Dez Skinn became inextricably linked to my life. He’d phone up at all hours, expecting me to drop everything to talk to him, and I invariably did. I was at his beck and call almost 24/7, it was the way he liked it and it gave him pleasure to see me at odds with my wife. He also seemed to get a perverse kick out of putting me in danger or uncompromising positions. The San Diego trip was memorable for the Tijuana trip, but the day before we were due to fly back to the UK (well, I was, he was extending his stay in New York for a few more days) we spent the day in Los Angeles. We had gone there a day early to attend a party at Marv Wolfman’s Tarzana home. It was an interesting gathering of a previous generation of writers and artists. Many of those there were heroes of mine from my youth. Dez thought that if we hung around long enough, perhaps Marv would offer us his spare room or the couch, but when this seemed highly unlikely, we headed into central LA to look for a hotel. We found one just off Ventura Freeway; it was a flea pit of a place and the guy at the desk seemed very surprised that we wanted the room for the night and not just a couple of hours. “That guy thought we were gay,” I said to Dez later, but he looked at me like I spoken in Latvian.
The aircon worked but sounded like someone grinding a troll’s bones in a blender; the bathroom was reasonably clean, but the carpet next to my bed seemed to have some strange growth in it and I was convinced my bed clothes were dirty. Dez slept naked and unashamed, I had a T shirt and boxer shorts on and would have worn a hat if I’d taken one with me. He slept soundly apart from an incident at around 4am when we heard shouting, screaming and a fight. Dez turned over and grunted, I pulled the covers up to my hairline and prayed. I was in the shower a little after 6 and ready to go by 8. Dez didn’t surface until gone 9 and he’s a slow starter by choice. I packed the bags into the car; he smoked a fag.
Then as we were about to go and I could feel a sense of relief come over me, he started talking to two prostitutes who worked the hotel. I sat in the car and just hoped he would think of something better to do, when he calls me out of the car. “The girls have never met anyone from England before.”
“That’s nice,” I mumbled.
“They’ve offered us a freebee if we want it.” He was grinning from ear to ear.
“Oh Jesus...” I said, turned on my heels and got back into the car, but not before one of the girl’s offered me a quick blow job.
We got to LAX and his flight was an hour before mine. That hour I spent in LA on my own was glorious.
It was either work for Dez or stack shelves and my wife would have had me stacking shelves every day! But for me it was a love of the job that rode over everything else and that meant I could put up with the ritual humiliation of being the target for most of Dez’s funny stories of incompetence. He, for years, had a sentence I wrote, blown up and stuck on the office wall – the line was ‘Not unsurprisingly’, which is indeed a double negative and makes no sense at all. It would have saved energy and humiliation had I just written ‘Surprisingly’, but I often fell into these kinds of situation, much of it brought on either by too much drug consumption, being so damned tired or fear of him. Getting six hours sleep in 72 hours was the norm. But that’s a cop out; excuses which might have an element of truth in them – I had a lot of raw talent but I was also pretty much nowhere near the standard that was expected of someone writing for a professional magazine. I can see that now, hindsight is a marvellous thing; but at the time, when I should have been educated, I was being crucified and the more he intimidated me, bullied, pilloried and abused me the more anxious and nervous I became. He could never understand why I made such elemental mistakes – neither could I at the time – but now I realise that my head was swimming with a mixture of fear and confusion. Perhaps a psychologist would suggest I liked the attention, or perhaps they would say that I was so scared of making mistakes I made more.
I also had myself to blame, mainly because I could have stemmed the flow of abuse considerably had I bothered to actually read a lot of what I was doing; but you see humans have this infallibility that makes them look at an edited piece of work and believe that it was what they submitted in the first instance. I’d read some of my columns and, by golly, that was what I’d written originally and it was good! Oddly enough, it wasn't until I started my own magazine that I really embraced being an editor; the buck stopped with me so therefore I had to be much better.
So why did Dez keep me on for so long? A lot of it had to do with Sarah Bolesworth. She recognised raw talent and Dez did as well; he, on good days, used to refer to us with diamond analogies. I mined them, he polished them. No one could write the way I did and I mean that in a positive way; he made it make sense; as simple as that. Sometimes he edited things just for the heck of it; almost like he couldn’t possibly let things pass because I didn’t deserve an easy ride. Sometimes I’d sit there and wonder just what the fuck was wrong with a sentence and even after he’d ‘improved’ it, I still couldn’t see it. Sometimes you could tell it was just him being an arse; we would be doing the last job of the night, I would be ready to go home and he'd start deconstructing a perfectly adequate sentence because he didn't want me to go, yet...
