Adam

I almost didn’t answer the message. When Chris popped up asking if he could call, I was just pondering going to bed and wondered if it wasn’t something that could wait until the morning. Something, though, told me I should answer.

Chris wanted to pass on the news: our friend and former colleague Adam Banks had died the previous day, after suffering a sudden heart attack.

Adam was the second MacUser editor I worked under, after Stuart Price had recruited me out of college and straight into the basement of the MacUser labs. He had more influence, though, over the course that magazine was to take and more widely too: it’s fair to say that Banksy did more to move the design of technology magazines out of the dark ages of a PC on every cover than anyone else. But the design work he fostered pushed forward not just tech but all magazines, something that’s almost lost to memory today. When The Guardian made a MacUser cover one of its covers of the century in 2013, it wasn’t just about one cover: it was saluting 20 years of amazing and award-winning work.

The design culture Adam built, alongside creative director Paul Kurzeja, launched the careers of a bunch of fantastic young designers. How many computer magazines would have their staff profile pics by Rankin or Steve Double?

And that design-led ethos lasted for years, first under Karen Harvey, then me. I don’t think I was good at it, but even under me the impetus was strong enough for us to win a PPA Cover of the Year. I made our art editor, the brilliant Aston Leach, go up and collect it because it was far more his award than mine.

There’s a million stories about that era of MacUser. The time that our big boss Felix Dennis rang up the office to complain about a particularly abstract cover, while Adam was in San Francisco for a Macworld show, for example. Paul Price took the call and thought it was a prank, as it was his birthday. We wore the phrase that Felix had used to describe the cover — “Art Wank Shit” — with pride, and of course Adam laughed as much as the rest of us. I think he saw Art Wank Shit as what he was trying to achieve.

None of this really captures what a nice man Adam was, too. No matter what the level of stress — and magazine editing can be super-stressful — he still didn’t end up losing his temper or raising his voice about anything. I can’t tell you how rare that is in publishing.

I’m also not going to tell you the story of his stag night. Of course, Adam being Adam, this involved absolutely no unacceptable behaviour on his part (and the funniest part also needs mime actions to truly bring it to life).

He’ll be sadly, sadly missed by everyone that knew him.

Note: There won’t be a weeknote this week.

A letter to my 23-year-old self

Dear Ian,

Congratulations on leaving Hatfield and getting a pretty good degree! I’d like to say that you worked hard for it, and you certainly put the effort in over that last semester. You’re a bright lad and you have come a long way. You didn’t have many expectations of yourself when you started this journey but I hope you have come to realise that you’re cleverer than you thought you were.

Thirty years later, I think that I’ve learned quite a bit more about life. I know you’re not good at taking advice, but I thought that I would put this letter in a time bottle and throw it overboard. Perhaps by some kind of temporal miracle it will reach you and change how you think about a few things. But I guess that I know already that it didn’t. Unless that many worlds interpretation of quantum theory is correct, in which case this is another future you who never existed typing this, and there’s a different future me trying to whisper to another me in not-his past.

This whole time stuff is confusing.

Anyway, this is as much about me as it is you which means I’ll write it anyway. That’s the first lesson by the way: it’s never always about you.

When we look back at our past selves it’s easy to become either condemnatory or nostalgic. What a prat I was. Or on the other hand how full of youthful energy, how lacking in fear!

Like most views of the past, no one can never really know which is more true, but I suspect that actually neither is all that accurate. So, I’m not going to judge you and find you wanting, or lionise you and wish I was you, again.

Instead, I’m going to write about a few things that I’ve learned more about since I was you, and hope you can consider them. Feel free to reject them — I probably would, and I was you once — but also think about them often.

The first thing I would say is to care less about what people think and more about what people feel. When I was you, I was obsessed with reason and thinking. I was very much a rationalist, even though I thought of myself as a renaissance man. Spending your time obsessing about what people think about you is less important than making them feel good about themselves. People are always more insecure than that look. You can capitalise on that, but to be honest that makes you a bit of a bastard. Lift people up. Make them feel like they are the most important person in the world.

