Archive for the ‘Down and Out’ Category

Dear 2011…

In Down and Out, review of the year on December 6, 2011 at 12:46 pm

Dear 2011,

I am writing to tell you that I am over you.

I’ve spent the past month since you unceremoniously dumped me working through my feelings about you. Not that you told me we were over until I’d already worked it out – you just stopped returning my calls.

I’ve been thinking back to the heady days earlier this year when you showered me with treats and promises, and made me feel like you cared. I now see that you were little more than a summer romance. It was a brief affair, but I’ll admit it, it was fun while it lasted. Read the rest of this entry »

It’s official: life’s better under BST

In Down and Out, Food & Drink on April 3, 2011 at 11:14 am

I can’t be a coincidence. Since the clocks changed last weekend, I’ve had a blinder of a week.

Consider the evidence. Here’s all the nice things that have happened in the past seven days: Read the rest of this entry »

#27a Vincent

In Down and Out on January 21, 2010 at 11:46 pm

Gatecrashing the press view of the Royal Academy’s Spring blockbuster ‘The Real Van Gogh – the artist and his letters‘ (23 Jan-18 April)  it struck me that Vincent was an ideal How To Be Unemployed poster boy.

1) He recklessly abandoned ‘proper job’ to become an artist, jacking  in careers as an art dealer and then a missionary to take up painting at 27.

2) He displayed an overdeveloped work ethic, but still considered himself a failure – In just 10 years he produced more than 800 paintings and 1,200 drawings. In the last 70 days of his life he produced more than 70 canvasses.

3) He repeatedly tapped his younger brother Theo for cash and materials.

4) He entered a house share with another temperamental artist (Gaugin), which ended in breakdown and the ‘ear incident’.

5) He displayed a marked tendency to look on the dark side of life – In  a letter to Theo on 31 July 1882, describing his watercolour ‘Pollard Willow’ he writes: ‘where the black is darkest in this little sketch is where the greatest strengths are in the watercolour.’

6) Painfully lonely on account of working from home and harboured ambitions of setting up a community of like-minded artists.

7) But mainly because he puts most contemporary columnists and bloggers to shame with his frequent correspondences, particularly those to his brother.

Though this exhibition has its share of bold, colourful, energetic paintings, it is these exquisite letters that are the star. Illuminated almost like medieval manuscripts with sketches and diagrams, letters finished on the backs of drawings, drawings made on the backs of envelopes, long words curled round the ends of lines to avoid hyphenation, erudite musings on life, literature and art, and prose as smooth as butter, whether he’s writing in Dutch, French of English. Letters which are not the ramblings of a mad man but a of an educated man studying hard, perhaps destructively hard, in order to master something for which he has an all-consuming passion. Read Margaret Drabble writing in the New Statesman on the subject.

The exhibition includes, quite movingly, the last letter he ever wrote, dated four days before he shot himself, six before he died from his wounds.

Sadly the six volume box set of his letters (published by Thames & Hudson) are, at £395, beyond the resources of most HTBU readers (you should have caught the Radio 4 serialisation for free), but I urge you to book tickets for the exhibition now.

If you don’t believe me, read art critic Ossian Ward’s far more insightful review here.

They are clearly expecting crowds (the security guards were being tutored in queue control when I went) so get one over on all those people with proper jobs and go on a weekday.

#23 New Year’s resolutions, sort of

In Down and Out on January 4, 2010 at 10:30 pm

It has occurred to me that I ought to be blogging about my New Year’s resolutions. However, not only does this feel a little self-indulgent, but the list is embarrassingly similar to last years’. There have been some readjustments for lowered expectations: ‘get a job’ is still on the list but relegated below more achievable goals such as ‘put up blind’, ‘read to kids every night’ and ‘fix bike’, but still ahead of the fanciful ‘learn to bake’. Otherwise my achievements over the past 12 months have been slight.

It’s not that I’m predisposed towards laziness, or that I took time out over the summer to wallow in self-pity (though perhaps a bit of that went on), but rather the paradox of the freelance/jobseeker predicament – instead of having extra time, you somehow have less. Whether its firing off emails to potential contacts, filling in lengthy job application forms, or researching your field on the look out for potential openings or juicy stories, it’s a full-time job with no defined boundaries, no wage packet and no pension plan. One that expands like that sticky yellow foam filler for lazy DIY to fill every crevice of your life then bulge out beyond it in unsightly growths you’ll never get round to sanding down. There is no ‘end of the working day’, no hard earned reward of a couple of hours in the pub or an evening of Baileys and Poirot on the sofa. It’s a 24/7 job. On top of which, as the non-bread winner, or crumb-winner, you must earn your keep by taking on sole responsibility for domestic chores (your wages in kind are the £40 a week you might otherwise have paid a cleaner, plus the ££s that would have gone to a childminder).

