Thirty-three years ago today Sgt Pepper taught the band to play I started work at Nature. I joined as a junior news reporter on a three-month contract. It’s the longest three-month contract anyone has ever had.

Because I am a monster of vanity and arrogance people sometimes ask me how I got to be where I am today, I have decided to write this as a kind of public service. So pay attention. And sit up straight.

My journey to the dark side science journalism began when word got round that I really didn’t want to continue in research after I finished my Ph.D. My advisor put an advert from Nature on my lab bench — Nature was looking for an assistant editor. So I applied.

Much to everyone’s surprise, not least mine, I was called for an interview with two senior members of staff whom I shall not embarrass by naming. The exercise was one of mutual incomprehension. I was sent away and asked to sub-edit a paper and mail back the results. The paper was an absolute pig, all about messenger-RNA processing, concerning which I knew not from an hole in the ground. Even more to everyone’s surprise, I was called back for a second interview. This was with the then editor, the late, great John Maddox. As I recall, this was a cozy chat in which Maddox was polite enough to feign interest in my research project.

Some time later, Maddox phoned. My subbing test wasn’t very good, apparently. But there was, it seemed, another opening. ‘Can you write?’ asked Maddox.

‘Yes’, I replied (well, I wasn’t going to say ‘no’, was I?)

‘Send me something you’ve written’.

My bluff was called. I’d written a lot for my college magazine. I was the editor of the Graduate Union magazine. (The writer, too. I even compiled the crossword). I’d written a review of a Motörhead concert for a local arts magazine (A fellow graduate student, who came with me, described the group to his rock-averse supervisor as ‘A Quartet playing Contemporary Music’). None of this was remotely suitable. So I sent an article I’d sent on spec to New Scientist about mammoths, which they chose not to publish.

Time passed. Autumn drew on. As I’d heard nothing from Nature, I started to see about securing a short-term grant that would allow me enough time to finish writing up my thesis. I had nothing planned after that.

It was 10 am on Friday 11 December, 1987, when the phone went in the basement of the Zoology Museum where I was writing my thesis on one of the department’s BBC Microcomputers. The technician answered the phone. ‘It’s for you,’ he said. ‘It’s the Editor of Nature.’

‘I’m offering you a job,’ said Maddox.

‘Great!’ I said. ‘When does it start?’ I thought it would be after Christmas, or maybe later in the Spring, when I’d finished my thesis.

‘Monday morning,’ he said, ‘at nine-thirty.’

The weekend was spent extricating myself from the tentacles of the University and research council and organizing a sudden move to London — where, thankfully, I had a place to stay.

At 9:30am on Monday 14 December, 1987, I turned up at the Nature office and was attached to the news correspondent. I was given a story to write. It was all about new radiological protection guidelines, of which I knew even less than messenger-RNA processing. ‘When do you want the story?’ I asked. ‘No hurry,’ said my new colleague. ‘about noon’. That’s when I started to learn the craft of journalism – to write authoritatively on something you know nothing about, usually at a moment’s notice. Amazingly, my story was published.

All this was practice for what was to come. My real job, it turned out, was to write and edit Nature‘s contributions to a popular science column that appeared from January 1988 in The Times, six days a week, on the op-ed page. I wrote about everything, from high-temperature superconductors to cave paintings, AIDS to exploding galaxies. I wrote more than 470 of the more the 700 articles over the subsequent three years or so, sometimes three pieces a day. For an essentially completely inexperienced writer to be picked to write on the op-ed page of the Times was rather like being chosen to start for Norwich City Spurs after a few Sunday kick-arounds in the park. To call this the luckiest of lucky breaks doesn’t really do it justice.

After three months, Maddox called me into his office. I wasn’t good enough, he said. So he gave me another three-month contract.

After six months, Maddox called me into his office. I still wasn’t good enough, he said. So he gave me another three-month contract.

Sod it, said Maddox after seven months, you’re still not good enough, but you’re here now, and offered me a permanent position.

Over the years I’ve been a features editor, science-fiction editor, proof-reader, roving news reporter, sub-editor, and press-release writer. I even had a photo on the cover (Volume 362, issue 6419, 1 April 1993, since you’re asking). Not long after I joined I begged the biology manuscript team to throw me some bones, and so added palaeontology editor to my portfolio. Essentially, I asked for (and got) the job for which I’d initially failed to qualify. Those were more relaxed times, when we received many fewer manuscripts than we do nowadays, so for a period I managed to handle the entire evolutionary biology beat part-time, while writing (and editing) popular science stories for worldwide syndication. After the Times contract lapsed, my writings turned up in places as varied as Le Monde and El Pais, The Hindu and the New Zealand Herald. Nowadays I’m a full time editor, handling evolutionary biology.

My path into Nature was not typical, and relied, very much, on my hitting it off personally with John Maddox. I like to think I understood what made him tick — his gleeful iconoclasm, his contrarian nature, his sense of humor. That he would sometimes do things just for devilment. We remained firm friends until he died.

Back then, Nature was a cottage industry operating from two floors of a rather small building just off Fleet Street surrounded by several pubs and a small club called the Electric Banana (don’t look for it, it’s not there any more).

That was before the internet, even before dial-up; before online publishing; before free-access; when authors would send four copies of their manuscript, on paper; when subscription to a printed magazine was the only way to receive Nature;  when, if you were in (say) California, you had to wait two weeks for the latest issue to land in your mailbox; when we communicated by snail-mail, telephone or fax; when ‘pasting up’ really did involve glueing pieces of text together, and when ‘typesetting’ was all about hot metal (if only just). There were these things called ‘typewriters’. The office’s only computer was a green-screened, cathode-ray-tuberous monstrosity in Maddox’s office.

During my time at Nature the world of science has changed utterly, for which I can claim no personal responsibility whatsoever. In December 1987, the only genomes that had been sequenced were of viruses. The first bacterial genome was years away — the huge gnome human genome, a distant dream. The only planets known orbited our own Sun. Dinosaurs didn’t have feathers. Would we ever discover real-world equivalents of hobbits, or yetis, wondered nobody, ever.

The publishing world has also changed, and changed radically. Indeed, it’s changing very fast just at the moment. So, if you want to join Nature, my experience is hardly typical. You might need to ask someone else…

So, thirty-three years. Almost a third of a century. On 14 April, 2021, though, I’ll celebrate thirty-three and a third years – by then I really shall be a long-playing record.

About Henry Gee

Henry Gee is an author, editor and recovering palaeontologist, who lives in Cromer, Norfolk, England, with his family and numerous pets, inasmuch as which the contents of this blog and any comments therein do not reflect the opinions of anyone but myself, as they don't know where they've been.
This entry was posted in Writing & Reading and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Naturistical

  1. rpg says:

    and like the best records, may you keep spinning for a long time and your scratches not cause the needle to jump.

  2. Mazeed says:

    Congratulations Sir, what a journey…!

Comments are closed.