I watched The Field of Blood with interest. The story of “copy boy” Paddy Meehan’s determination to become a reporter is realistically portrayed: like her I didn’t just want to succeed, I wanted to escape and to have something better.
I grew up on various council estates, going to various inner city schools. I was told “people like you don’t become journalists” by a careers adviser who recommended a job with the council. I was refused the chance to learn typing and shorthand because she said, by the time I realised I couldn’t be a journalist, I’d be stuck in a “dead-end secretarial job”.
I’m bitterly amused by the short-sighted adviser who thought a job at the council was a job for life and that secretarial skills would never be of any use. She was in for a bigger shock when the global economy collapsed than all of us, it seems.
I was as determined and tunnel-visioned as Paddy. I put up with all sorts in order to become a journalist. I didn’t want to do anything else. I also didn’t want to out-do anyone else, just prove that I could do it. I just wanted to work as a journalist.
So, while at university, I worked nights making fast food in a bingo hall, spent my days studying and smelling of chip fat. I regularly did 16 hour days, then went clubbing, meaning I often managed – admittedly happily – on less than five hours sleep.
I started work as soon as I graduated and tolerated bullying editors, long hours, low pay. I feigned interest at school fetes, spent weekends at tedious town twinning events, evenings watching dreadful amateur dramatics performances – then writing about them all as if they were as important as news from the frontline.
I listened to drunken councillors, attended boring council meetings, sat up wind of a colleague who smelt of stale beer, lived in crap rooms in crappier houses, I went without nice things: I had been assured that deferring gratification was the right thing to do and that “we are all middle class now”.
I learned who was who on my patch, made sure they knew who I was and would tell my the ins and outs of their lives, I even laughed when a local councillor and council PR officer removed my shoes and each sucked a big toe at a very drunken do. But, to be fair, I don’t think many have experienced that.
I moved from city to city and even country to country to work. I received letters from readers who enjoyed my news and features. I received pay rises on the back of good stories. I once received a letter from my editor telling my what a good job I was doing: this was, though, after I’d taken two weeks off sick, buckling under the pressure of filling 12 pages of news every week, including two splashes.
Then I re-trained as needed, paying for more qualifications to make me employable. I learned new skills and did different jobs when the profit-driven media owners closed down newspapers and magazines, making many journalists redundant.
I was always told I was working towards something, not just earning a living but doing something important, not just a job but a career, not just selling my labour but contributing, not just a worker but a professional. I even went to schools encouraging kids from council estates to follow in my footsteps.
I can’t imagine how young people could see working like that now. They don’t have the rose-tinted specs I sometimes chose to wear despite knowing the reality. They know full-well what is facing them. Many have no option to go to college or university and can’t get jobs as “copy boys”. I would struggle to tell them to follow in my footsteps these days.
We’re selling our labour – no more, no less. The old Tories and blue Labour kept us pacified – ensured a nation that getting an education and following your dream would mean a lifestyle change. You would be better off than your parents: you would own a home, could depend on having employment, could have holidays, eat well, dress well …
Writing for the BBC, John Gray, says: “Job security doesn’t exist, the trades and professions of the past have largely gone and life-long careers are barely memories […] Middle-class people used to think their lives unfolded in an orderly progression. But it’s no longer possible to look at life as a succession of stages in which each is a step up from the last.”
And here I sit, unemployed, with qualifications and work experience Job Centre Plus suggests I play down. My achievements and hard work mean nothing. I sit in the office – which, by the way, is decorated in red and purple like an angry haemorrhoid – and I’m only told to prove I’m looking for work.
I spent many years proving I’m willing to work. I spent money on qualifications and training, proving my willingness to work. I spent the past twenty odd years working, and was willing to do so. I’m still willing to do so.
Now, under a sign that reads “the job you want, the help you need” I’m patronised and treated like a sponger. I listen politely as I’m told that an interim job could see me “start from the bottom and then just take off”, the adviser waving his hand like it’s a little career plane.
It’s like I’m right back in that miserable room with the short-sighted school careers adviser.
Only now I’m able to feign interest with some skill.
How many little boxes I’ve filled in my Looking for Work booklet in time for my mandatory meeting: 23
How many jobs I’ve found to apply for this week, so far: 5
What I intend to ask Job Centre Plus about in getting “the help I need”: Social enterprise, business loans for the unemployed and retraining funding availability. The response should be funny