Coldstream Review

2020 – In Need of Editing

by Iqbal Ahmed

It seems as if this unforgettable year began not in January but in March, when lockdowns were imposed in cities around the world. As international travel was coming to a halt and hotels in London were standing empty in the middle of March, it was a relief of sorts to see businesses closing rather than risking infections spreading at work. However, no one would have thought then that ‘lockdown’ would become one of the most frequently used words of 2020.

My spell-checking tool in Adobe InDesign automatically underlines the word ‘lockdown’, stating it to be incorrect as a single word. I had to ignore the inbuilt dictionary facility while typesetting my new book. There have been so many different kinds of lockdown in the UK since March that mentioning this unfamiliar new word as often as I do in my latest book has obliged my editor to reluctantly place a definite article before some of them to distinguish the first lockdown from the rest.

I started writing The Art of Hospitality: A European Odyssey at the end of March when it became clear that we were going to be under lockdown for a long time. In the past, I’d meet my editor about once a month, after finishing a fresh chapter of my work-in-progress. But this year he had to shield because of the coronavirus and instead of face-to-face meetings we discussed editorial issues over the phone. 

I have been working with the same editor ever since my first book was written and published 16 years ago.

In 2003 I was searching for a freelance editor in my neighbourhood and found Robert Lambolle’s name and his Finchley Road address listed in The Writer’s Handbook. But when I set off by bike to find his door-number, I had no idea that Finchley Road stretched as far as it did, not until I inadvertently cycled too far and arrived in a different neighbourhood entirely from the one I was seeking. In fact, at 7 kilometres, Finchley Road is one of the longest roads in London. 

My first meeting with Robert was somewhat unexpected. I wanted him to copy-edit my manuscript. But he suggested that he assess the book’s chances of publication before committing myself to the expense of a complete editing job. However, when I explained that an article I’d written relating to the manuscript had already been published in the London Review of Books, he cautiously agreed to edit my work, asking for a double-spaced, hard-copy typescript for him to annotate with his red biro.

I had typed my manuscript painstakingly, single-spaced, on a manual typewriter, and it would have taken me many weeks to type it out all over again. Luckily, a friend came to my rescue and he scanned my manuscript and then used Optical Character Recognition software to turn it into a Microsoft Word document. I cycled from Hampstead via the steep East Heath Road with a bundle of manuscript pages to work on with Robert at his home office and repeated that trip many times before my first book was ready for publication. It turned into a journey of discovery, each time I made this trip, to sit with my editor and answer his queries one by one. I found it impossible to get an obscure allusion past the beady-eyed fellow. “Call me an ignoramus if you will”, he said, “but if I don’t know what it means there’s a chance that others won’t know either.” This was an expression of one of his key principles: “A good editor must have the courage of his or her own ignorance.”

‘Robert Lambolle’ in his home office

I asked Robert to give a speech at the launch party for that first book of mine. It turned out to be electrifying – he actually burst into song at one point – and a guest at the party expressed the hope that it had been video-recorded. But there were no smartphones in those days.

As I got to know him better, I discovered that ‘Robert Lambolle’ was not my editor’s real name but a pen name, intended to distinguish his literary consultancy and editing work from his own creative activities as a performance artist who ran his own Arts Council-funded touring company for many years. He chose ‘Lambolle’ as his literary surname because it was the name of a street in Swiss Cottage where he had once lived when he had himself been a struggling writer. I have always called him by his pen name, even to this day. 

I had spent 11 years in the literary wilderness before deciding to write my third book and I once again asked Robert to edit it for me. By now our professional relationship had turned into a friendship. He was in semi-retirement but agreed to edit my book. I would have found it unsettling to work with another editor as it can take a long time to establish a fruitful working relationship.

I rang Robert last March to let him know that I was embarking on the journey of writing another book, my fifth, and expressed the hope that he would edit it.  I felt most reassured when he replied, “Well, I’m still resident in the legendary Land of the Living so as long as I’m capable….” 

While working with Robert earlier this year on my latest book, I didn’t receive a response from him for several days, which was unusual as he normally forewarns me about any routine obligations. I subsequently received an email from his son saying that, after tripping and falling, Robert had been taken to hospital with a fractured hip that required an immediate operation. But Robert wanted me to know that he would continue work on my book after returning home. I felt touched by this message and his concern. 

Prior to the pandemic, it had been fun to meet Robert once a month in his den and sit beside him in front of his iMac, meticulously sorting out issues arising from my writing. The shelves in his home office are full of books, box files, lever arch files, paper storage drawers, archive boxes and bizarre ornaments. And he is in the habit of putting aside interesting items for me, including book-themed cartoons published in the New Yorker and cuttings of newspaper articles about cycling. In fact, it was his interest in my experiences as a cyclist that encouraged me to make cycling a central theme in my writings.

Earlier this month, Robert finished editing my fifth book, with the assistance of his daughter. Now we seem to have gone full circle with the pandemic. London is back under lockdown and international travel is disrupted yet again due to the latest restrictions. After finishing a book, it used to be my custom to invite my editor out for a coffee and a chat about future plans. But this month, I was only able to ring his doorbell and leave a Christmas card on his staircase. Nevertheless, I am grateful that we have both survived 2020 and steered another book to publication. I continue to keep Robert updated about my work by sending him regular emails.