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DB Lampoon! Long Road

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So you believe in overnight success? Wake up to the tedious torture of paying your dues, writes Peter Sherwood [PHOTO COURTESY OF Unsplash]

The Malcolm Gladwell book Outliers discusses success and how none of it is instant; it takes 10,000 hours of intensive practice to achieve mastery of complex skills. But no guarantee. (I played tennis for at least 37,000 hours and I’m crap.)

The Beatles shooting to stardom seemed instantaneous. In fact, they played four to five sets a day in cheap dives to become “an overnight hit”. Bill Gates for years devoted himself obsessively to programming on one of only two powerful university computers before making US$100 billion. As for journalism, I endured 10,000 hours of rejection before I could make a living at it, and enough hard times to make hara-kiri a happy option. Trips to the bottom of the journalism barrel started as a reporter for the Shell Oil staff magazine in the UK. Not exactly The New Yorker or Rolling Stone but it beat homelessness.

First up, from London to hideous Colchester in a British Rail carriage smelling of kippers and disinfectant, to an equally noxious oil storage depot. The place reeked of tedium and generations of lives wasted. Vibrating with ennui I wandered in to meet a cadaverous accountant, and forcing a grin I asked, “So you’ve been here 38 years. Boy, you must have seen a thing or two.” (Pathetically taking the piss, I agree). Silence. Then, “No… not really.” Before self-immolation became the easiest way out, he leapt up with a burst of excitement: “Yes, there was one time… you see number two tank over there? Germans dropped a bomb on it, and it didn’t explode!” Shamelessly I enquired if that was recently. “In the war, in the war!”

My exit that day only led me to somewhere even more desolate and bereft of humanity; a place of dank waste and despair: Slough, immortalised in the 1937 Sir John Betjeman poem, Slough: “Come friendly bomb and fall on Slough.” And the setting for the TV comedy The Office. Here was a corner of the planet so grim and devoid of nature as to make the Canadian tar sands seem idyllically bucolic. Inside the company, bodies shambled around lifelessly, and who wouldn’t be a zombie when the most exciting product you produce is the black goo that sticks linoleum tiles to the floor.

Overcome with despair I might have jumped from an open window, if there was one. No lush green in this dystopian hollow. The only green was the local pub The Green Man, a grimy 1950s joint with sticky carpet stinking of stale ale and vinegar, and the only “lush” a lunchtime drunk staggering around in the car park. Slough takes bleak to unchartered depths. The last straw arrived with the offering of an anaemic pub Scotch Egg to go with the tepid brown water they called beer. I’d had enough and hightailed to the door and a taxi to the station, boarding a train headed in the wrong direction. I didn’t care: Suicide City was behind me.

In Hong Kong my first freelance assignment was rewriting a 500-page Victorian novel into simplified English from a pokey flat in Wanchai. It wasn’t six weeks in Bermuda, but at least it wasn’t Slough.

Peter Sherwood has lived in DB for 20+ years. The former head of an international public relations firm, he is the author of 15 books and has written around 400 satirical columns for the South China Morning Post.

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