When someone won’t take no politely, what do you do? Earlier this year I had a conversation with a man on other business who said that he would like to hire me as a writer. That’s fine, I do that sort of thing, write things for people and help them express themselves. I’ve worked ghostwriting books and letters, edited emails, all sorts of things.
But this older man had an obsession, as I realised. He told me that he had been badly treated and, as he put it, wrongly accused of paedophilia, and had been beaten up by a social worker when he was at his lowest. It was a pretty shocking story, if it were true. And it had all happened, he told me, in Northern Ireland in the 1950s.
He wanted it written down for the world to see. At this point I became uneasy. I understand the terrible sense of grievance that can occur in someone when they don’t express themselves – but at the same time, what did he hope to achieve? Did he really think the world was interested in what happened to him when a young man? Did he really think he was going to go around accusing people in written form in order to feed a half-century-old grudge? And more importantly, did I want to be involved in this?
I worked to put him off at the time. I warned him that he would end up in the middle of libel actions if he published a book naming names without evidence. He seemed to accept that.
Then just today he came back to me. He had tried over the last few months to contact me, and I was so busy that he was not a priority. But today, I called him back. The conversation went along these lines:
“I’m sorry I haven’t replied to you earlier, but I have been very busy. But if it is something to do with writing your biography, it’s not something I’m interested in doing, thank you.”
“Well, it’s not to do with my biography. It’s on something different. Could we meet for lunch today?”
“I’m sorry, I’m really busy, that’s just not possible. If it’s a different job, maybe we could meet in the New Year.”
“You see, I’ve read your book. Some of it is very good…” (Ah, how well he knows how to woo an author’s ego.) “And I want someone who can write me a letter.”
“I see,” I said. “Go on.”
“I want to be able to put it into good English so that I can tell some people some home truths.”
“Ah, I’m sorry. But if you want to spread ill will in a world that is already full of it, please, don’t include me in it.”
“It’s nothing litigious. I just need a letter that will tell a few home truths to the people who did me wrong.”
“Look, I understand how unexpressed anger can make you feel a deep sense of grievance, and it can eat you up, but this is not something I’m interested in being part of.”
“No, you see, the head of the Salvation Army thought it was scandalous, the way I was treated…”
And so he pushed on. My real thought was, what did he hope to gain from this? If these people he was involved with are as hard-hearted as he says, a letter will do nothing. Indeed, it would quite easily start a cycle of anger that would just make things worse for him. The thing I’ve come to realise is there is no objective truth in these sorts of matters. Just motives and misunderstandings and self-preservation and exertions of power and ego. There is no higher court of appeal. The world is a bloody mess, and it’s only when events get momentous enough or criminal enough that an attempt at objectivity occurs. And that is usually woefully inadequate.
But how to explain that to this obessive man?
I have a three strike rule, and he had now had his three strikes. So, my tone hardened.
“Look,” I said. “I’ve tried to be polite to you, but that’s clearly not worked. I don’t want to be involved in your grievances and your grudges. Do you understand? I don’t want to get mixed up in your shit!”
There was silence for a moment. Then he said. “Yes.”
“Thank you. Goodbye!”
And there it is. Sometimes being polite just won’t cut it. I don’t know what it is with older people that won’t get the message, but I seem to encounter a lot of them. Remember. If you are asked to work for someone, be aware of whether you want the job. Don’t let them browbeat you. It’s your life after all.