The most frequently asked question when I approach people about finding necessary work is: ‘What do you do?’
The answer, I’m afraid, is that I don’t really know. It’s an impossibly broad question. Right now, I am writing this while eating a chocolate biscuit. I’ve just made a cup of real ground coffee, with which I am washing down the biscuit. So I write, but more usefully I also make good coffee….
In order to write, obviously, I need certain skills: thinking, organising, typing, spelling, punctuation and grammar – the ability to specify, configure and operate a laptop computer, a device I obtained (only after resolving with the bank a little existential difficulty over my identity) after days of research (okay, I asked my son!) from an online retailer. So I have computer literacy, online research, negotiating, parenting and purchasing skills – and a degree of persistence. Doesn’t everyone?
Not very helpful answers. But where else to go with the question? It’s ‘what I do’, in the sense of what skills and experience would fit me for work of any kind. But it’s only a very small part of ‘what I do’.
I could go down another route, describing all the things I have done in the past and challenging the questioner to pick out any bits they might find most useful in predetermining my possible benefit to them. I could say, for example, truthfully, that in the 1970s I was a pioneer in the field of commercial broadcasting in the UK. Would you know what I did, from that very broad answer? If you had no personal experience of setting-up and managing the news and talks department of a new radio station, working from scratch, how would you know what I did?
There I was, managing a complex, multi-layered operation: planning, specifying, budgeting, purchasing, recruiting and training staff, setting up contact networks in a strange town, devising formats and scheduling programmes…. Imagine what might be involved, what challenges it would present and the many competencies that might be needed to meet them?
The truth is, I had no idea what I was doing when I did that. I just found myself in a certain place at a certain time, with a certain opportunity opening up in front of me. I was 24 years old, superficially talented and full of crap. I just did what I thought needed to be done, met each challenge as it arose, used my practical common sense, persuasive logic and creative vision, my limited experience, and hoped for the best. Ultimately, I had to compromise on many issues, remain flexible and pragmatic, and trust my colleagues. Also, I had to do a lot of the work myself: writing, eating biscuits, making coffee…. Even so, I managed to get fired, as usual, for not telling people what they wanted to hear.
But how did I find myself in that position? Well, I’d spent two years in college, training to be a film cameraman. I found myself working in radio, only because the film industry was so tightly controlled by the technicians’ union that I could not stay in work for more than a few days before being moved on. If in June 1970 you had asked me ‘what do you do?’, I would have answered: ‘I know a bit about film emulsions, sensitometry and densitometry, the operation of 16mm and 35mm cameras, how to light for dramatic effect and what f-stop and focal length of lens combination will give the required depth-of-field under certain lighting conditions to shoot a scene.’ And then I went to work instead writing and reading radio news bulletins for a bare living, something for which I had not the slightest qualification.
In this way, I progressed to become someone who could be relied on to do almost any job related to the process of gathering, collating and publishing information for consumption by specified audiences. I worked for nine years as a writer, producer and presenter of news and current affairs programmes of every kind; also making trailers and commercials, even a weekly comedy show. I was both a desk editor and a reporter – probably the world’s worst. Increasingly, I did advertising voiceover work and wrote, produced, directed and narrated some 70 short training and promotional films, videos and multimedia presentations for industrial and commercial clients, while at the same time reading for a degree in Applied Photography, Film and Television (with Sociology of the Mass Media). But I never made any money. I didn’t care about money, as long as people wanted me to work – the terrible legacy of being brought up by actors.
Then, perversely, I applied for a job as a copywriter in a small but frenetic provincial advertising agency, and my career focus changed again. I wrote everything, from junk mailshots and Overdrawn letters for big banks, to sponsored publications for investors; from the instructions on the backs of packs of DIY products and rubbishy consumer point-of-sale promotions, to the marketing and membership materials of British Airways’ Executive Club. I advised clients on lobbying and PR campaigns, devised and pitched creative strategies to major corporations, and lectured groups of businessmen on business ethics and corporate responsibility. All without previous experience and qualifications.
After five years, in the midst of a recession, newly redundant, I started my own agency specialising in environmental affairs in business. In another five years, I was bankrupt and, at the age of nearly 50, had to go out cleaning toilets and digging gardens for £5 an hour, to feed my young family.
‘What do you do?’ So now, ‘I’m a gardener, a handyman, a driver of other people’s cars. I hew herbaceous borders out of bare rock, fell trees, clip yew hedges, prune rose bushes until the blood runs down my arms, clear streams and gutters, mow lawns, weed beds and barrow gravel by the ton, breeding lilacs out of the dead land. I clean houses and polish the tops of Aga cookers until they gleam like mirrors; wash and iron shirts and underpants, scrub floors and dust shelves and antiques, arrange flowers, plump cushions and order wine.’ At home, meanwhile, Krystyna and I rented land, made a smallholding, kept pigs and sheep and goats, geese, ducks and chickens to produce meat, eggs, milk and wool. I built pig arks and hen houses, cleared scrub, hauled pigs to the slaughter, strangled and plucked cockerels for supper, sheared and buried sheep.