Remember too that love is something that requires nurturing, and expect it to change. You don’t love people in the same way all the time. Love ages, and like all things that age that can either mean it withers and dies or it becomes deeper and more seasoned. But it never stays the same, and harking back to how a love was is to choke it with the thorns of your memories.

Take some risks. You have time on your side here, but no matter what age you are you can always shake things up a little. Don’t do it for the sake of it, but remember that life is change: the more you hold on to it the more quickly it will slip away from you.

Grasp opportunities — but only if they are something you want to do. Just because someone else presents with you with a chance to do something doesn’t mean you have to take that chance. Of course, that depends on you knowing what you want…

To understand what you want, you need to be more reflective. I know it feels like navel-gazing, but without understanding what you want you can never have it. It’s only recently that I’ve understood that failing to think about what you want is really all about being afraid: afraid that if you find what you want, you might not be able to have it.

Academic philosophy is not for you. You’ll find this out of your own accord, of course, and it all turns out absolutely fine. But I think you probably know this already.

Remember that friends are not hot-swappable. Moving away doesn’t have to mean moving on. It will take you a long time to realise how much you miss people but you’ll get there in the end. Getting to it earlier will save you a bit of anguish.

Do more art! Don’t be afraid to call yourself an artist. You can write and you’re a good communicator, but keep practicing. Art is a practice, but that means you have to keep flexing those muscles. Put the words out daily, and never be afraid to show your work in progress.

You’re a good lad, and you are still such a lad in so many ways. Not a boy, not really yet a man, but very definitely a lad.

I would say all the best at this point, but I know that you don’t get all the best. No one does. But I still wish it for you.

So, all the best,

You + 30.

Ambitions

When I left school in 1983 my ambitions boiled down to owning a van and being in a band. The two things were not unconnected: I was a terrible keyboard player (punk, yo) but if I owned a van the band would still need me to cart the equipment around from gig to gig, free festival to free festival.

I never bought a van – in fact, I never learned to drive – but neither did I replace that ambition with another. Leaving school at the age of 16, with four CSEs at the height of Thatcher’s era of mass unemployment basically meant I had no expectation of ever even working. And if I did, it would be a shitty job, probably in a shitty shop. When a local Wickes store opened, I applied and didn’t even get a reply, let alone an interview.

The trajectory of my escape from that world is long and complex and deserves its own piece of writing, but the important point is this: I had no ambitions. Ambitions were something that other people had, but not working class kids from Derby. I had dreams, sure. But there was no possible path from here to there.

Since then, though, ambitions have become the playground of the young, and there’s been an expectation actually rooted in reality that a young person’s ambitions can be fulfilled. You could travel and work in Europe. You could go to university. You could get a job, buy a house, something that so so few of your parents were able to do. Some of these simple things moved from ambitious dreams to expectations.

The past ten years have chipped away at this. A house has become something no one can afford unless they can rely on the bank of mum and dad, while the media bombards you with messages about how it’s your own fault you can’t save a hundred thousand pounds. Jobs which offer long-term careers and progression have been eroded, to the point of destruction. There is no such thing as job security if you are young.

Brexit and COVID, though, have been the twin hammer blows which have destroyed the opportunities of the young. Brexit’s retreat to cosy little Englander fantasies of an idealised 1950s Britain mean putting up borders and robbing the young of a core part of their identity, while reducing the ability of the poorest to up sticks and work wherever they can across the continent. Looking abroad for work was one of the few routes out of Thatcher’s newly-impoverished Britain when I left school, and that option just won’t exist the young poor in a few months time.

But it is probably COVID which will have a longer term impact, and which will break the back of ambition, particularly for those reaching maturity now. In a long and brilliant Twitter thread, David Hayward wrote that “a pandemic is a killer of the dreams of the young” and nothing could be closer to the truth. I have been lucky to live for 53 years in a bubble of safety, with the freedom to roam and to dream. Until we find a vaccine, that freedom is basically gone. Who can have ambitions, who can have dreams, when the next person you meet might be the one that passes on a deadly virus rather than the person who changes your life for the better?