The first time a writer sees anything of theirs published has to be a real milestone and something to be remembered and cherished. My “first time ever” memory is in HD and glorious technicolour. I had moved, with spouse, away from the town and into the Yorkshire Dales. It was part of a deal I made with spouse for me to have a gap year away from the career ladder I was climbing.
Up to this point my literary outpourings had not been well received…in fact they’d barely been received before they were winging their way back in the obligatory stamped addressed envelope. This was well before the dawning of the age of computer.
Things were tight financially – so much so that I spent an awful lot of time licking and sticking Co-op stamps (early version of Clubcard and Nectar points)into little books. Then I would barter or cash them in for petrol money at the local shop.
One morning I had to visit the Doctor’s surgery and, indulging in my usual sport of eavesdropping I heard what I thought was a funny story. Furtively I noted down the salient points and when I got home I turned it into a letter-to-the-editor for a national newspaper. At the time they were paying £5 for the star letter. I then forgot about it.
About a month later I got this letter from the paper congratulating me on writing the star letter, enclosing a cutting and, much more importantly, a postal order (yes you read that right) for a whole Five English Pounds. WOO-HOO! I was in funds at last.
I walked on air for the next week or so carrying the cutting in my pocket. Then, a few weeks after I got another letter from the editor. ‘This is it’ I thought as I feverishly tore at the envelope, ‘they want me to write for them’.
Alas, No. It was a very stiff letter from the Ed-in-Chief reminding me that the paper prided itself on only publishing original letters and reprimanding me for sending in a letter that was not original. To say I was gob-smacked is inadequate. But there, enclosed with the letter was a cutting from a magazine dated two years earlier and it told almost exactly the same funny story.
In that moment, the gilt slid off the gingerbread. I had acted in good faith; I’d never seen the magazine; I genuinely believed I was offering an original snippet based on the story I overheard. Yet I felt as guilty as I would had I really copied someone else’s work.
But that’s not the worst of it. For the next few weeks I lived in fear and trembling of another letter from Ed-in-Chief asking for his postal order back.
There’s a moral to this tale somewhere.