Yet he was teaching me to be a very adequate editor. I had and still have terrible blind spots, but I could do a good job if left to my own devices and I was learning all the time and more often than not starting to think like an editor.
Over the years I was there I took over the troubleshooting role that Dez had once revelled in but lost interest in as technological advances started to escape him. I was the problem solver. I was the theoretical man stuck halfway up a mountainside with no equipment and a shoe missing – a typical Dez fantasy scenario to liven up otherwise mundane problem solving. No point in panicking in that situation, you’ll kill yourself. How do you make the best out of bad situation? Sometimes he couldn’t see the wood for the trees, so I would step in and come up with a solution; sometimes I wouldn’t even have to come up with it, all I’d need to do was move him in the right direction. My forte was squeezing a quart into a pint pot. I showed that problem solving was one of my strong points and as I became more and more valuable to Dez, he started using me even more – even though I didn’t always know about it and not always for what you might imagine.
Within a couple of years, I was one of two figureheads at CI. I was the person whose name was attached to letters to people that were far from nice. I became the person who dealt with the idiots, the arseholes and the time wasters. It was my name on the emails and the letters that were sent to people who needed to be put straight by Dez’s wisdom. If he wanted to be nasty or horrid it would be my name on the letter. I started to wonder about this when mail addressed for me had started to be opened. He came clean, explaining to me how much a jolly jape and a wheeze it was using me as his pit-bull.
Dez slowly and surreptitiously controlled my working life beyond my knowledge.
This was a contributing factor over and above the obvious reasons why Dez and I stopped communicating in 1997. Month after month of slow erosion – I was nothing more than a tool for him – begins to grind you down. When we had our big air-clearing (as he later would refer to it) our relationship changed almost immediately. I was no longer embedded in the CI Finchley base, but I’d suddenly become important to Dez again. He had regained his closest ally (I wasn’t a traitor after all, the same as I hadn’t been a thief) while managing to move me out of the main duties of the magazine, allowing him to do his own moving.
I was still completely mystified about who was going to produce all the news for the magazine; it represented most of the editorial content. I would find out in the worst of ways a couple of months later. With the recent traumas starting to slip behind me, I had begun getting other freelance work that required my knowledge of DTPing rather than as an editor. By the middle of the year, I was back up to earning what I had and the situation at CI had continued to progress back to a point where I had almost blotted out the horrors of February 1998. I was still vexed with him, but my outlook had changed towards the job, it probably was exacerbated by what happened next…
I was attending the last ever UKCAC, the comics convention that would be replaced by the UK Comics Festival in Bristol. I was in London for the first time in a year and I felt a little isolated. I’d seen Dez a couple of times, but he’d been deliberately distant – part of me would like to think he felt a little ashamed at the way he’d treated me, but equally it could have been that he was scared that I would bite his head off. I saw Mike Conroy, who had just suffered the same fate as the other founder members of the retail organisation CoBRA [Comic Book Retailers Association] and gone out of business owing enormous amounts of money. We sat, had a drink, talked about old times and things that were happening and suddenly he stopped me in mid-sentence and said, “Oh God. He hasn’t told you, has he?”
“Told me what?”
“Fuck! The fucking liar. I said to him I didn’t want you to find out this way. Bastard.”
“What are you talking about, Mike?”
“I’m writing all the news for CI now.” I was stunned. I just sat there and… sat. Mike asked me if I was all right. I nodded. Mike Conroy had been one of Dez’s oldest friends and the two had known each other for years – so it really shouldn’t have been that much of a surprise. A year earlier when Mike closed his store he went to work for the centre that handled CI’s distribution. Dez said to the manager of that business, Colin Campbell (who incidentally was another old acquaintance of mine from the 1970s) one evening that in an ideal world Mike would be at CI and I would be working for Colin. It was not an ideal world and I did one day work with Colin, but in an advisory and consultancy level for one day. It seemed that fate had allowed Dez to replace me with Mike and get me back all sweetness and light at the same time. He really was a Jammy Bastard. I didn’t speak to Dez all day and went home early, feeling somewhat deflated. The bastard had fucked me over again. Except, he wasn’t the only one, but it would be a few more years before I realised what part Conroy played in it.
