Meeting Mr VerMeulen

IN its early days the UK edition of GQ Magazine had an outstandingly successful editor called Michael VerMeulen. He was from Chicago, where he had been a close associate of the playwright David Mamet – so, by no means the typical London fashion editor. He was also pretty much the exact opposite of me in every way – thick-set, confrontational, and completely at home in the sexy, spiteful, intrigue-rich world of glossy magazine publishing. Anyway, having nothing better to do I phoned him out of the blue and pitched a couple of feature ideas which he turned down flat. But he added “Come on over, we’ll have a drink and see if we can make sense of you”.

We had a drink. In fact we had a number of drinks, in the gloomy upmarket wine bar in the corner of Hanover Square that he favoured. And then, we had some more drinks. By the end of the evening I was extremely drunk – no, well before the end of the evening I was extremely drunk, so drunk that even in those drink-driving days I thought it best to leave my car parked in the square, the only time my rustbucket Mini Mayfair ever actually spent the night in Mayfair.

More importantly I had a commission: to write a feature on the recent near-death of my younger brother in a climbing accident. We shared a taxi (Michael lived in fashionable Islington, while I went on to nearby but non-fashionable or rather pre-fashionable Stoke Newington). On the way he filled me in on the profile interview he had done with Martin Amis earlier in the week. “Man, if you ever get the Amis gig you better be ready,” he warned. “From the moment he opens the door it’s the ultimate cool contest.”

Michael was no stranger to the cool contest, but he liked my feature. Even though it was gauchely over-written he liked it enough to publish it, with portraits by the photographer Nick Sinclair. Over the next year or so he became that rarest of things, a mentor. There were irregular alcoholic sessions (the Groucho Club, Korean restaurants, and the Hanover Square dive), and he commissioned a string features from me, the majority of which he rejected (“just not up to your previous standard, pal”), and all of which he paid for, generously.

Among other things I wrote a profile of the Financial Times, a really silly feature on the ten worst kisses in the world, another on my lifelong addiction to giving up smoking. Then there was a profile of an old university friend of mine who had become the leading financial guru in Japan, and a profile of film director Stanley Kubrick (who refused to be interviewed, not that a little thing like that stopped me). This was a pre-internet world: I usually cycled over to deliver paper copies of the stories to Michael’s flat on Liverpool Road. At least three of these features were still in his pending tray when Michael VerMeulen died of a cocaine overdose in the Liverpool Road flat one late-August evening. He was 38.