat and penniless as usual he decided to make one. He had noticed that right-handed people wearing jeans rarely used the left back pocket and vice versa with the left-handed ones, so on weekends when Portobello Road was crowded with tourists there would be Simon armed with a small sharp pair of scissors asking people if he might carefully remove one of their jeans pockets for this coat he was making. He did it too, and we’d occasionally see him out and about wearing his patchwork coat of many colours, all of them blue. Charles, meanwhile, had decided that shoes were unnecessary and was walking the streets barefoot. He soon gave that up, however (“broken glass and dog shit”). Strange and rather wonderful days.
I lost track of Simon soon after that, but Charles told me that he had started earning money repairing people’s bicycles from a squat in Kilburn, then that he had got married — and to a lady doctor — but it wasn’t long before he was killed in a traffic accident in the West Country: a nasty end for an odd, sweet guy fondly remembered by the dwindling band of people who knew him.
And how did that phone call change my life? Well, the idea of a PhD had lost some of its allure but now I was learning new skills which would eventually lead me to a career in publishing. Another story.