This changed me, and subsequently my attitudes towards Dez. Then my small moment of triumph happened. The issues after I was relieved of most of my duties showed a great lack of direction. There were copious mistakes and the news suffered once again from the regurgitated press release syndrome I’d succeeded in ridding. It wasn’t really Mike’s fault, he needed to build up his list of contacts, he needed to win the approval of the professionals, he needed to be in constant dialogue with them and above all else he needed to learn how to write it. He hadn’t got close to that when he started, so he was working with what Dez was sending him. I was quietly gloating as more and more letters appeared dissing the news and they weren’t from my friends or me writing under assumed names; they were arriving from all corners of the country and from people who were known to the magazine, all asking the same question – Where was Phil? Mike’s baptism was difficult enough without him knowing the golden rule of being a news editor for Dez. You are only news editor in name only. What Dez says goes, and you’d be best advised to always treat anything Dez sent you with a top priority. Mike didn’t because, deep down, he believed Dez had lost track with what was really happening and felt he would be able to re-educate him - the new wife was trying to change hubby. This built up a wall between the two of them that would become one of the centres of many conversations I’d have with Dez over the next few years. Conroy treated his new found position as a way of changing Dez’s attitude; getting him to incorporate more of Mike’s ideas; this wasn’t ever the way it worked. I knew this, but Mike, as he was with his news coverage, was as naive as he was inexperienced.
Then two months before their San Diego trip, I got a phone call from Dez. Mike was having trouble getting in on deadline – even though he lived much closer than me, he had to go around London and it took him longer to get to Finchley than it took me. This was the reason given, but reading between the lines (and having my suspicions confirmed by Kerry on my triumphant return), Dez missed me, and he especially missed my problem solving abilities more than anything else. I was also a very useful final sub editor, whereas Mike couldn’t spot a typo on the end of his nose. I might not have been the best writer he could have wanted, but I’d been there so long I knew how the magazine worked almost better than Dez himself.
I returned to the office for the first time in nearly two years and it was like slipping on an old glove, except there was one difference – an indifference towards Dez. No, that's the wrong word, more like confidence about myself. I was now there on my terms and that meant we were there on equal terms and that meant that on occasions we’d end up arguing. Not like him and Sarah, but bad enough for me to know I always held the trump card. He needed me at that time – I didn’t know how long for, but I was going to milk it while it lasted.
The problem was I think at this point he actually started to genuinely like me. Our relationship had become, for the first time ever, one of two mates working on a hobby together, it was far more relaxed than it had ever been when I was his ‘apprentice’ and I was just as likely to tell Dez to ‘fuck off’ as he would say ‘how can you do this to me?’ The thing was Mike was not me and Dez couldn’t have the sadistic fun with him as he had with me. I don’t mean the humiliation and bullying, I mean the good times. The marathon film and TV binges, the many weed sessions, the fine restaurants, the travel, the computer game battles and the openness. Now, however, if I wasn’t happy I’d make sure he knew. I also stopped talking to him like he was my superior and began to talk as an equal. I don’t think he ever really liked it, but it made for simpler and more direct conversations.
Mike had slipped quickly into the role of dog and Kerry was growing more and more exasperated at how she saw the magazine going downhill fast. Mike was hardly capable of producing his own designs at the time, so either Dez or Kerry had to supply him templates wherein he had to supply the words. They were spoon-feeding him and yet he still struggled. It was quite remarkable and also unbelievably gratifying – Dez had manoeuvred things to such an extent so he could get rid of me and give his older friend my job and his older friend turned out to be considerably worse than me. Mike’s grasp of English might have been marginally better, but he couldn’t do any of the things that Dez relied on me to do. Mike wanted to do his own layouts, but he didn’t seem capable of following the house rules. Not only did Kerry think Mike was useless, she also didn’t really like him as a person. She found him weak and passive and his conversation was rooted firmly in the 1960s, an era before Kerry’s memory began. Plus Dez’s relationship with Sarah grew increasingly more acrimonious – mainly because Kerry was going back to her and complaining about Mike and wondering why the hell I wasn’t doing his – my old – job. Dez stuck with Mike because Mike was his old mate, he couldn’t be seen admitting defeat or making a mistake (or because he could bully him) and this was to cause the San Diego meltdown.
Next time: more childish politics...