This is a story of professional betrayal. I hope it opens your eyes. It certainly did mine.
Last year, everyone was talking about this advertisement in the New York Times:
Every year, the New York Times recommends 52 Places To Go, one place to dream about exploring each week…(and) this year, we want at least one ambitious traveler to turn our wish list into an itinerary.
We are seeking a journalist who, over the course of 2018, will go to every destination on our list and tell us the story of each place and the story of life on the road.
I clearly remember the day the email arrived on my phone. (It was the word “hire” that got my attention. Anything money-related generally does.)
As I read through the list of requirements for the writer they’d presumably pay really good money to for what were basically just words on a page, I knew my life was about to change.
(Pictured above: the “outside,” which is generally draughty and horrible in my experience.)
OMG, I thought, putting Netflix on pause and standing up, scattering nachos everywhere. This is my big chance.
The ideal candidate is a permanent student of life and astute documentarian of the world.
That’s still me, I ejaculated excitedly at myself.
Except – “student” felt like a grave error on their part. Students may have a lot of energy but they waste it all on learning, instead of actually knowing stuff. I consider myself a professor of life – someone who hasn’t had to learn anything for years.
The NYT email went on talking about me:
Media experience is required, as is fluency in English.
I’m a blogger from the north of England. I really think that speaks for itself.
I quickly scanned the remaining criteria – yes, I’ve travelled to several destinations (more than I could count on one hand, if that doesn’t sound like bragging), yes, I’m on Facebook, yes, I have experience with working with magazines thanks to my time as a Saturday morning paperboy in the 1980s – and so on.
The stars had aligned and they were literally spelling my name here.
So of course I Googled for the right email address, and immediately applied.
I won’t recount the exact wording of my application here – I admit, my youthful passion combined with the 14 litres of Dr Pepper I’d drunk while finishing off Marvel’s Iron Fist may have put me in an over-animated frame of mind.
What really matters is the response:
Dear Mr Snowden,
Thank you for your application. I’m actually a Full Stack Applications Engineer but I will definitely forward it to the right people.
Since it’s professional to always follow up, I sent a total of 364 emails to the New York Times over the following week, to a huge variety of email addresses I found online (that’s another great tip for pitching, by the way – if they work in the same building, they’re in shouting distance of your target and totally fair game for you).
Eventually they agreed to go on a conference call with me.
The job was clearly mine.
As I’ve said before, travel is massively overrated:
As a travel writer, my motto is “first impressions are everything.” My reluctance to look deeper has served me well. Most of my experiences have been fleeting and have required little effort or actual thought. But sometimes that instantly-formed thought is “UGH” – and I’ve crossed those destinations off my bucket list without a hint of regret, because the world is a big place and I only have a small mind.
In the three years since I wrote that brilliant and probably award-winning article (I haven’t checked), my disillusionment with travel has deepened. And visiting 52 places in one year? Who the hell wants to do that?
The answer is, of course, nobody.
No reader of the New York Times is going to go to all those 52 places in 2018 – therefore the whole thing is founded on a lie. You’re lying to people, guys.
This is basically what I said in my pitch.
But this wasn’t just me being needlessly offensive and narrow-minded. No – my offensive narrow-mindedness was making a point here.
As I already said, I won’t be quoting my original application (partly because I can’t actually read it), but here’s an excerpt from the conference call:
Me: So okay guys, I’ve decided I’ll take the gig – but I’ll stay home instead. No need to send me anywhere.
NYT Journo Dressed A Bit Like A Lawyer: I don’t . . . what?
Me: I’m going to write about this place! My home! Because, who knows my own home better than me? Nobody. So I’m going to write about it with a level of artistry and detail you never, ever get from other, lesser travel writers. It’ll put tears in your eyes.
NYT Journo Dressed A Bit Like A Police Officer: Oh, I think we’re there already, Mr Sowden.
Me: Fifty-two essays. Fifty-two places in my house. Fifty-two weeks. And then we can discuss how we can keep working together, ideally for more money. Side note – do I have to apply for a Pulitzer or does it just turn up?
NYT Journo Dressed A Bit Like A Lawyer: No need to do anything. We’ll cover all the details. Don’t ring us, don’t write, it’s all in hand. Don’t even leave the house!
Me: That’s my exact pitch, yes.
NJY Journo Dressed A Bit Like A Policeman: (turning aside) It’s fine, we set up a perimeter, he couldn’t leave the house even if he wanted to.
Me: Uh, excuse me. That’s not true. I’m an international travel writer. I’ve been out there, and I could go at any time, but let me tell you, it’s just not worth it. The world is boring. Anyway, I have to go now because Danny Rand is about to discover the secret hideout of The Hand and Netflix only pauses for 20 minutes without resetting.
