In October 2017, I had just got back from South America, and I was looking for work while I did some private tutoring and tried to get a literary agent. Then my friend Alice, whom I sometimes write with, told me that she had been approached by a man called Colin, on behalf of a mysterious organisation. They were looking for writers, but their purpose was obscure – something to do with a “journal service.” The pay was impressive: between £40 and £55 per hour. Alice recommended me, and the two of us were signed up for a meeting in Mayfair. The whole thing sounded slightly… odd.
On the day of the meeting, I turned up to the Mayfair address, a smart office block off Bond Street – but none of the companies in the building had the right name. Two other writers were also there, looking confused and uncertain. We asked the receptionist, and she was able to tell us that the company we were looking for had vacated the building several months earlier. I was beginning to have serious misgivings.
I tried to call Alice, who was on her way. Meanwhile, one of the other writers phoned Colin – and it turned out that the office had moved to a different Mayfair address and hadn’t told anyone. They’d emailed us the wrong address by mistake. So we backtracked, picking up Alice along the way, and eventually found it. The building had once been a grand aristocratic mansion, with stone columns and an imposing entranceway; now it was gleaming office space that seemed to radiate wealth.
Colin appeared. He was bald and friendly, with a striking salmon-coloured shirt; he navigated us through the shining white corridors to a meeting room. Most of the space in the room was taken up by a speckled marble table. There were a dozen comfy brown chairs, and pop art on the wall – lurid paintings of women who looked like cats. The paintings were quite hypnotic, and I found it hard to look away.
There were four or five staff members, including Colin; and half a dozen writers. My pen hovered over a pad of paper as I resisted the temptation to doodle those cat-women. The lights dimmed, the PowerPoint presentation began, and at the head of the table, a man stood up. He was as bald as Colin, but his shirt was bright pink instead of salmon. “Hello, I’m Tim,” he began, “and I’m an entrepreneur. Over the past decade I’ve established a dozen new companies. So for my new project, I wanted to combine my two passions: building companies from scratch” – the slideshow glinted off his glasses as he looked right at us, deadly serious – “and living forever.”
There was a dramatic pause. “This project has been two years in development,” Tim went on. “First, we invested a massive amount of time and resources in cryogenics and other anti-ageing technologies, to find out how a person can achieve immortality.” He paused again, and then he said, with a hint of regret, “It turns out, you can’t.”
I stared rigidly at Tim, afraid that if I caught Alice’s eye I would start laughing.
“That’s the reason why none of these technologies has taken off yet. They don’t work. So we went back to the drawing board, and that’s when I realised – we already have the technology that lets us live forever… just not biologically. Almost identical facsimiles of us will be captured for posterity, through social media, video recording and the like. Our company wants to curate this process, using products designed by others. We, as people, are all interested in where we came from – and that’s where I spotted the potential for this business idea. Our company plans to build multi-generational relationships with clients, to become the first business that curates living legacies.” He surveyed us in triumph, letting us digest the profundity of his words. I, meanwhile, had realised that he had made a mistake by performing this pitch in front of a bunch of writers; I don’t know about the others, but I was loving it, scribbling down phrases like “multi-generational relationships w/ clients” and “curates living legacies.”
“For now, our business model is targeted at ultra-high-net-worth individuals, but the plan would be to be able to reach a broader market of the mass-affluent. When we launch in December, we will be offering two services: Virtual Reality recording, and the Journal Service.” Tim clicked a pointer, and a slide came up with the words “Journal Service.” “This,” he said, “is where you come in.”
We all nodded hesitantly.
“Once you think about it, it seems obvious,” said Tim. “Why do we not use writers to help clients capture memories? People who have rich lives often don’t have the time or inclination to record their experiences. But if writers can capture their voices as well as their thoughts, then that could be very useful for Artificial Intelligence developments in the future. The idea would be a weekly phone call between you – the writer – and the client; and you turn each conversation into about a thousand words.”
So we’re the next-best thing to the elixir of eternal life, I thought. We’re ghost-writing these people’s diaries.
Tim then opened the discussion to the staff members who had taken part in the trial. They all enthusiastically agreed that it was a very powerful tool: “Empowering,” “cathartic,” “therapeutic,” “focusing.” One man talked about how he had looked forward to his sessions, and he had come to think about his week in a more structured way. “It was a unique moment that’s just about me,” he said. “Which doesn’t actually happen very often in our lives. And it was interesting to hear one’s voice through the lens of the writer.”
The journal service, it was explained, would be a twelve-month service, but shorter-term “projects” might arise for us as well, such as an intensive month at the bedside of a dying relative.
Next to me, Alice was writing something on her own sheet of paper. I was still making sure not to look at her, and I wondered what she was writing. By this point, I was basically trying to transcribe the whole conversation.
“The journal package would involve a lot of sustained contact with High-Net-Worths,” Tim resumed. “Obviously you’ll have to find an hour a week that they can do, which will be a challenge for such busy people, but most are very house-trainable.” He grinned, and his colleagues chuckled appreciatively. “All of us who did the trial agree that it’s a very addictive service, so we expect a very high retention rate. We’re confident that this will be a huge success, because it captures people’s imaginations. We’ve all found that if you don’t want to have a conversation about it, don’t mention it! People get interested very quickly. We plan to use journalism to up-sell into other forms of experience preservation. And we believe that this service will provide opportunity for writers that’s way beyond the initial service – if, for example, one of these individuals decides to write their memoirs.” The final slide of the PowerPoint was entitled, “Create your personal infinity.”
Then there was a discussion about writer-client confidentiality, which would obviously be taken very seriously. One writer kept asking about what we were supposed to do if the Ultra-High-Net-Worth Individual confessed to horrific crimes. When all our questions had been answered and there was nothing more to be said, Tim and Colin showed us out. They seemed very pleased with how the meeting had gone, and excited for the project’s launch; they promised that they would be in touch in a few weeks. Alice and I wandered down Piccadilly, feeling dazed.
Weeks and weeks went by. After four months, I emailed Colin to ask what had happened. He replied: “Hi Ollie. I’m sorry we’ve gone quiet. Things are moving very slowly. We launched last month but as yet I have only had one request for a writer and that hasn’t even begun yet. I am not sure whether we are going to need your help or not, but I will certainly be in touch in the coming months if/when it takes off. Fingers crossed! All the best, Colin.”
I never heard from them again. Now that it’s been a full year since the company was supposed to launch, I feel able to post this without worrying about upsetting a potential employer. If I’m honest, I’m still disappointed. Maybe they’re in another meeting room in Mayfair right now, enthusiastically pitching the next bold business plan. Or maybe they finally cracked it, found the recipe for immortality, and scarpered somewhere far away…