Having stepped away from work for a career break in 2017 the fates conspired and a few things happened in my life in short succession to give me pause for thought. Some health issues (Percy Pancreas followed swiftly by Cedric ‘Pseudo’ Cyst); the fact I turned 55 and could access my pension pot; and the fact that I love not ‘working for the man’*, all helped me reach the decision to officially retire. In doing so I have revitalised my writing career, albeit for fun and not funds thus far, which has been a thing of great joy.
*An inaccurate turn of phrase as many of my bosses have been women over the years!
This blog is one of those outlets for my reinvigorated scripting and my official retirement seems like an excellent opportunity to revisit what I believe is known as a portfolio career. So no stone unturned, this is my working life from start to finish (Future events notwithstanding)
I suppose it began with Mr Davis (Cecil behind his back). Somehow or other our Environmental Studies teacher seemed to land the job of Careers Advisor. And what fun those infrequent lessons were in the mid-70s. I have two abiding memories. The first was that there existed the role of Plastic Mastic Asphalt Spreader. Years later, when working for a Civil Engineering Contractor (It’s coming later!) I searched vainly for someone who owned that job and had I found them I would have begged a business card from them and had it framed above my desk. Alas, throughout the kingdom of Tarmac, I found the wondrous smell of tar but not a sniff of a Plastic Mastic Asphalt Spreader.
The second memory of careers was a film about a postman. I quite liked the look of that and for a while it was my intention to be one. Little did I know that this would actually come to pass – albeit briefly – but again, it’s coming later.
As the end of school grew closer and I had to make some serious choices, I rejected postman and looked at other avenues. I had decided that I was done with education and didn’t want to go to university so devised a cunning plan that would enable me to get a degree and be paid for it doing it. And so, already a Sea Cadet, I applied to join the Royal Navy on its Officer Training course. I think I’ve mentioned this before so I won’t dwell but I passed my entrance exam and was awarded a place, only to have it snatched away from me the Summer I left school when Mrs T. made some defence cuts. What I don’t normally bother saying is that I fucked up my A’ Levels through a combination of arrogance and hedonism and probably wouldn’t have got in anyway.
So then it was a quick visit to UCCA, a 2.5 day tenure at Kingston Polytechnic, then a massive change of tack into the world of rock’n’roll. But wait, I have skipped a vital bit. What about that child labour I was forced into? Well, there was no chimney cleaning nor picking up pins from under dangerous machinery. In fact my first job was a subcontracted paper round from my sister. Simon Beeton and I took our trusty go-kart (An amazing bit of kit made by my dad of which sadly no picture seems to survive) and loaded it to the gunwales with the local free newspaper. We distributed that paper all over Goffs Oak, bending several pram wheels along the way, and all for a few pennies that my sister had already claimed her commission from.
Many of my friends had Saturday jobs from their earliest teens but I waited until I was nearly 16 before giving up my Saturday pleasures. I remember precisely when I had my interview at the Co-op because it was Cup Final Day 1979. I started the following week as the butcher’s boy. I think I have written about this before so I’ll just say that I actually liked that job! I was there precisely two years because my last day was Cup Final Day 1981. A much more memorable cup final of course!
I was made redundant from the Co-op (The first redundancy, but not the last) and since I was going on holiday with my mates that summer, a replacement job was urgently needed. Thanks to Lee Phillpotts, I jumped the waiting list at Sainsbury and got a Friday night/Saturday job at the Waltham Cross store alongside half my mates. That helped my gather the folding stuff for a wonderful week in Hemsby with the gang and when I got back, it was more ‘old boys’ networking’ when my mum got me in Tesco’s Cheese and Bacon Warehouse for a few weeks before starting poly. That was an eye-opener. When I read about the abuse, wolf-whistles, and general sexism that women face on a daily basis, I allow myself a wry smile, simply because when a shy, retiring 18 year old male is sent into the pit of she-wolves that is the bacon-boning department, I have some sympathy with your torment. Thankfully I was only there for six weeks. Not because of the PTSD I suffered from the boners but rather that eating all the bits we trimmed off the blocks of cheese was giving me nightmares.
And so to poly – see above – and thence, on resigning my course, to the local Wavy Line where I had the pleasure of working alongside Dawn (Also my next door neighbour) and Elsie for a few weeks. In the meantime, having had to rethink my career choices I was writing to every record company and recording studio in the business. I even wrote to Guinness who published the Book of British Hit Singles – the UK chart bible. I got a standard-ish reply saying they were just the publishers but would pass my letter on to the team who actually compiled the books. And then, in November 1981, I got a phone call at home from a lady saying that she “had Tim Rice on the phone for me”.
