Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Work is a four-letter word

Work is a peculiar beast, isn't it? I don't like working, I never really have. I've always been first out the door as soon as I'm allowed, never really offered to do any extra, never volunteered to work at the club where so many of my friends work. Most of my jobs have bored the pants off of me... and yet probably the most damaging thing that's ever really happened to me (yeah, I've lead a pretty charmed life) has been being unemployed (aside from freelancing, which doesn't count) for the best part of seven years. I'm not used to failure, and so such a prolonged period of it really did me in. Admitedly, I found other things to distract myself, and didn't spend that whole time job hunting, but I still applied for a lot of jobs that I really felt I should have got, and, while it might not have stung so much at the time, the continuing lack of calls back, total dearth of second interviews, the pitiful sprinkling even of first interviews - I think all of these things actually added up to do me more damage than any careless boy or amount of bullying ever did.

My employment history began, as I imagine it did for so many girls, by babysitting for some of the neighbours' kids. My outstanding memory of this period of my life is one occasion when I was driven home by one of the mothers, and she got all the way to my door before I plucked up the courage to tell her she hadn't actually paid me and to ask for my money. She had to drive me back to her house to get my £3.50. It was touch and go whether I'd even have the balls at that point, but I imagine my hunger for Pony magazine and penny sweets overcame my cowardice.

My first regular paycheque came from a paper round. The low points of having a paper round include 7am being the longest lie-in you EVER get (which actually correlates fairly well with my insomnia ridden current life, but which was horrendous as a sleep-ravenous teenager); lugging a massive bag of papers around with me; insulting pay; big dogs. The high point of having a paper round was getting to listen to my walkman really loud every day, at just the point where I was really, truly falling in love with music. I made myself so many compilation tapes for those early mornings - the Smiths, the Cure, the Wonder Stuff, James, Guns n Roses, EMF, Queen - such were the soundtracks of those dusky mornings as I made tracks from one house to the next, my shortcuts and my wall jumps growing more confident day after day. I'm suprised to find that I'm looking back on my paper round with what is no doubt nostalgia... but then, maybe it's not so surprising after all. The only other job I've had where I'm paid to listen to music and move around is DJing, and that works fairly well for me.

When the early mornings got too much for me, I jacked in the paper round and worked for a while in a launderette. I remember, spoiled child that I was, being amazed by how many people in the world didn't have washing machines, and I remember having to wash some really nasty, bogey-covered hankerchiefs. I can smell that job more clearly than I can remember it; it smelt hot, damp and intensely, itchiningly clean.

Throughout my sixth form, I worked in Bowes Road library on Tuesday nights and Saturdays. I got £30 a week for that, paid into my bank account, and I remember thinking that was the most princely sum a person could ever wish for. My boss was a lovely woman called Sue who had beautifully painted nails and soft hair and big glasses. She smoked cigarettes, gave me a lift home every Saturday, told me about the Anne Rice books and talked to me like I was a grown-up. Working for someone I liked was a novelty, and my geeky little soul thrilled at the neatness of strict ordering, as we called it (I have no idea if that's a common library term, or just one we used) - going around the shelves and making sure every book was in exactly the right place in the Dewey Decimal System. I used to test myself, when I was bored at school, to see if I could remember exactly where a certain strain of chemistry would be, or where I might tell someone they could find the books on economics.

Mending the books was another favourite job of mine from then. Cutting away old, stained, ripped and sticky plastic coverings and replacing them with fresh, see-through, smooth new ones, I could pretend I was a doctor performing surgery, or a designer dressing a model. I remember a man who sat on his own for long periods of time once gave me a badly spelt letter telling me he loved me and wanted to go out on a date with me. I was 17, he was probably in his 40s. I was too scared to ever tell anyone.

I returned to work in that library and another one throughout the summer holidays of my first degree, but they wanted me to take my piercings out, meaning I nearly lost my Madonna piercing. I had reached the point where that was unacceptable, so I stopped working in the library and got (after a brief but disastrous stint as a waitress in a local pub, where my main memory is of the sad little manager informing me gravely at my induction that 'The Wacky has let us down,' referring to the fact that the poor exploited youths working in the appalling named 'Wacky Warehouse' hadn't signed enough unsuspecting families up for a loyalty card or some such) a summer job working at New Wave Tattoos in Muswell Hill.

My boss at the tattoo shop couldn't have been much more different than lovely library lady Sue. The boss of New Wave tattoos has an ego the size of Alaska and was constantly trying to con myself and Sarah, the other girl who worked there, out of money. My job consisted of booking rude, shouty and just plain weird people in for tattoos, what basically amounted to crowd control as the masses turned up on Saturdays, which was first-come-first-served day, taking cash, cleaning needles, and getting whatever discount ink I could beg. Although, now I think back on it, I only had two pieces there and he charged me full price for both of them, the mean fucker. It was a horrible job, but it made me think I was the last word in cool, and meant I met a girl (the aforementioned Sarah) who became my best friend for the next five or six years, so it wasn't a total loss.

