"Humans are dead."
Alex looked a little nonplussed, but decided not to ask JP precisely what he meant. If there was one thing Alex knew about JP by now, it was that the elaboration of a keenly held opinion wouldn't be far away. And so it proved.
"Oh no. You can't write about humans anymore. That's quite out of the question."
It was all coming. You just had to wait.
"… At least not humans as we know them. Or used to know them. I mean, you can scarcely even specify a gender today without getting somebody up in arms." JP smiled an unamused smile. "You pick one, you alienate the other."
"What if you pick - I don't know - something else?"
"How would you know where to begin?"
Alex looked suitably blank.
"Or you give the 'wrong' shade or body type to one of your characters. Your fictional characters. Then someone else complains they're not being represented. Or misrepresented. It's a minefield."
For some reason, it was the word 'misrepresented' that stuck out most in Alex's mind.
"And woe betide you if you use whatever terminology's been incinerated this week!"
At this, Alex could be little other than glum.
"And you can't write in the present-"
"Tense?" Alex didn't like to interrupt JP when he was on one of his discursive forays, but, as they say, needs must. The response was predictable, as was the look that accompanied it.
"Time." This was stated with such finality that you could almost hear the full stop being pronounced.
"I see …" But did Alex see anything other than JP sitting in a large armchair in the latter's front room in his spacious flat near Harrods? Alex had always wondered how he'd come to acquire it and, more particularly, how much it was worth. That address, a liveried porter. Its doors gave Alex access to an untouchable world — a world of money, connections, class, and of history.
And certainly, JP never lets you forget history. And it was certainly his story.
Pictures of himself and various celebrities adorned the walls. Most of them were dead - long dead - and you needed to be a pretty keen follower of bygone culture to have any inkling of who they were. Luckily Alex was a habitual Googler. But even if you weren't, JP would tell you about them. He'd tell you about World Wars. About his prep school. His sister. The authors he'd discovered when he was "quite a big publisher."
"There was J.C."
"And A.S. …"
"Wow. I've read some of his books …"
As well as the VIPs whose autobiographies he'd ghostwritten in his next incarnation before he'd settled into his current one. Namely, that of a literary agent.
"However, you can write anything you like retrospectively. Well, almost anything. Because you've still got to get past the 'refinements' of the modern age. Of the modern editor." Not for the first time, this last phrase was practically ejected from his mouth with a thick coating of bile.
What could Alex say?
"I feel sorry for young writers like you these days, what with the market being as it is …"
Now that was something Alex could get on board with. It was definitely worth a nod of the head.
"… And especially ones like you, who try to produce humorous content."
Try? Was that a dig? Alex couldn't decide. At the time. Or later that night. Or in subsequent days.
"Comedy's quite dead."
Alex couldn't resist a quip: "Like humans?"
But JP didn't respond.
Alex thought it was worth clarifying. "In fiction …"
Still no response. If JP was making the joke, it wasn't a joke. The only problem was that when he did make a joke, you didn't know because it wasn't remotely funny.
"Of course, I can't tell you what to write." In the relatively short history of their association, this was usually the preface to JP telling Alex how to write. And now was no different. "But if I were a young writer today - if I were you - I'd certainly think of setting a novel in the past."
Alex gave it genuine and serious consideration. "Hmm …" But then couldn't resist: "About dead humans?"
Again, no reaction.
"I mean, they'd probably have to be dead. By now, anyway."
Was it the generation gap? Or generations? Whatever it was, no impression was made.
In fact, Alex always thought of these meetings as more of a monologue than even a basic dialogue, much less a conversation. It was like being at the feet of the master.
"I see what you mean. And I like the idea of it - the past has always interested me, and I've always intended to write about it sometime." JP didn't even nod. He never nodded. To do so would surely have been too much of an affirmative move. "But I can't help thinking that a writer should try to engage with the times they're living in."
JP scoffed. Alex waited for him to respond further but soon realised that the scoff was the response.
They sat in silence. Not unpleasant or hostile silence by any means. You couldn't feel hostility when surrounded by the portraits of so many entertainers from yesteryear. Alex noticed that there was something endearing about the faces of the old comedians in particular. Something daft and rudimentary. Something appealing and unpolished that was quite unlike the smug, artificial performers of the present day. Perhaps JP was right. The past was more attractive, after all.
But just when you thought you'd got the measure of him, JP would always surprise you. The first surprise was that he shifted in his chair - usually, he was practically motionless. He'd had a thought. More than a thought, in fact: a brainwave.
"But, of course, you could write about the future …"
It was not an unreasonable comment. But it went ignored.
"You can do what you like in the future. Well, within the parameters allowed by the modern editor!" Now that was a joke. Not a good one. But certainly a familiar one inside the walls of that flat. In the beginning, Alex would have laughed. Out of sympathy, probably. Now it didn't even merit a smile.
"You can create a world, people that world-"
Alex got the look. But at least JP was listening. Or acknowledging the fact that he was listening. "With whatever you need," he said, somewhat irritably. "Whatever helps you tell the story you want to tell."
Alex took some time to digest JP's words. "So you mean sometimes you have to turn away from your own times in order to show your own times?"
But JP's eyes were already beginning to jelly over. He wasn't one for details. Or fine brush strokes. His ideas (and suggestions, such as they were) were more of the thematic type.
Nonetheless, Alex couldn't help trying to run some ideas past him. He was the agent, after all. The experienced man of publishing. Veteran of the show business scene.
"So I wonder if …" The possibilities began to flow. "Or perhaps I could …" Alex was engaged. "Do you think that might work?"
But JP's attention was gone, and soon Alex would be gone too.
It was almost inevitable that, when it came to it, JP wouldn't enjoy Alex's cleverly structured, playfully experimental portmanteau novel about an invisible alien life form playing havoc with the sensibilities of mid-Victorian Yorkshire folk.
"I've read it. And, I have to say, I think it's unsellable in the current market."
"Oh well," Alex thought. "That's only three months down the shitter."
But there was worse to follow. "Not only that, but if I'm honest, I find it a trifle pretentious."
"Don't hold back," Alex thought.
The silence that ensued merely afforded Alex yet more of a chance to wallow in the highlights of JP's jolly nights on the red carpet. Strangely enough, JP seemed to be fairly engrossed in the pursuit of this himself.
Finally, it had to be said. "Is there anything you think I could do with it?"
JP looked notionally sad. He shook his head. "I don't think so."
"Could I chop it up for short stories?"
JP performed the classic act of screwing up his face. As he'd effectively screwed up Alex's writing career thus far, perhaps it was appropriate. All he could say in reply was: "Well, you could …"
But Alex didn't. And they never met again.
Occasionally, they'd keep in touch. Alex would try to interest JP in a new piece of writing or just an idea. But apparently, "the market was worse than ever."
Then the contact stopped. Alex's writing mostly stopped. Life took over, as it will if you let it.
As far as Alex could tell, JP had sold his flat and moved on somewhere else. And what a packet he must have made! He was theoretically still in the business, or so it seemed. But Alex doubted if he was selling anything. (In fact, most likely, Alex now believed, he wasn't selling anything at the time of their connection either.)
Nevertheless, despite earnest attempts to weigh it down and drown it, the need, the craving - whatever you care to call it - still remains somewhere deep in Alex's psyche. Various projects are entertained. Some stories and poems are even written up. But the market, the market … well, it's not getting any better.