A week later I had been for an interview with Tim and was starting working for him in a little garret room above his agent’s office in Wardour Street. I was Editorial Associate at GRRR Books and the 18 year old shy-boy from the relative Hicksville of Hertfordshire, was transported into a world of wonder and showbiz. For the next 3 three and a bit years – despite a blossoming drink problem – I spent half my time plotting chart positions on graph paper and the other half on a wide variety of name-dropping, showbizzy type activities. These included sharing an office with the woman who would go on to create the phenomenon that is Mamma Mia; setting up a baby monitor as a primitive interoffice intercom with a record executive just back from running Arista in LA; pretending to be impressed when one of my colleagues sashayed proudly around the office with Limahl on his arm as his new boyfriend; spent a lovely afternoon chatting to Sarah Brightman when she dropped in to see someone who wasn’t in, and a far less lovely afternoon serving Michael Parkinson alcohol at an office party whilst he droned on about cricket! I met lovely people like Paul Jones and Stephen Oliver, and slightly strange people like the incredible shy Terry Jones. Then there was that party at Abbey Road…but I’ve written about that before https://stevesmith.home.blog/2019/02/21/abbey-road/. In fact I’ve written about a lot of this before so let’s just say, all things must pass.
In 1985 I was made redundant for the second time but luckily Guinness picked me up quite quickly to write a book for them and for a year I had a reasonable weekly income but when that book was published and I persuaded Penguin to publish my next, as yet unwritten tome, I need to earn something whilst I was assembling it. This is how I came to spend the lead up to Christmas one year in the sorting office at Enfield doing one of the most mind-numbingly dull jobs it has ever been my misfortune to partake in. If you were missing some cards at Christmas 1986, I apologise but once you have stuffed your 6000th letter into one of three dozen pigeon holes, you sometimes get a bit sloppy. The only, single consolation of that entire miserable career was the day they let me go out as a postman. I arrived at Waltham Cross sorting office as instructed and the postman whom I was assisting explained my route. He also made it very clear that I was not to get back before noon because if I did they would expect him to do the same every week. I nodded enthusiastically though not as enthusiastic as once I realised the route was basically the High Street from the Queen Eleanor Cross to the Vine public house. Arriving at the pub shortly after they opened at 11, I dropped their post on the bar, ordered a pint of Guinness and made sure I stayed there until well after noon so as not to get my postman friend in trouble. Unfortunately, the following day I was back sorting.
Just after Christmas, my mum was in Cuffley when she spotted a sign at Cuffley Motors for a forecourt attendant. It didn’t sound like the career opportunity I was waiting for but I thought I’d better make an effort. Clearly I made too much of an effort because I got the job. Of course, it turned out to be a life-changer in many ways as my oppo on the other shift was one Richard Gentle who was solely responsible for turning me into a better human being. He hooked me into youth club work and thus started my still continuing engagement in volunteering. It was also a great job in so many ways. I’m not always the most sociable of person, but on the forecourt of the garage I made so many new friends, not to mention a slew of celebrities passing by to get petrol. Most notable were Bernard Bresslaw – my how huge that man was – and Frank Bruno, who insisted on giving me an autographed photo even though I didn’t really want one!
What was most noticeable though was how people treated me. For the first few months, several were quite abrupt and abrasive. I was clearly only fit for servitude. Then my second book – Bits and Pieces – was published and I did a big display at the garage. Now I was a writer clearly only doing the job until the royalty cheques cleared and attitudes changed markedly!
For all that I enjoyed that job it was not where I wanted to be and in late 1989 I sent an article to Spiral Scratch magazine (A feature on Nick Lowe if you are interested) and the publisher/editor asked me up to Cambridge for an interview. A week or so later (I was never one for long notice periods) I was Editorial Assistant and by the time the following month’s issue rolled around, he’d made me editor. Not only that but a few weeks later he decided to launch a second title and made me editor of that too. Talk about trial by fire! It was a fun job marred only by two things 1) Shit pay (Story of my life thus far) and 2) Publisher dodgier than the dodgiest dodgy person. So after 20 months, I could take his duplicitousness no more and walked along with my then co-editor and our graphic designer. I shouldn’t indulge in schadenfreude but a couple of issues later both titles folded and I didn’t shed any tears.
