We were talking San Diego.
Let me tell you a bit more about Sarah Bolesworth, Dez’s former partner and business associate in Quality Communications Ltd. Sarah was an ambitious woman, from a very ‘proper’ background, who had rebelled in her late teens and rallied against her ultra-Conservative upbringing, she was a champagne socialist and she was also a right royal bitch. You didn’t cross this woman, she could strip paint with a look and had a way of completely deconstructing someone she was talking to. It wasn’t so much the content of her tirades as the relentlessness of them, this usually crushed even the most obstinate targets of abuse. She was a complete snob, yet she was also a really exceptionally loyal person – if she liked you. Sarah liked me. The problem was being aligned to Sarah at CI was not a position of strength. Despite their personal relationship having run its course, Sarah was still a minority shareholder with QCL, but Dez and his team of accountants were slowly edging her out of the scene. Sarah actually cared quite deeply about the future of the magazine we all worked on. She also saw the importance of having people like me working there because not only did we offer energy and youth that Dez couldn’t offer, we also kept his ego at bay, to a certain extent. Dez related to the old school of comics fans, and while I hardly represented the new breed, I was closer to them and I could understand the industry. Sarah sort of understood it as well, more so than Dez it seemed.
Sarah’s biggest fault was never knowing when to let go of something. If she was right – she was right! I have had the misfortune to be present during some of the most horrendous arguments between these two people. It was uncomfortable, but after about three years I started to get bold and occasionally told them both that this really wasn’t the best of times to be having this argument. I did this very rarely, but it had results. Once, I just saved my work, tidied up my work station in a deliberate way; switched the computer off and collected some stuff to do at home. We were on deadline and suddenly Dez saw what I was doing. "What do you think you're doing?"
"I'm going home. I can't work with you two arguing in French so I don't know what the hell you're arguing about. I can do more work at home and I'll be back down in the morning," and I walked out. Dez followed me into the avenue, trying to dissuade me; even Sarah was standing in the doorway apologising. We stood outside for almost an hour before I left; it was one of the first times we had sat together without any pretence; the two of us sitting on bonnets of cars and him not trying to impress me or regale me with another bon mot or anecdote.
Sarah was a schemer, but no more than Dez. It seems to me now that both of them suffered from huge amounts of paranoia – the tempestuous relationship was racked with shifting allegiances and forever moving ground. The sad thing was that anyone associated with them socially were effectively the subjects of bizarre custody battles, with Dez getting pissed off if Sarah had anything to do with ‘his’ friends and vice versa. I was the only person exempt from this because I’d stopped being a friend and had become an ownership issue.
But Sarah had been invaluable in the creation of Comics International and she wasn’t about to let something that probably had made heaps of money in the previous 8 years go easily. She felt she deserved more from the magazine than she got; unfortunately she was going up against a man who won everything he set his mind to.
I remember the day she read an article I wrote called San Diego or Bust. It was a (very poorly written) report of my visit to the convention, without the shit included. The only comment she had to make about it was the opening paragraph, where I said that I still had ambition and wanted, one day, to be in charge of the magazine. She looked at me and said coldly but without malice, “You’ll never be the editor of Comics International. He would never let you.” I think I’d started to work that out for myself, but it wouldn’t be for a few more years before I accepted it.
Sarah had by this time become so friendly with Dez’s assistant, Kerry-Ann, that the two of them had rented a house together and were always going out and having a good time – quite remarkable considering Sarah had hated Kerry when she started; but I was just beginning to see the depths of how politics began to play such an important part in my latter years at CI. As far as Sarah was concerned Kerry was there because she had tits and Dez would eventually try to fuck her. I can’t say for sure if the latter ever happened, but I suspect it didn’t. Sarah saw befriending Kerry as a perfect way to get at Dez. He couldn’t say anything about Sarah to Kerry without it getting back to her and generally Dez was beginning to feel as though the two women working on CI were manipulating him and this freaked him out – I soon became very important again to him. He was probably right about Sarah and it was fun to watch. But Dez broods on minutiae, as do most comics fans – we’re all anally retentive you see. By the time Sarah demanded that she be taken to San Diego, Dez had already agreed to take Mike Conroy with him. He knew that the way the industry had dipped that a visit to San Diego again in the foreseeable future was unlikely. So he agreed to take Sarah and took Kerry along not because he wanted to; but to keep the peace. It started a war.
