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A Job for Life

My sister asked the other day, regarding career choices, ‘Do you ever feel you might have backed the wrong horse?’

It was a philosophical moment, of which she has many. Jane is an actress and this Zen theory was prompted by an interview she’d just been to where she thought she might have been a bit hysterical. It had been that sort of day. We are both longstanding freelancers. Rejection is our bread and butter, the kind that lands butter side down and gets grit in it.

Freelance, as a word,  started out meaning exactly what it says, you were a free lance, owing allegiance to no Lord or Fiefdom. You were a freelance, or possibly a mercenary. I’m not sure what the difference is, you’re both in it for the cash. Freelance meant you were able to choose who you fought for in the lists. Can you see me desperately trying to big this up? This ‘gig economy’ that myself and my sister have been part of all our working lives. I never realised I was so hipster.

The wrong horse? Let’s take a look at the runners and riders shall we? I’ve had other ‘proper’ jobs and they were all terrible. I have worked as a temp and that involved stints at a plant hire firm, a vasectomy clinic, and for the CID at Bath police station on one short lived occasion. I worked in the British Gas typing pool filling out court reports. In the typing pool at Wiltshire Council I spent a considerable part of my time typing and retyping and retyping a tender document for a council catering contract that ran to about 500 pages of utter, heartkilling boredom.

One of my bosses, who shall remain nameless, used to ring me and say ‘Bring the diary’. This was, I hasten to add, the early 90s and email and mobile phones did not yet exist. I had only been promoted to this ‘gig’ because I’d complained to my temp agency that I knew how to use a computer so why didn’t I get sent to the computer jobs? Their response was to send me on a course in Holborn to be ‘trained’ to use a word processor their way. Word processor? It’s what we called a computer back then. Yes, I am Stegosaurus. Anyway. My reward was this boss and his diary.

In order to ‘bring the diary’ to his office I had to walk down three staircases and along approximately half a mile of Art Deco corridor. I would invariably reach his office, open the diary, click my pen and my manager would say ‘I’m in today’. Cue another pleasant stroll along that half mile of corridor. The consolation was that in those days there was a tea trolley loaded with cheese scones and a tea urn, which rolled around the building at regular intervals. Civilised. I can’t fault the cheese scones.

I’ve worked in the library service. It is quite physical, the library. Also no cheese scones. Everyone assumes you just look over your spectacles and read books. That you like a bit of quiet and lurk in archives with magical and forbidden texts. You’re probably good at puzzles. Probably. Not in my libraries. I did like the quiet and I liked interacting with people, not something that you get a great deal of in writing. I liked being able, on a few small occasions, to make someone feel better, to help them out by wiping out a library fine or to let them talk about their dog dying.

But I always had my eye on the slow hand of the clock.

Never look up from the writing. Clocks don’t exist. I’ve spent days writing when I’ve only looked up to notice that it was time to pick up the kids from school. You vanish. You exist in another time and space amongst other people, the people who live in your head.

Nothing comes close to writing, not even when I don’t get paid and don’t get paid is the default setting for a freelance writer.  This setting is even more fixed in the new, shiny digital age. There has been talk of late about the free trade and exploitation issues in modern publishing and the fact that the writer, if they’re not bestselling, list-topping or indeed JK Rowling, is usually on a terrible deal that Oliver Twist might think exploitative.  This is true. Freelance has much more emphasis on the ‘free’ aspect these days. In my recent experience (see blog in fact) people, the punters, the paying public actually don’t want to pay anymore. People want their digital entertainment for free and so the levels and layers of publishing are being stripped away and thinned out. Why do you need an agent? A middleman between you and the publisher? You don’t. Not these days. You are the gatekeeper. Put yourself out there. The risk used to be financial, that of the publisher trusting in your work to make them money, now the risk is all yours. Take it. Fly. Be free.

I’m too old and stuck in my ways to alter my course now. Plus I find that I can’t actually stop writing. It is soaked into my blood. It just goes round and round, passing through my heart, feeding my muscles. Even at the library, in the duller moments where there was no one to accost and I’d shelved all the books, I would whip out my notebook and scribble away, breaking off if someone needed the key to the disabled toilet or an emergency Val McDermid.

Now, in the digital age I am thankful. I don’t have to wait for a publishers approval, I can put my own stuff out there and I do so. It is a freedom that I appreciate. I’m not famous. I’m not bestselling. I earn tuppence ha’penny, I am a writer.

It’s a wild horse, unfettered and unruly, but I’ve got my buttocks firmly clenched in that creaky old saddle and yes, tally ho.



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‘a highly original talent’ – Beryl Bainbridge


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