After Scratch there was a period of freelancing that involved writing lots of entries for rock encyclopaedias for pennies, and an interesting three month spell at Music Master which involved me spending a lot of time in reggae shops (I’ll explain one day). However, I was fast approaching 30 and I had often said if I wasn’t earning a decent living from writing by then, I’d do something different.
So I went to college, got a City and Guilds in Information technology, and became the IT Manager of a multi-million pound international Civil Engineering company. And in a way it happened that quickly. Thing is I ‘got’ computers. It was almost as if they had been waiting for me to come across them. At college, my classmates called me ‘Professor’ because I could explain things better than the tutors. So when I saw an advert for someone to write and deliver an IT training course at Fitzpatrick Contractors, I took a punt. The combination of writing experience and IT knowledge clearly worked as Steve Fitzpatrick, son of the owner, took me on. Three months later and he and his father fell out one too many times and Steve left to work with his wife in her high-end property leasing business and took me with him. Once I realised his promises of me developing their IT strategy actually meant answering the phone to people whose gas oven wasn’t working, I went back to Fitzpatrick. Just like that actually. Steve said to go back and carry on submitting invoices (I was still freelance at the time) and it worked. The training had been abandoned by now so I just became the second person in the IT team working for a whizz kid who spent most of his time on this thing called the World Wide Web. Given that this was 1994 there were only a few thousand sites and 80% of them were porn! Anyway, soon after my return Andy gets a job earning zillions with a Russian bank, and suddenly I’m the IT Manager.
To cut a long story short, I landed the role just as IT was breaking big in the industry and I took my one-man IT department to a 21 person, ground-breaking ICT team. It helped that I got sober somewhere in the middle of it all. Shortly after coming out of rehab I was made Chief Technology Officer and for the better part of a decade I actually earned silly money.
As I said somewhere earlier, all things must pass. In 2003 the Fitzpatricks – with whom I was very close – sold us off to a Dutch conglomerate and the following year Hazel got ME, so in 2005 I thought fuck it, and resigned. That’s when we decided to move to Norfolk too.
Our first summer in Norfolk was spent pleasurably unemployed. I was still adjusting to life as a carer and was benefitting from a healthy redundancy negotiated from Fitz’s. Eventually though I need to work and by now I was a veteran volunteer in the charity sector and fancied the idea of working full-time there. I knew the money would be somewhat different from what I had been used too but frankly – lovely and useful though money is – it has never been my prime motivator. And then just as I was despairing of being able to break into a different sector professionally, the director of Toc H asked me to lunch. I’d known Toc H for 20 years at that point and whilst I knew it was a shadow of its former self, I wasn’t going to miss the opportunity of ‘going on staff’. Well, it was an interesting 18 months until redundancy number – sorry lost count – came along. Thankfully it was flagged up sometime in advance and I’d managed to arrange things so I finished work Thursday, had a long weekend in Belgium for Carnival 2007 and started my new job with the Vinvolved Team on the Tuesday. Thus four years of helping young people getting involved in volunteering – good; having Voluntary Norfolk as parent team/employer – not so much! As the Vinvolved funding neared its end VNs CEO announced that there would always be a place for the V-team at Voluntary Norfolk. March 2011 – made redundant again!
And so finally, after six frustrating months of unemployment (No healthy redundancy package this time) I was once again summoned by a charity CEO to discuss a few paid hours work a week. From the telephone conversation it was going to be so few hours that I planned to tell Helen I’d give them to her for free as a volunteer rather than bugger around with my Jobseeker’s Allowance. I left said meeting with a full-time job as Development Manager for the rapidly growing and prestigious Work Skills unit at About With Friends. I’d spend the next six years of my life there and without a shadow of doubt it was my all-time favourite place of work. Sure there were stresses. Ironically one of the arguments I made to myself about taking a drop in salary when moving into the charity sector is that responsibilities and pressures would be much less. Sorry, did I say less, how foolish of me. My role in that environment, especially later as I became a Safeguarding lead, was 10 times more pressured than anything I had done before. And there was the usual shit to deal with that you get in any organisation. But where else do you get meet some of the nicest clients in the world, take them abroad to places like Turkey, Menorca, Corfu and Wales (OK, I got the short-straw that year). Where else do you see adults with learning disabilities transform into outgoing, confident media stars, presenters and……well anything they wanted to be. So yes, when I got the opportunity to retire, I took it but I still go back to AWF as a volunteer and will do so for years to come no doubt.
You see the secret of a good career is to make sure you do something you love, and if you don’t, then do something about it!