Mike Conroy got his thorough deconstruction – far harsher than I received by reports – on the plane on the way home in front of a lot of other passengers. Apparently, according to Mike, he was in a flood of tears and Dez just kept on going. The woman in the seat behind tapped Dez on the shoulder and told him to leave Mike alone. He insulted the woman passenger and was told by the steward if he upset another passenger security at Heathrow would be informed. Later, because he’s such a goddamned Christian, Mike hugged Dez in thanks and would claim that Dez was only taking it out on him because of the horrible events during the San Diego convention. That was the day I lost all respect for Conroy.
What had happened?
Well, I shouldn’t really know but I do for a number of reasons. I’d agreed to take control of the telephone lines for the week, so I had the CI phone lines transferred to Wellingborough. This meant that any of the four in the USA could get hold of me should they want, just by ringing the office phone. They all did at different times. The first call I received was from Dez, he was checking up and seeing if there was anything to report. There wasn’t. I asked him how things were going and rarely for Dez there was a pause and he said, “Things are fine.” I said I knew him better than that, what had happened? He assured me he was just tired and he’d speak to me later in the week.
The following night, or to be precise about 2am in the morning my office phone started ringing. I’d been warned that some publishers overseas have no comprehension of time zones and this was probably some twat in Japan who’d forgotten. Instead it was Dez. He was distraught and I couldn’t really make out what he was saying. It sounded like Kerry had gone missing, he’d had a huge row with Sarah in the presence of Mike, Kerry and the guy who ran the Comics Warehouse distribution company that Dez used for CI and now he didn’t know what to do. Everything was going wrong. It was obvious he was very drunk and very emotional. I eventually got back to bed about 3.30, my wife absolutely seething about what she regarded as yet another infringement by my boss into our private time. She was right, but I was stupid and despite everything that had happened to me, he was still sort of my friend. There was also the element of how I could position myself back into Dez’s good books.
Now there’s a reason I was the telephone exchange that week. Had it been six months earlier I wouldn’t have been working for Dez. During 1997 a huge rift appeared between the two of us. To cut a boring story short, I had had this idea of a complimentary magazine to CI that would come out bi-monthly. He’d been up to my house in the sticks and had seen the working cover on the wall and began to believe that I was planning to bring my own comics magazine out. In fact, he drove me to almost do just that.
I had lost the car by this time and getting down to London was causing a problem. Trains were too expensive and Dez wasn’t about to stump up for anything to fix the company car – he’d just bought a brand new Jaguar. So we communicated by phone and email. Phone calls were always fine, but things started to creep into his emails and even though I kept asking Kerry what was wrong with him, she said she didn’t know and I believed her. Then Christmas 1997 was a horrible time for us, the reasons were unimportant, but it was bad. I almost missed the deadline, but as I’d suffered extremely in the past, I made sure this didn’t happen again. Two weeks later, the first week of 1998, during the lull between issues, my father collapsed with a heart attack. His timing was indeed fortunate, and you’ll understand that last statement better soon.
Dez had no living family, or none that he knew of or cared about. He played on his ‘orphan’ status many times, especially whenever Kerry or I were having problems with our own families. Families seemed to be a constant thorn in his side – they got in the way of what he saw as his progress. He had managed without one, why couldn’t others? He actually asked us this one night, much to both of our amazement.
Two weeks later my dad came out of hospital and things settled down again. We were gearing up for another issue when tragedy really struck my family. My mother died. It was unexpected, wasn’t quite as short and painless as anyone would wish and it was a very traumatic period for everyone involved, not least my dad. Obviously I was in a mess, but the first person I called was Dez. Despite us hardly talking over the last few months, I needed him to talk to. I needed him to eventually say, ‘it’s OK, we’ll scrape by this issue without you’. I was a mess on the phone and I really needed support. My family were all brutally shocked; I had no one I could really turn to for help or advice. Instead what I got was quite extraordinary. Dez told me while he understood the grief I was going through (this was 3 hours after she died) there was no way he could feasibly ask anyone else to do my work for that month, otherwise he’d have to offer them my job. It wouldn’t be fair to them to give them just one month’s work and then take it away again. I argued the point and he said, and I quote, “What do you expect me to do run a banner where your columns are saying ‘Sorry reader but there’s nothing for you this month because the news editor had to go to a funeral’?”
He told me that if I didn’t provide the things I was expected to supply I wouldn’t have a job anymore. Yes, you read that correctly. I struggled to get things finished. I hardly slept, I was consumed with grief, but I still managed to turn in all my columns and features. They weren’t brilliant, but what do you expect? My wife wanted to kill Dez; colleagues of mine were amazed that I was even entertaining the notion; but I was committed to CI.
