by Dr. Jeffrey Lant
Author’s program note. Winston Churchill who left the world so many memorable lines, said this one, too: “No young man should ever take no for an answer.” Allowing for the fact that these days “young man” would need to be changed to “young person”, what he said is as relevant today as it ever was, not least because of the challenging and seemingly unending dismal state of the economy, USA, Europe, the world.
Sadly, though I sound like an old fogey for saying it, today’s young people take no for an answer all the time, seeming to expect it, and certainly having little or no inkling of what to do when it hits them in the face. And this is a problem indeed, calling for immediate scrutiny and action.
To set the scene for this article, which can (kept and used) change your life for the better over and over again, go to any search engine and find the tune “True Grit”, composed by Elmer Bernstein for John Wayne’s 1969 film. Persistence, unwavering determination, in the face of obstacles big and small, is what true grit means. And that’s why, even in our adulterated days, it is in such short supply.
London, Summer 1977, your author, in a single day, learns the unalloyed value and usefulness of persistence.
It was 1977. London was packed with folks from everywhere who had come to find the England of their dreams and memories, and to see H.M. the Queen, celebrating (along with her husband, “always a step behind” Philip of Edinburgh),her Silver Jubilee, 25 years of her (mostly) happy and glorious reign. I was there, too, but not to gawk. I had serious business I meant to transact… if I could find anyone willing to transact it with me, young, green, determined.
In 1977, I was a newly minted Ph.D. of well under 1000 days. My credentials — including that Ph.D. from Harvard — were impeccable. “That and fifty cents,” said my ever-practical and deflating father, “gets you a cup of coffee.” I took his point, not least because 1977 was a year of recession, where would be junior professors, from even the best universities, were having a very difficult time getting jobs, much less jobs they liked. I knew that only too well. Employers, academic or otherwise, did what employers always do in such situations if left unobserved: they raise the level of qualifications required… and slash the salary as much as possible.
That was why I was in London, to turn myself into the kind of gilt-edge property even the most supercilious of institutions would rush to recruit. My strategy went something like this:
* take my Harvard doctoral dissertation and cannibalize it for articles that could be sold to appropriate popular publications as well as published by appropriate academic journals.
* once the articles were published, use these to convince an appropriate publisher of my dreams (and I knew who they were) that I as a first-time book author was worth the money they’d have to invest to launch me and my book publishing career.
* Use the published articles and first book (remember, the first of many) to leverage a suitable position at a suitable (read “condescending and renowned”) institution.
Short, sweet, piece of cake — not.
The first challenge requiring persistence involved the cannibalization of my dissertation, mined for two very different kinds of publication: popular (newspapers and magazines) and academic. I wanted to publish at least 10-15 popular articles from what some (with consummate snobbery) called “ephemeral” publications… and an equal number for academic journals bearing lofty names and high credentials but few readers. By pursuing this two-pronged strategy I got maximum value from the dissertation and paved the way for its ultimate use as the launching pad for my publishing career and the Nobel Prize for Literature, which must, in due time, be granted. (Still waiting.)
Writing the articles, researching where to send them, organizing an efficient production process.
“Well begun is half done”, we say in New England, and fortunately for me the dissertation (entitled “Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee 1887″, covering the creation and perfection of English royal pageantry) covered events known, attended, and loved by millions of people. This apt selection of subject made the achievement of my objective the more likely than those who has selected more recondite (read “dull”) subjects. I wanted fame, acclaim, and all the trimmings therefrom and selected my subject accordingly.
I confess now (but never would then, insouciance being an essential part of a Harvard degree) that this was demanding… and needed discipline, focus, and persistence. It also required at least a one-way ticket from Boston, Massachusetts to London, for you see the overwhelming majority of these publications were there. Money being tight I worked hard to get it. I won’t say I resorted to cutting grass and baby sitting… but it was close.
And this is why on a sweltering Summer day, so hot English mates stripped thereby exposing the whitest of flesh, that is why, I say, I was standing on Fleet Street, my lengthy list of publications in hand, poised to enter the Daily Telegraph and ascendant celebrity.
That confident pipe dream lasted for 5 minutes, maybe less. No, the features editor wasn’t in; what’s more if she were, she wouldn’t see you anyway, Harvard man that you claim to be. Yes, this mere receptionist all but kicked me out shouting “Get out maggot.” I was shocked… and it was but the prelude to a very, very long day of being turned down by newspapers great, mediocre, and provincial, many of which I had thought (only that morning too) beneath my superior notice Oh, how the mighty had fallen.
And so it went, with only fellow countryman Johnny Apple of the New York Times agreeing to see me. He was a true gentleman, he was, the late Johnny, for all that he told me (in the nicest possible way) that hell would freeze over… not least because some of my article subjects the revered New York Times was paying him to render. And that was that.
The “luck” that is persistence.
And so it went until at last I was at the end of my day, my tether, and my list… just two more places left to reject me and my once vibrant ideas. I was bushed, crestfallen, irked, with a dollop of self-pity (I’m sure) in the mix.
And so I entered the offices of the Associated Press, London, one of the most important journalistic operatives on earth. And there I commenced to tell my story to a bored clerk, the clerk who had the power to crush 1/2 of my available prospects… a giant to a fly. And then, then, a disembodied voice bouncing off the wall divider… “Did you say your name is Jeffrey and that you’re from Massachusetts?”
It was as if the voice of God.
And in less time than it takes me to tell you, there was a chipper person before me with an American smile and directness. “You look terrible” my benefactor said, “Come in and tell me what’s on your mind.” And I did, to a length which only his good nature and courtesy would have excused. But from this encounter, which so easily might not have occurred, everything else, everything else ensued… for Reporter Jeffrey, whose surname I to my everlasting chagrin long ago misplaced… published a story titled “A Massachusetts Yankee in Queen Victoria’s Court”… a marvelous story, a story of intelligence and timeliness, well written too. And this story ran everywhere on this planet thanks to the giant reach of the Associated Press.
But I had one more place to go, The Times, the paper Charles Dickens dubbed “The Thunderer”. And here again, nirvana for the Features Editor saw me, knew AP reporter Jeffrey who was indeed from Massachusetts, and told me to prepare one article for her perusal. It was on her desk the next day… and accepted at once; the first of five articles bought by The Times and syndicated to the world; articles which my soon-to-be editor Roger Machell read in his office at Hamish Hamilton, that exquisite house I so longed to be part of and thanks to my AP benefactor now was. How I would like to see that man again and shake his hand, for he — and my own persistence — were decisive in shaping my life.
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