When Alison McDonald called me into her office and asked me to be her deputy at the Sunday Times Style section she was licking her lips. She had just fired the previous incumbent and she told me, with a large smear of red lipstick both on and around her lips, that she could still taste the blood.
Red lips aside, Alison, who was in her early 40s, had a slick of long, blond hair, a generous cleavage, which often played host to the ash from her filter-held cigarettes and, most bizarrely, a pair of long white gloves. Whether she was eating lunch, tapping away on her computer, or holding forth in conference, she was never seen without her gloves on.She was a cross between Bette Davies and Diana Dors.
Alison had a fierce intellect, insatiable curiosity, a bottomless well of features ideas and no fear. In short, she was terrifying, but I loved her. Predictably, she was a tough taskmaster. If Alison had given me a major feature to edit, I would have to show it to her before sending the copy to the subs. She would call it up on her screen, me sat timidly beside her, light a cigarette, sigh heavily and start reading it. My heart would sink every time she stopped and reread a line. She would question almost every fact, and, if unconvinced by my answer, make me call up the newspaper cuttings again so that she could see them for herself. I soon learnt never to believe anything anyone said, or to trust a fact from only one source.
Alison was also unafraid to ask for the impossible or to inconvenience anyone when there was a job to be done. After 10 months without a break, I booked a day off to celebrate my birthday with a dinner party. Just as my wife was serving the starter, the phone rang. It was Alison. "Could you quickly write me 1,000 words on why male celebrities always have such awful haircuts? I don't need it until 11pm. Oh, happy birthday." Another valuable lesson learnt: don't answer the phone on your day off.
Jeremy Langmead is editor-in-chief of Wallpaper*Reuse content