by | The Writing Desk

Listen to the voice inside your head, and write down what it says. No filter, no editor.


Thank you so much for agreeing to be a part of The Writing Desk Blog.

Now, imagine I’m about to introduce you to an auditorium, filled with the smiling faces of folks fuelled by caffeine and an eagerness to learn. What would I say?

“Hello everyone, I’d like to introduce…

Jan Dekker, who makes complicated words make sense, and makes sensible words sound human

Here’s the part where we’d sit down and try and look comfortable next to the microphones. Are you sitting comfortably? Then let’s begin…

Can you name the business book that’s always on your desk? (I’m talking about the one that’s covered in pencil marks, coffee stains and has turned down corners…)

We, Me Them and It, by John Simmons. The seminal book on writing creatively and powerfully for business. And the place where ‘verbal identity’ began. All good desks, or the shelves nearby, should also make room for Problem Solved, by Michael Johnson, a clever and entertaining breakdown of how graphic design fixes things. Naturally, words are involved.

What’s your all-time favourite advertising campaign?

I’m rather ashamed that all my answers are old, which either means advertising really is dead, like people say, or that it’s stopped getting through to me. Or maybe I’ve just stopped paying attention. That said, the answers are: The Economist, Should have gone to Specsavers (even that’s more than 20 years old!) and the 60s US VW ads by Doyle Dane Bernbach. Those self-deprecating Pot Noodle ads, where the brand celebrated people’s worst thoughts about it, were good too. So were those wild Lynx ads that made knowingly daft claims about what Lynx did for young men’s sex lives.

“Everyone has a book in them…” Or so the saying goes. What do you think/know/believe is the secret to good writing?

Listen to the voice inside your head, and write down what it says. No filter, no editor. Just get it down. Worry about the doubts and details later.

If you were just starting out, what advice would you give yourself? Which book or books would you read first?

I’d read John Simmons’ books – the one above and the other two in the trilogy: The Invisible Grail and Dark Angels. I’d also tell myself to distrust people who rage about grammar rules.

Silence? Radio? Or music while you work?

Silence. Just me and the tinnitus. If music is playing, I have to pay attention to it. And my brain can only run one application at once. The film The Lives of Others quotes Lenin saying that if he listened to Beethoven’s Appassionata too much he’d never get the revolution done. Similarly, if I listened to too much Steely Dan or Shostakovich, I’d never get another annual report finished.

What are your top three novels of all time – and why?

Impossible to pick a top three, but here are a great three…

Everything is Illuminated, by Jonathan Safran Foer. Staggering creativity and way with voices, along with an emotional gut punch.

The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro. Another, though very different, immersion in a narrator’s voice. Understatement and melancholy. Much-loved things, both.

Watership Down, by Richard Adams. Just a beautiful piece of writing and storytelling. I owned it for about 40 years before reading it to my kids as a bedtime book. We were all entranced (I think). Might also have welled up on the last page.

What’s the best thing you’ve ever written? Why did it rock your world?

I’d hate to claim anything as the ‘best ever’. But I was very glad to be involved in the Windrush Lessons Learned Review, and hope it actually made a difference to people’s lives. I’ve also just reread a poem-type-thing I wrote called ‘Dad Fell Asleep’ after a works outing to Tower Hamlets Cemetery (yes, really) in 2015. I was unexpectedly moved by it. And donkeys years ago, I got to go to the West Coast of Ireland to write about an amazing new golf development there, winging it as a design and architecture expert. The client ran the whole 1,700 piece on their site, no changes. How often does that happen? I’m sorry to have to tell you they later had to sell the place to…Donald Trump.

What’s the last thing you bought? And yes, that packet of chewing gum counts.

A nasi lemak at C&R Café & Restaurant in Soho*. (*Facts may have been slightly altered to protect the reader from boredom)

Who was your teenage crush? 

Corinne Drewery from Swing Out Sister

Can you describe the best meal you’ve ever eaten?

A chateaubriand at the Hotel Adler near Stuttgart in about 1981, en route to my first ski trip. I think it stands out in my memory because it was the first really posh dinner I’d ever had. Another contender would be an Indonesian rijstaffel at the now defunct Jaya restaurant in Amsterdam. A spicy smorgasbord that fills the table, yet vanishes effortlessly.

