In 2003, I was running a project in Cardigan, turning a listed cowshed into a production facility for video and web content-makers. We were a week away from opening when the trustees called me to a meeting and fired me. I asked (I thought reasonably, for a man in shock) why, and after some discussion of their obligation to tell me, they concluded that it was ‘cultural differences’. I was being fired for not being Welsh enough.
The blow left me stranded on a tiny farmstead in the remote Cambrian mountains: 53 years of age, wife, mortgage, two children and other livestock to support, and no prospect of any work. I tried, and failed, to start an internet business. Eight months later, obsessively reinventing my cv on a daily basis, I spotted an ad in the local paper for someone to typeset classified ads on a maternity-leave contract. I offered two weeks’ free trial, and was accepted.
I quickly learned how to use the dysfunctional software. But it was harder getting on with the bossy account managers. Welsh women are notoriously spiky. Being as they are, never wrong, I was not allowed to correct spelling mistakes and grammatical infelicities in the copy. Eventually, I announced (truthfully) that I had formerly been creative director of an advertising agency and could not tolerate sloppy copy. Bad move. Shortly afterwards, having read my cv and realised that I was running a newsroom when she still fitted a size-14 gymslip, the editor suggested a move to the subs’ bench.
One morning, there was a drink-up for one of the staff. Someone had to get the paper out, so, after a token glass of warm white wine, I went back to my desk. The editor came waddling over, slightly the worse for wear, and laid in front of me, as a sort of joke, a copy of Press Gazette, the journalists’ trade paper, open at an article about how badly paid subeditors were in regional press, and how dreadful their working conditions.
I brooded on this for the rest of the day. In the evening, I took the article home and brooded more. Being paid £12 thousand a year made me probably the lowest-paid subeditor in Europe. In fairness, I had not mentioned my contract, I was too preoccupied battling through another horrendous ‘learning curve’ with the computer and just assumed they would pay me the proper rate.
When I am depressed, which is much of the time, I tend to revert to an ingrained habit of writing-through my troubles. I sit down at the computer and spew-out all the misery and thwarted ambition that slops around my head, usually letters to columnists on The Guardian, that I don’t send. So, I started composing a corrective email to the journalist whose by-line appeared over the article in Press Gazette. I tend to write and rewrite, amend and polish, until the piece becomes so bad I haven’t got the heart to send it. In this case, by about midnight I realised the futility of grinding on about my miserable lot, and absently hit the Send key before stumping off to bed.
You always know, don’t you? Admit it, you know, when you get that buzz in your brain, that comes just too late?
The letter was marked private, and addressed to a named journalist. It was unsigned. About two weeks later, I arrived at work to find I was the only one in. The place was deserted. The editor then appeared and called me in to her office, where I was shown my letter, that had been published verbatim in Press Gazette. ‘This is you, isn’t it?’ she demanded. I was horror-stricken. I had never intended it for publication. It was unsigned; the paper was not named either, identifiable only to an insider.
There then followed a procedure so cruel, so contemptible, that I can barely bring myself to write about it. The editor fired me, of course, but then told me I could write a letter of apology to the owners and I might be offered my job back, because they were so sorry to lose me. I considered standing on my dignity, but felt so broken at that point, with the thought of what this would do to my family, that I agreed. People were filing back into the open-plan room as I wrote about my history of depression and the financial difficulties my family were going through. I handed it numbly to the editor. A few minutes later, I heard gales of laughter coming from the General Manager’s compound. My letter was being circulated to the staff.
It was eight months again before I found another job. By that time I had become so detached from my family and our little farm, so obsessed with applying for jobs, that my wife asked for a separation. I had no money, nowhere to go, nothing to hope for. I was preparing to become a homeless man, when another ad in the paper opened up a miraculous opportunity to be paid to manage, and live in, a nearby country house hotel. So I became a hotelier.
I’ve been here six years, working eighty-hour weeks, cooking, cleaning, gardening. It’s the longest I’ve ever spent in one job. I still send out regrettable emails – I told our leading estate agents only last week that they were a bunch of liars and crooks, which has probably stuffed my already slim chance of buying anywhere locally. I only wish Nanny Gates would be as assiduous about asking if you are really sure you want to send that message?, as he is about asking if you really want to shut down the program (why else would I have said so, bogbrain?). Since the latter involves a five-minute thought process while the system packs its bags, you’d think they could give an intemperate emailer a bit of reflection time, pick up on the keywords, before we tell anyone else to stuff our job!