As we live in a world plagued with conflict and beset by injustice, the jury is well and truly out as to whether the mundaneness of my everyday existence is worth even a fleeting consideration, let alone several thousand keystrokes. However, after some [brief] thought I’ve decided to open this blog with a long rant about my life. So, in the hope that at least one reader has remained to see this post through, I shall begin.
I used to work in television production, first as a runner (general dogsbody), then as a researcher (general dogsbody who could occasionally delegate unpleasant tasks to the runner), and then as an assistant producer (a glorified researcher). It was an exciting career for a few years, which took me all over the UK, twice to the States (including Hawaii), and saw me film on location in France, Spain, Belgium and Cyprus (yes, that’s right, the home of halloumi).
The people we filmed with (contributors or ‘contribs’, as the more irritating TV luvvies in the industry refer to them) would often marvel at what an amazing job I had, which I guess was true, but I always humbly reassured them that it was hard work too.
Anyway, I’ll cut to the chase. The main problem with working in television production is that it’s largely freelance contractual work, which is great if there’s an abundance of work in your region, but dismal when things slow to a crawl. For the hot young twentysomethings with few commitments it isn’t usually a problem, as they can just follow the work. If they have to temporarily relocate to London, Leeds, Bristol, Manchester or Glasgow for a few months – they pack their bags and they go! And if they find themselves living in a damp Victorian hovel for the duration of a production, with nothing but a tramp’s soiled underwear on which to lay their pretty heads, no problem!
Of course, people of this ilk are quite rightly rewarded for their dogged determination and sacrifices with seemingly endless contracts. However, being a thirtysomething with a mortgage and a long-term relationship, I never felt in a position to be quite so flexible.
The other problem with the television industry is the constant influx of ambitious graduates (people who will happily work – initially – for £10 and a bag of chips), which leads to a constant need to prove yourself time and time again. Don’t get me wrong, it’s good to be kept on your toes. But after six years in the industry my hard work on production wasn’t so much a labour of love anymore, it was simply about keeping myself in the shop window. Not only was that exhausting and ultimately unsustainable, but it was also no guarantee of a contract extension.
Whenever I was introduced to a graduate or someone on a university placement – bright-eyed and eager to please – I realised that I was starting to feel like some kind of embittered, world-weary veteran. Part of me wanted to forewarn these graduates about the unstable career path they had chosen. But a small (sick) part of me also wanted to see the rigours of production drain their ambition, dull their sparkling eyes, and reduce their shiny complexions to pallid portraits of dismay.
But of course, I was dealing with the free-range twentysomethings, so the chances of that happening were slim. Their aim is simply to excel, and in all likelihood I would probably be approaching them for a job in 18 months time. (I’d end up feeling like an elderly B&Q employee begrudgingly restacking the plant-pots at the behest of a fresh-faced and youthful floor manager, exuding a confidence that makes him ever so slightly prickly.)
Once upon time, I thought that a free meal and bar at the production wrap party was an adequate payoff for the months of heart-crippling stress and long hours we endured on production. But it’s a bit like the Matrix – it’s just an illusion. And when that free meal and bar perhaps signals an end to your contract and yet another spell of unemployment, what’s to celebrate?
To cut a long story mercifully short, my love affair with television officially ended in June 2007 while I was working on a National Geographic science series. I’d already pondered leaving the industry for many of the reasons mentioned above, but as the mortgage needed paying I decided to put myself through the misery of production one more time. However, it was while working on this series that I experienced what I now refer to as the “sweeping the glass” moment. It’s a bit like “jumping the shark” or “nuking the fridge“; that moment when you feel your career has veered irretrievably towards the absurd. It provides you with a fleeting moment of clarity – amid the fog of misery and demoralisation – at which point, you simply have to stop and ask yourself: “what the fuck am I doing?”
The story of how and why I arrived at this moment is too long and convoluted to go into now. Suffice it to say, I found myself with my downbeat director on the large runway of an old airfield – a standard domestic brush apiece – sweeping up millions of pieces of shattered car windscreen and twisted chunks of automotive shrapnel, while stunt cars from another production burned tyre rings around us. That was the moment I said: enough.
Up until that point, I’d never resigned or walked away from anything. But leaving that production was the best thing I ever did. (Although, it wasn’t something I wished to make a habit of.)
To abridge this story even further (no objections? No, I didn’t think so), shortly after I resigned from the hellish Nat Geo production I ended up getting a call from an old friend who offered me a couple of weeks work in the new media department at a production company I used to work for. The job was just what I was looking for. Sure, I started on £300 a month less than I’d been earning a year earlier (and four months later, I had a further £200 a month stripped away), but it was a million times better than the production work I’d come to hate.
Without going into the precise details of what this new job involved (which would be like posting my CV), it gave me the opportunity to do my two favourite things: writing and research. And to my delight, my contract was extended several times to the point where my two weeks eventually telescoped into 13 months. But of course, the good times couldn’t last forever, and in September last year my contract finally came to an end. Unfortunately, this happened just as the credit crunch was starting to bite. In fact, the credit crunch had already nibbled through our feet and was at the ankles. Actually, even better, do you remember Quint’s death in Jaws? Anyway, regardless of the metaphor, we were already on a downward spiral into a full-blown, global recession. But I had no idea it would affect me so badly.