Pictured above: my landlord, about to claim “there’s nothing wrong with it” for the third time in 2017.
On January 10th, the truth fell upon me like an entire shelf of canned peaches in a supermarket during a minor earth tremor (tip for budding writers – always use metaphors based on experiences that have actually happened to you, it adds authenticity).
The New York Times, nest of feckless vipers that it is, had publicly chosen Jada Yuan as their 52 Places journalist.
Yuan is apparently a highly accomplished writer, having interviewed a ton of famous people, written insightful things for many magazines, and apparently being the kind of writer who digs deep, looks past common assumptions and stereotypes, and really tries to find the life and soul of her subject matter.
In other words, she’s probably a massive time-waster. Good luck with getting your copy on time, NYT! I’ve tried writing insightfully and sometimes it takes weeks to bang out a sentence.
But, of course, Yuan’s biggest drawback is that she isn’t me.
We had a deal, the New York Times and I. They signed off on it (by way of an unspoken verbal agreement over Skype). And they betrayed me. This is clearly how the media works these days.
Anyway, I’ve decided to rise above all this, and publish a little of my otherwise-Pulitzer-winning “52 Places” series in this blog.
I hope it gets way, WAY more traffic than the New York Times (which would probably have put it behind a paywall anyway, it’s all money money money for those guys).
Here, then, is an excerpt. This is how it’s really done. Enjoy.
Excerpt From “My 52 Places” – By Mike Sowden BSc*
The Living Room
Unwelcome parental spring cleaning delivered a one-two punch to the Living Room in 2017, devastating the subtle, elegant lines of the PS4 Table (pictured), the Comfy Sofa, the Sofa For Visitors and the Pile Of Things We Don’t Talk About. While more than 70 percent of the overall room was unaffected, it’s been a year-long struggle to bring balance back for the good of everyone.
Visitors can help by calling by with king-size bags of Doritos, root beer and M&Ms – and be assured, there are plenty of incentives to do so. New videogame openings range from the high-end Resident Evil 7: Biohazard to the more affordable Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus. For media-hoppers, the Nintendo 64, a yesteryear console, offers nostalgic delights and in my opinion far more responsive control-pads.
Some cleaning-damaged areas of the room, where used socks and crockery have already made a reappearance, have proven resilient. The new Occasional Bookcase, occupying valuable real estate until my exes decides what to do with their stuff, offer reading material for anyone into that kind of thing. Nearby, a boutique doorway into the Kitchen enables guests to volunteer to prepare their own food and drink, and to always bring some for the host of the house, who is probably too busy playing his chosen game.
The medieval shower is choked with hair, but new developments around this spacious ablutions-portal promise to attract admirers and anyone working with aggressive gastrointestinal deadlines.
To help entertain guests, visitors will automatically receive access to a selection of copies of Kerrang! curated from the magazine’s golden era (1993-1996, before all this new age crap). Other winning features include the Happy Pooper toilet seat, and an antique “Chernobyl” style radiator that evokes notes of returning nature, solitude and the naked fear of lethally irradiated water.
Just across this stunningly distressed tilescape is the Towel Rail, a modernist utilitarian statement in chromium-plated reinforced cardboard that has proven popular with those seeking to dry their hands, although due to maintenance, The Towel is undergoing refurbishment and is set to return in late summer.
Over 250 types of pasta take shape across the cupboardscape of this inspiring location, which including several new modifications and augmentations due to dry-rot and rodent attacks.
But, of course, tea is on the lips of everyone in town. The Electric Kettle, a water-enrobing device wrought in clean lines of moulded plastic and rubber, provides guests with a ready and welcome source of heat-excited water, while the Old Twinings Box is home to a dazzling array of beverage-related entertainments. There’s also milk and sugar, just don’t overdo it.
This year, The Kitchen is proudly opening its latest attraction, the restored late 2000s George Foreman Grill that offers the promise of international flavours fused together by pressure, heat and some kind of vegetable-oil-based spread into a neat, cosmopolitan compartment of authentic home-based cooking. Visitors are also encouraged to take their own self-guided food tours to the local Tesco, in order to replenish needed supplies, especially milk and sugar.
The book will be published by Penguin Random House, as soon as they reply to one of my emails.
If you’re any kind of friend or a supporter of great travel writing, you’ll buy it. It’s that simple
Finally, I’d like to thank nobody but myself.
That’s the big life-lesson here. Heed it well.
* Bronze Swimming Certificate
Images: Pixabay, Unsplash