The Red Notebooks

Introduction to the Extracts

The original introduction:

In what children call the olden days – 1979, to be exact – I was on the brink of achieving an ambition and scoring a job on The Guardian. It was the first step, as I saw it, to becoming recognised as a writer. A writ-or.

What writ-ors did, someone told me, was to write things down. It was important to keep a notebook, what some call a ‘commonplace book’, to jot down anything interesting one sees, hears or reads.

Almost every pretentious young journalist embarks on an exercise like this, I have since learned. My researches suggest that they normally keep it going for about a fortnight. Though I am, in almost every other respect, lazy, disorganised and fickle, I have kept jotting things down for more than 27 years. I think the only other habits I have kept going so long are filthy ones.

These notebooks are not to be confused with the normal journalist’s notebook, used for day-to-day newspaper work, and kept for a decent interval in case there’s a libel action. I began writing down all kinds of other stuff too: any quotes, jokes or facts that made me laugh, smile, sigh, cry, think or simply raise my eyebrows. From newspapers, magazines, films, plays, books or conversations.

I did all this in little red notebooks, about which I became entirely anal and obsessive. The notebooks had to be red Silvine memo books (obtainable from all good newsagents) and I only allowed myself to use a black medium Bic pen (ditto). Since 1979, I must have lost several thousand of the Bics, but oddly I have only lost one of the notebooks, and that was only a few pages old.

Fortunately, both Silvine and Bic have remained in business, though early on they changed the cover from the notebooks from a crimson, slightly corrugated, material to a more garish scarlet made of plain card. I managed to cope with this change without therapy.

At first, I was filling four red notebooks a year. And, though by the 1990s, it had settled down to one, that still meant that by 2006 I was on No. 35 and they no longer had any clear purpose. There was no reasonable way of looking anything up.

I kept going. I nurtured the notion that I might – if I ever had nothing else to do – transfer the contents on to one of these new computer things, which hardly existed in 1979. In the meantime, the books became neater. I stopped using the original combination of longhand and half-remembered Pitman’s shorthand, in the vague hope that my son Laurie, who was developing not dissimilar tastes, interests and obsessions, might one day read them.

Then in 2004 Laurie was diagnosed with a rare and obscenely vicious cancer; he died, aged 13, in September 2005. One day, seeking solace wherever it could be found, I started re-reading some of the notebooks, and thought maybe other people might enjoy them, and that they could be a way of raising money for the Laurie Engel Fund, which my wife Hilary and I had started in conjunction with the Teenage Cancer Trust.

After a week locked away, alone with my 35 friends and a laptop, the selection emerged. The quotes and facts are, I hope, accurate – and mostly fresh and relevant. Some are poignant and, in our family situation, poignancy seems to prick us at almost every moment. Most, I hope are funny.

They are, I hope, a memorial to Laurie who was (his friends all say this too) a very funny bloke. They are also reflect what has engaged me these past 27 years.

Extracts from the Red Notebooks is published by Macmillan
Proceeds go to the Laurie Engel Fund
160 pages, £9.99
ISBN 978-0330449540

2014 update: My series of private notebooks have now reached No. 45 and I am hoping to bring out an updated edition of the book. In the meantime, copies are hard to find though they are sometimes available via Abebooks (a division of Amazon, though they don’t mention that much). These sales do not generate a charity donation. I have a small stock of copies myself which I will happily post for a small donation. Please email me.