However, after eight months of pyjamas, Loose Women and a daily routine of staring into the abyss, I now have a very good idea. My work in new media convinced me that that’s where I wanted to take my career, but after months and months of searching for a suitable position (a process punctuated with frequent disappointment), I still feel no closer to that elusive job. In fact, I feel so far away from it that I’ve often wondered if my CV is being remotely re-written in the ether before it reaches the inbox of some inundated Human Resources officer. Maybe I’ve been sending off my CV with a proud, bellowing chest and hopeful heart, but it arrives at its destination reading:
Sex trafficker; horse ripper; serial rapist; poisoner of the old.
I’m actively involved with the local BNP, enjoy drinking to excess, street brawling and vandalism. I spend much of my free time on the Interweb searching for hardcore fisting and watersports material, but play football on Saturdays. However, Sunday is sacred – Hollyoaks omnibus day. Please call me soon. Me need work NOW.
When I applied for a job in the Guardian via a recruitment agency a few months ago, I got a call from a woman at the agency who wanted to ask me more questions about my experience. “We’ve never had a CV like yours before,” she somewhat exclaimed. (The curriculum vitae gremlins have been at it again, I thought.) She was perfectly nice on the phone but I sort of got the impression that, as we were chatting, she was doodling an image of me on a pad. (The doodle was of a man wearing a medical gown, with an assortment of wires protruding from a shaved area on the back of his head, and a pink, hairless mouse’s head grafted onto his left buttock.)
When I told her that I’d written lots of borough profiles for the Location, Location, Location: Best & Worst Places to Live 2007 website, we seemed to spend an awfully long time talking about the precise details of how such a feat was achieved. At one point, when I said that I’d worked backwards alphabetically through the list of boroughs, she asked me quizzically if there was a borough beginning with ‘Z’.
“No,” I replied.
“Is there?!” she said, obviously mishearing.
“No,” I said rather fractiously. “The first borough I wrote was York.”
“So, there’s no borough beginning with ‘Z’?”
“Interesting,” she mused, before moving on.
If that was all we had to talk about, I knew then that my job application was unlikely to go anywhere.
My experience of other recruitment agencies has been just as dismal. My frequent calls to Sarah Harvey to enquire about work have been met with constant reassurances that I’m “top of their list”, but they only ever seem to have one job available: a call centre in Stratford-upon-Avon, which I’d already turned down (I still have a shred of dignity). Another agency, Blueskies, ignored me when I first e-mailed them my CV back in July 2007, and then proceeded to ignore my follow-up e-mail. However, I then started to receive infrequent job bulletins from their consultants, which sounded like they were firing off e-mails while being pursued by assassins:
Sorry for the impersonal nature of this e-mail, but I don’t have much time. I’m trying to fill the following position. Can you help me?
Given that Blueskies had never once acknowledged my original e-mail, and had never spoken with me, I was always curious as to why they insisted on sending me job bulletins? The last e-mail I received from them asked me, rather rudely, if I knew anyone who would be perfect for a marketing job in Oxford on a three-month contract. Not only was I pissed off that Blueskies failed to identify me as a potential candidate for the job (choosing instead to use me as some kind of unpaid finder), but I was amazed that well paid recruitment consultants could be so perfectly content to lazily outsource responsibility for what was essentially their job.
Still, I registered my interest in the job (which was an assistants role, close to my home, and by no means rocket science) and e-mailed the consultant my updated CV. However, in spite of being told that I would be perfect for the job and that my details had been forwarded to the client, my subsequent e-mails and calls to the consultant at Blueskies were met with continuous claims of: “we still haven’t heard anything yet”. I eventually got bored of chasing, but was astounded not to receive even a polite declination (or failing that, an apology). I’m assuming I didn’t get the job.
Bizarrely, the Blueskies consultant I’d been dealing with later sent me an invite to join her professional network on LinkedIn, because I was “a person they’ve done business with at Blueskies”. If the “business” in question was her inability to find me temporary employment, or her failure to politely inform me of the status of my application, then, yes, we certainly did do business. (Her invitation is pending.)
Even the Job Centre seemed ill equipped to help me. During my Jobseekers interview, when the advsior was trying to build my profile on her antiquated computer (it reminded me of when my primary school got their first Acorn BBC Microcomputer in 1982), she was unable to find either a “media” or “new media” option in her system. The closest she could find was “mediator”, so she ended up ticking “IT” which subsequently filtered a number of inappropriate jobs for which I wasn’t adequately qualified.
The Job Centre in general wasn’t as terrifying as I thought it would be. However, their mantra of “if you’re physically and mentally capable of doing a job, then you must apply” is slightly disconcerting. I asked my advisor if I would be expected to shovel innards at an abattoir, given that I was physically and mentally capable of doing so. I was expecting her to laugh off such a suggestion, but instead she said: “well, if your application was accepted, then, yes.” Now, that’s terrifying!
Well, that’s the end of my story. Apologies for the long ramble. In the same way that you should never visit a supermarket when hungry; you should never write a blog post when embittered and pissed off! Still, it’s been cathartic.
Even though I’ve just had a much-needed injection of cash from five weeks of constant screen-grabbing at Horse & Country TV (I saw a tractor yesterday and immediately identified the manufacturer as Massey Ferguson), I’m now back on the dole again searching for work. In just four months time I will have been largely unemployed for a whole year, which is an utterly miserable situation. Clearly, no one is going to save me. So I’d better get busy trying to save myself. Wish me luck!