What’s your favourite tipple? Is it wine, beer – a cask-aged malt?

Almost impossible to answer (I love all of the above), but, like Madonna, I’m partial to Timothy Taylor Landlord (that’s an ale). I’ll add a Talisker chaser. And then a Trippel Karmeliet (that’s a beer from Belgium). With dinner, I’ll have white Burgundy of some description.

If I were to give you a private jet, David Attenborough as a tour guide and a month off work – all expenses paid – where would you go and what or who would you write about – and why?

I’d look to forgo the jet for something a bit more sustainable, like trains. I think I’d let Attenborough surprise me. And then write about the surprise. 

What’s in your pockets?

Coins, car keys, dust.

Pen and ink, pencil and paper or keyboard and screen? What’s your writing style?

Get the information out of people’s heads with pen and paper (I still use the shorthand I learned as a newspaper reporter, though I’m getting less good at reading it back). Then make it make sense on screen. Yes, I use Word. I know lots of writers who bend over backwards not to use it, but I can’t see the point. 

Do you read any blogs or magazines about writing? (And I mean read, not just subscribe to and delete/leave on your desk and recycle?)

Not much of a one for newsletters, but like most people of good sense and judgement, I enjoy Nick Parker’s Tone Knob. I also enjoy WTFW?! by my corporate reporting friends at Falcon Windsor. 

Tea – or coffee? What’s your poison?

First drink of the day: Hot lemon, closely followed by black coffee. Mid-morning: black Early Grey. Post-lunch: black lapsang souchong, though that’s getting worryingly scarce. Late afternoon: black coffee.

Do you have a favourite cup or mug? Can you describe it?

No particular fave, but I do have a couple of mugs with Panini-style cartoon portraits of Leeds United [JD1] players. They’re by PaniniCheapskates. Ideal gift for the football fan in your life (other teams are available).

What was your most adored children’s book? And character?

Peter & The Wolf was the first book I learned to read aloud in English. Obviously, I liked the wolf. Grumpy, mad Captain Haddock in the TinTin books was always a favourite. Now worried that I’m becoming him.

Your favourite word?

Impossible to answer. But it’ll usually be one of those words that bangs and clatters its way around your mouth, and today that’s ‘ramshackle’. Word not in the English language: sehnsucht, or maybe weldschmerz.

Your most loathed word? (You know, the one that makes you shudder and say “Ew!”?)

Apart from ‘holibobs’ and ‘toggle’, I don’t really have it in for words, like poor old ‘moist’, which we’re all meant to hate. But I do very much have a thing about ordinary, innocent words being co-opted by the forces of corporate chloroform. First, they came for ‘solution’ and ‘alignment’. Then they came for ‘legacy’ and forced it to mean ‘old’. Then they came for ‘talent’, ‘cohort’, ‘population’, ‘geography’, ‘roadmap’ and even little old ‘lens’. Then they put ‘skill’ and ‘set’ together to make ‘skillset’ and put ‘value’ and ‘add’ together to make ‘value-add’. We tell clients to relax because language evolves. But what happens when they make it evolve in ways we don’t like?

Where can we find you? – Browsing online or lost in the aisles of a bookstore?

Both. I’m online for a living, really, whether it’s researching stuff or falling into distraction traps. But, where I live, we’re spoilt with a very fine bookshop, so I try to pop in there as often as I can.

Favourite song lyric of all time? And why?

You think we look pretty good together

You think my shoes are made of leather

But I’m a substitute for another guy
I look pretty tall but my heels are high
The simple things you see are all complicated

I look pretty young but I’m just backdated, yeah

Substitute, The Who

I don’t even particularly like The Who, but this has always hit me really hard as an encapsulation of low self-esteem and imposter syndrome – things we all recognise.

Eleanor Rigby
Died in the church and was buried along with her name
Nobody came
Father McKenzie
Wiping the dirt from his hands as he walks from the grave
No one was saved

Eleanor Rigby, The Beatles

I guess I’m drawn to things that wind me emotionally. Films, poems, music, whatever. And this does that.

Name the artist who is guaranteed to get you up on the dance floor.