From there, I branched out yet again. I worked five years in the publishing business, editing real books. If you have not done that yourself, how would you know what is involved? An editor of books is expected to manage the whole production cycle, from commissioning to print. Each new book needs hands-on copy-editing, proofreading, fact-checking, paginating, typography and design. Illustrative material needs to be researched, copyrights acquired, plate sections laid out with the pictures scanned to the correct proportions; blurb material, acknowledgements, prefaces and indexes have to be created, everything treble-checked.
Each new title can take up to six months to progress from acceptance of the manuscript to delivery of the printed book. An editor may, as I was, be expected to work on 10 or 12 books simultaneously, each at a different stage of production. The skills an editor needs include the ability to spot that a sentence found on page 14 may have somehow crept back in verbatim on page 224; that the author has spelled a name one way on page 47 and another on page 329, or that he has mistaken the date of the Treaty of Augsburg. ‘What do you do?’ ‘Oh, I’m a professional nitpicker….’
And then, somehow, I was being asked to set up from scratch, in a strange country, a new type of community facility for small-scale, local producers of video programmes and web-based design applications. Working from the corner of a desk in a freezing office under reconstruction, snow blowing in through the missing wall, I wrote the business plan, specified the building design and equipment fit-out, handled PR, set up supplier and user networks, devised and set in motion creative revenue-earning projects, applied for grants, recruited staff. As a reward, my contract was summarily terminated, ‘cultural differences’… the only time I have ever been fired for not being Welsh. So, I went to work for free as a lowly typesetter in the Classified ads department of my local paper. Within a month, I was transferred to the newsdesk, and within another month was laying out the front pages for seven weekly editions, copy-fitting text and making up headlines and captions. Paid so little, the children qualified for free school meals.
And then… Fired, again, and another shift of direction. For almost seven years, until February 2012 I worked as the manager and caretaker of a ‘stately home’, a Georgian mansion with a Grade One heritage listing. Hired as the resident gardener and handyman, as I thought, on a minuscule salary, almost immediately I found I was expected to apply for an alcohol sales licence and open the house to the paying public. My employers lived eight thousand miles away in Taiwan.
For three years, mostly singlehandedly, I took in couples at £100 a night and organised weddings and functions with up to 200 guests; booking caterers and suppliers, hiring and managing temporary bar staff, supervising security. I handled all the marketing and PR, reception, bookings and office admin. I purchased the stock, appointed and paid suppliers and contractors, liaised with the licensing and planning authorities, the police and environment agencies. I cooked, served and cleared away breakfasts (organic) for the guests, producing buffet lunches and teas for parties of up to 30 and table d’hôte dinners (four courses, with vegetarian option) for eight. I did the cleaning, laundry, ironing and making-up of guestrooms, to standards laid down in the management systems documents I wrote myself. At the same time, I was supposedly responsible for domestic maintenance (144 lightbulbs in the chandeliers, like painting the Forth bridge), and restoring the 30-acre wooded grounds to health; mowing the lawns, filling potholes, supervising contractors, on-call 24/7 with virtually no equipment or maintenance facilities to hand. I gave guided tours and talks on the history of the estate, and even appeared on TV in an episode of Ghosthunters.
Safety issues arose, and in 2007 I warned the owners that their legal obligations to public safety were a potential timebomb. So, while they struggled to raise the money, I was charged with finding conservation architects and briefing them to carry out a site-wide operation to restore and upgrade the house and stable block, to transform them into a ‘five-star’ hotel at an eventual cost of more than £4 million.
Despite increasing discomfort, including two fiercely cold winter months spent without heating or water, when the temperature fell to minus 14C, I remained on-site for a further three years as caretaker, helping to see the house through an extended period of business planning and research, professional surveys, floods and alarming interventions by builders ripping the place apart, rewiring and plumbing the entire premises (it had 20 bedrooms) on ridiculously short timebased contracts. Working in an office with half the floor missing, to the endless, deafening sound of hammer drills chewing through supposedly protected C17th masonry, I found and obtained financial grants for the owners, negotiated away the business rates (saving them half my annual salary), facilitated meetings, produced costed research papers, maintained security and implemented the woodland restoration scheme until the grant money ran out. Finally, a year ago I accepted my reward: redundancy, and was replaced by twenty staff.
So, ‘what do I do?’ now? Not a lot, I’m 63 and seemingly unemployable. Actually, I could not care less about working, the very prospect paralyses me. Enough. The illiterate recruitment ads (applicants must display a high degree of literacy, even if we can’t) and absurdly hopeful job descriptions fill me with dread. Nothing I have ever learned to do the hard way has any commercial value. Despite the beanbags and Starbucks mentality, the ‘world of work’ has become a barren process of box-ticking slavery to expert systems, of kow-towing to ignorant and insecure bullies in badly fitting suits. Do people really have to do this in the 21st century, just to be allowed a place at the table?
Postscriptum: In August 2012, I qualified to teach English to foreign students, in case I ever needed to. Only, I found the intensive course totally traumatising and hated every minute of it. So, I think I can finally say, the one thing in the world I don’t ‘do’ is teach English to foreign students. Unless, of course, they follow my exemplary blog….