Then the funeral date was arranged. It fell on the black and white section deadline – the big one. I was still travelling to London for this and I had to tell Dez that I couldn’t come down. He actually asked me if there was any way I could go to the funeral and then drive down straight after it. I said that I didn’t think that was possible. He ended the phone call.
The day before the funeral I received an email from Dez telling me that the majority of my services would no longer be required; this was down to my being unable to attend the deadline – thereby letting him down and because the standard of my work, which he felt was poor, had reached new lows that month. All I was asked to supply from that point on would be Movers & Shakers, for which I’d get a flat £100 per month and my Hotshots column, for which I’d get £50. He cast some doubt as to whether Hotshots would last very long, claiming that it was not a popular column. He thanked me for all the work I’d put in and that was that – no mention of my bereavement; just a formal notice – via email – telling me that he was letting me go.
I exploded. It was the ultimate kick in the balls. He’d cut everything from me, including all my news coverage, which accounted for 70% of my salary. I was known in the industry as one of the best news journalist and I’d done heaps to rid CI of its ‘regurgitating press release’ image, which was indeed true when it first started. I had sacrificed so much for Skinn and his magazine and because my mother had the audacity to die at the wrong time of the month, he hung me out to dry. To say I thought he was a bastard would be a slight understatement. I was told that my work would be spread out through the team until a suitable replacement was found. He said the reason he was taking news from me was that even though I was good at it and had a huge address book of contacts, I needed to be producing better quality on my two remaining columns – one of which was still the most popular in the magazine and amazingly got dropped after I departed in 2001 because no one else could write it. Fuck knows what sense that was supposed to make.
I called him and Kerry, bless her, didn’t allow him to screen my call. She was disgusted at him and even had an argument with him over his decision; but the truth was, she also knew what his other motives were. But first, we argued. There were tears from both of us. I said things I never dreamt I’d ever say to him and in the end I was put back in charge of two other columns and my money was up to £500 a month; but I was no longer required to come in to the office and eventually this ‘new deal’ would be reduced, either over the next six months or as soon as I got another job.
It was the first and only time I think someone actually got some concession from him and that was achieved by laying the most massive guilt trip on him. One of the things that came out of this first real big argument between us was a few of his paranoid feelings. He accused me of trying to start a rival magazine up, I laughed at him, said I suspected he believed that and explained my idea of a complimentary highbrow comics magazine to CI – which he would publish; how I’d often dropped the suggestion into conversations with him – which he remembered – and how I was going to present the idea to him. I hadn’t bothered taking the idea to him because he had taught me enough about publishing for me to do my own maths and realise that the idea was a non-starter.
This threw him off guard, but he was not finished. He then accused me of setting the tax office on his company. A year earlier, he had been put through an audit and had struggled to show the legitimacy of his business – all of his employees were freelancers, but they were essentially contracted to him as personal slaves. We paid our own tax because it suited him that way. We got no benefits such as sick pay and holidays and would get no sympathy from Dez at all, because we had an issue to get out and we couldn’t say, ‘sorry readers there’s no issue this month because the news editor’s ill.’ We (eventually Loriann and Mike Conroy) were employees of his – there was no two ways about it. Supplying us with company cars; making sure he had control over our hours, our free time; his – up to the point where he fired me – reluctance to allow us to take on other jobs in case they clashed with his precious magazine. Skinn could argue that we were all freelance and self-employed, but if the Inland Revenue wanted to investigate him deeply they would have found so many inconsistencies. Fortunately for Dez, he paid a top quality accountant to make sure shit like this went away. The truth was that I hadn’t set the tax man on him and I told him so. What I neglected to mention was my wife had and she kept it from me for years, because she knew that it would have really angered me.
She did this because of the way he described her and talked about her and she wanted him to suffer, even if it meant that all of us lost our jobs. Sadly, his jammy bastard factor prevented the IRS from doing much more than making some cursory inquiries.
But it wasn’t my proposed magazine, nor was it the taxman, it was the plain fact that Dez liked to bully people and I’d been the target of this bullying from the very beginning, but as I said, it had started to get nastier after we returned from San Diego; by the time my mother died it reached its nadir. Fortunately for me some things happened in the intervening years that improved things.
Why do you think I was relieved he got Kerry? He had obviously grown bored of my company and was looking for something else to fill the void and become his mate. He fancied having a woman this time (although he probably would have been happy with a man with nice tits)... With this change at CI it seemed it was time for him to find a newer friend...
Next time: would you be disappointed if I said - more of the same?
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