While I was at university in Stoke, I did more babysitting and also had a spell as a life model, something I never thought I would have had the guts to do until I heard it paid £16 an hour and they'd basically give anyone a job. Like so many things in this world, life modelling is a much scarier thought than it is a reality. I remember getting changed in the little changing room (which is a strange vanity - why get changed in a changing room when you're about to display everything to everyone on the other side of the door for the next two hours anyway?) on the first day and feeling a spurt of panic more intense than I'd ever felt before - surely this was a bad dream, getting to work and discovering I'd forgotten all my clothes - rather than something I'd actually elected to do? But once I was out there and I'd taken a few deep breaths, taken the robe off and sat down, it was almost an anti-climax. No-one cared. They just saw shapes: circles and cones and swirls - not a person at all.

I did an all-day pottery class once and got pins and needles down one leg that lasted for a week afterwards. You earn your money as a life model. It's bizarre how painful sitting still can be, especially for someone who, if it were possible, would spend her whole life in front of the TV.

My first job out of university was back in another tattoo shop - Sacred Art in Tottenham. I worked there on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays for I think about £90 a week. The people at this shop were much kinder to me than the boss at New Wave had been. I got free ink, I didn't need to be in work until 11, I flirted with cute tattooed boys, I made friends - it was good. I wanted to be in that world on a full time basis and spent quite a while trying to find someone who would take me on as a body piercing apprentice. I wonder how my life would have gone if I'd been successful in that enterprise?

However, I wasn't... and sooner or later I realised that I needed some real money, and so, armed with my oh-so-useful creative writing degree, I bought the Guardian every Monday, wrote letters to publishing houses and rang agencies, all the while also trying to get my hopelessly pretentious novel about chess and God and the Devil and the end of the world published; another venture which (thank the Lord) wasn't successful. And I eventually wound up with my first grown-up job; working as an editorial assistant at a children's publishing house.

That was undoubtedly the most horrible job I've ever had, and hopefully the most horrible I ever will have. My boss was cursed with crazy mood swings so that I could never tell if she was going to give me a present or scream at me. She was the queen of vague instructions and of changing her mind about what she wanted done halfway through me doing it, and then blaming me for getting it wrong. One of my tasks at that miserable job was fact checking. This was in the days before the internet, and so I was frequently given a soon-to-be-published book about, say, fire engines and told to ring some unsuspecting fire station and harrass the people who worked there with questions about how their jobs and their vehicles operated while they were literally trying to put out fires and really, really not wanting to talk to me. That job frequently made me want to jump out of the window rather than continue. I remember having an almost full-blown panic attack on the first weekend that I had that job, thinking that this was it for the rest of my life and that things would never get better.

Fortunately, they did. About a year later, I got a job at a place called Intelfax as another editorial assistant, this time checking TV listings for a load of teletext channels. This job wasn't perfect either - the boss was a lechy creep, and there was very little to do, so I was often bored enough to want to claw my eyeballs out - but I had a TV on my desk as well as a computer, I was paid a fraction more than I had been and, after a few months, I got promoted to teletext journalist and I got to write features for Trouble, Animal Planet and Living. That was a lot of fun. I could basically choose to write about whatever I wanted, and what I wanted was mostly hamsters, Morrissey, Dawson's Creek and feminism. I got promoted again, to be head of creative ideas for our team, and so ended up being the sort of boss of some people I had begun assisting. Never have I had such a glittering career before or since.

It was abundantly clear that teletext wasn't a viable medium for reliable future employment, and so I looked around and got a job as a sub-editor on TV and Satellite Week; a job which paid bundles and started off as busy and interesting and eventually got snipped back and snipped back and snipped back by budget cuts, until it was the bare bones of its former self, until there was so little to do that I once calculated I spent half of my week gazing out the window or posting on the internet. It got hacked away so much that it really shouldn't have been a surprise when we all got made redundant in 2003 (irony of ironies, probably before some time before the same thing would have happened to me if I'd stuck with the teletext job).

I've told the story many times before in this blog, I'm sure, of my redundancy and turn to psychology, and I know I've talked about freelancing and how much I loathed it, so I won't go on and on again here. Suffice it to say that I supported myself through my second degree by freelancing on lots of different magazines and papers and constantly felt as though I was nuturing a very large and very tender stomach ulcer with the gut-wrenching stress of it all.

Since I started my PhD almost a year ago, I've had quite the motley crew of jobs: teaching people how to do basic stats, transcribing interviews, editing essays. My most recent paid job has been taking part in a Clockwork Orange-esque experiment where I have been shut in a tiny, airless room, faced with a screen that flashes up faces which I'm not permitted to look at properly, and pressing buttons to say what mood the face is displaying for hours at a time. I'm quite glad that particular job is over.

However, after seven years without a contract, without a monthly wage, I've finally got a real job. A part time one, to be sure, as otherwise I couldn't keep on with my PhD, which I love, but still a real job. I'm going to be counselling at ChildLine (something I've done on a voluntary basis on Thursday mornings for around three years) for three shifts a week. I love it at ChildLine and I can't wait to start and, more so, start getting paid... but I am slightly worried that I'm going to make myself really miserable with trying to juggle work and studying, just as I was really miserable both working and studing throughout my psychology degree. I am hoping not, as I enjoy being at ChildLine a hell of a lot more than I ever enjoyed sub-editing (not hard); but it's a possibility. I guess I can't know until I start. I will report back. Wish me luck.