‘Only Heineken can do this,’ as those old ads used to say. But, seriously, some bangers will always unfreeze the limbs, so She Sells Sanctuary by The Cult, Life During Wartime by Talking Heads (Stop Making Sense version), Decent Days and Nights by Futureheads, Teenage Kicks by The Undertones and Age of Consent by New Order. That sort of thing.

Do you have any strange writing rituals you’d like to share with us?

Write a halfway coherent sentence. Reward myself with a glance at the cricket score. Write another passable sentence. Jump into a Youtube rabbit hole. Finish a whole paragraph. Doomscroll through Twitter. And so on.

What are you working on today? What’s in the pipeline?

Just about to finish an annual report. Also working on a report about hydrogen, or more specifically why it will only be the low-carbon fuel of the future if we can lay hands on enough water to produce it . And working myself up to publish a rambling piece on my teenage obsession with England’s slowest-ever batter (the cricket sort of batter, not the edible kind).

Can you describe the last photograph you took?

The one of my desk that’s on this page. Before that, a misty, deserted Ely station at an unfeasibly early hour, before a trip to London for a client’s annual conference. 

What piece of advice really changed you as a writer?

I really should have a blindingly clear memory of this, but don’t. It was probably something I learned early on in my newspaper days, like the fact that sub-editors cut copy from the bottom up, so it’s a good idea to put the most important stuff at the top.

What was the last thing you wrote that had nothing to do with your job?

A piece about how I met Jimmy White, tried to scrounge a fag off him and nearly ended up working on a snooker magazine. During lockdown, I was part of a project with writers group 26, where writers and artists evoked a place that meant a lot to both of them. I got to work with the wonderful Mychael Barratt and we did this (it’s the ninth one down).

What’s your favourite quote about the process of writing?

‘If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.’

Elmore Leonard

Who is your favourite Mad Man – or Woman?

Roger Sterling.

Can you name your favourite film – and tell us why you love it?

Quite a few films I stayed up to watch with my mum, dad or both – The Masque of the Red Death, The Omen, The Devil Rides Out, Peeping Tom – are still big favourites. I guess my folks were quite relaxed about me watching scary films. But they must have been even more laid back to let me see The Godfather when I was barely 12. It was the film’s UK TV premiere, spread over two nights. There was a real sense of occasion (no video recorders then, so if you missed it, you really did miss it), and I remember the reverential hush in our house as we took it in. When I watch it now, I revel in the middle section, from when Tom Hagen gets back from Hollywood to when Michael finishes his dinner at Louis Restaurant. The way the dramatic tension builds alongside Michael’s character arc is perfect. But I also recall the power of that rite of passage, being let into the word of adult things, as if through an unlocked back door. 

Which book or books is/are by your bed today?

Nick Drake – The Life, by Richard Morton Jack. Can’t wait to start it, but must first finish The High Nest (‘t Hooge Nest in Dutch), by Roxane van Iperen. It’s about two Jewish sisters from Amsterdam who carried on their underground work while in hiding during the Nazi occupation, even turning their own safe house into a haven for others. I’m reading the English version, and I have a feeling the translation isn’t the best (also, the edition is titled in line with the tiresome publishing trend for calling all books on a certain subject ‘The [noun] of Auschwitz’. I’m using the Dutch title here as a sort of protest). But the story is so extraordinary, I can’t let go. 

Who was or is your greatest teacher?

Jim Beard, who taught me A level sociology and very gently and patiently changed the way I saw the world. 

Who is your favorite artist?

Depends who I’ve seen most recently. Seeing work in exhibitions, as opposed to in books, hits me in a way that puts that artist at the pinnacle for me in that moment. Last show I saw was Chris Killip’s documentary photography from the 1980s. Properly moved me. A favourite painting I keep coming back to is The Singel Bridge at Paleisstraat in Amsterdam, by George Hendrik Breitner (1898).

Where do you like to work best – is it at a desk, in an office or in a coffee shop? And would you send us a picture of where the magic happens?

My desk (it was my father’s desk, and my grandfather’s before that). The pic will be out of date once the builders have finished my new study.

And finally, where can this caffeine-fuelled audience find you?

Only on LinkedIn at the mo. But there will be a website one day. Really there will.

Written By Haydn Grey

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