Here, if you will indulge me, are just a few of the tasks I confidently assigned myself in September when staring into the abyss of a long, jobless autumn: ebay unwanted items; put review copies of audiobooks on Amazon marketplace; attach the skirting in bathroom; attach cupboard door in daughter’s room; get skylight surround replastered; plant some things in tubs in garden; repaint front door; assemble Ikea toybox; put up Velux blind in office; put up roller bind in spare bedroom; create a website; print own Christmas cards; make iPhoto book for Mum’s 70th; take a course in starting your own business; visit Roger Hiorns’ ‘Seizure’ installation; take the empty paint cans to the dump; clear out under the stairs; assemble CD tower; get business cards printed; organise a mass yard sale for the whole street.

And although I can proudly tick off the skirting board (ok, there’s still a little bit missing, but it’s 90% there), I’m now also adding the books I’ve still not read and the unwatched TV programmes that are clogging up Sky+.

I’d better get on…

#22 The How to be Unemployed Review of the Year!

In Down and Out, Homeworking on December 31, 2009 at 11:25 am

2009 in figures:

Number of friends made redundant: 13
Number of friends forced to move back in with parents: 1
Number of architects unemployed in December 2008: 680
Number of architects unemployed December 2009:1,595 (down from 2,000+ in August source: AJ)
UK Unemployment 2007: 1.7m
UK unemployment 2009: 2.46m
Number of consecutive weeks with no paid work: 7
Number of pitches sent during April-June: 24
Number of pieces subsequently commissioned: 1
Fee for 400 words on North London for Completely London: £350
Fee for 500 words for Time Out London for Children: £100
Fee for 1000 words for Times Online to promote The World’s Greatest Cities: A copy of Londoners Through a Lens
Number of takeaway coffees bought first three months of year: 14
Number of takeaway coffees bought since April: 6

Alternative careers I’ve considered this year:

Primary school office assistant (purely for the convenience)
Primary school lunchtime operative (ie dinner lady)
Taking over the local stationery shop
Taking over the local bookshop
Working in a deli/cheese shop
Setting up a facility/information exchange for the local self-employed, probably selling stationery and books. And coffee
2012 meeter and greeter
Artisanal greetings card maker
Ebay magnate
Local councillor
GLA lacky
Journalism lecturer

Best free stuff

Community centre careers workshop with fantastic Caribbean curry laid on for lunch
Local lending library
Swimming lessons at Crystal Palace, c/o swimming teacher training at London Leisure Academy
Food, in exchange for café reviews
Travel for under 16s
Evening Standard
Tate x2, National Gallery, V&A
Fountains in Somerset House
Jardin des vents et des dunes (bouncy playground) at La Villette
Fireworks in Brockwell Park
Trafalgar Square – always something going on
Swim for Life
– free swimming for under 16s and over 60s
Southwark council multisports programme
Walking. Walking from Clerkenwell to London Bridge on a balmy August evening. Walking from Bloomsbury to London Bridge (in heels) on a clement October evening. Walking from Kingston to Hammersmith along the Thames Path.
Cycling proficiency lessons
State education

George Osborne saying ‘We’re all in this together.’ I somehow doubt he’s in it as much as some of us.

George Osborne generally.

Closure of The London Paper, London Lite, Observer Music Monthly, Observer Sport Monthly, Observer Women, Arena… too many colleagues loosing their jobs. Who’s next?

The Euro-pound exchange rate. Casual coffees in Parisian cafes now a thing of the past. Packed lunches in parks it is.

The death of both my cats, from old age, months apart.

Petty squabbles with the council over a domed skylight, exactly like the ones on every other house in the area. They won.

Applying for secondary schools.

Getting rained on at Latitude, at sports day, on my birthday, at the end of term picnic, in Manchester, in Hextable (no, me neither).

Embarrassing appearance on CNBC.  The consolation was that none of my friends watch daytime financial TV – until someone posted it on their website.


Low VAT.

Sunny Paris at Easter. Sunny Fife in May. Sunny Granada in August.

Friends sticking candles in a cheesecake for an unofficial day-after-birthday picnic.

Printmaking classes. The creative outlet and sheer joy of learning something new must be worth the fee. Cheaper than therapy. Find a course via Floodlight.

A publisher returning my email.

Someone reading my blog.

Reopening of Crystal Palace Sports Centre – one of the most elegant buildings in London

Making £75 cash at a car boot sale.

Husband getting dream job. At least someone did so there’s still hope.


Things to look forward to in 2010

Van Gogh at the Royal Academy, from 23 Jan. His paintings sell for millions but the man was constantly broke.

In Search of the British Work Ethic – Melanie Phillips meets the unemployed and socially excluded for Radio 4. This I must hear.

‘Whoops! Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay’ by John Lanchester. The current financial mess wryly explained by the former Dep Ed of the LRB.

sunshine forecast for first four days of the year!

#19 Gifts for the Doley in your life

In Down and Out, Tips on December 21, 2009 at 11:14 am
A few topical gifts for the Doley in your life:
Technically I suppose we should all be either sending charity cards to help other people, or e-cards to help the environment, or better still e-charity cards such as those from Shelter. (I especially like the one where you can click on the reindeers’ noses to hear them whistle Once in Royal David’s City.)
However, these from Manchester-based design group peddling  Christmas by Colour seem to sum up the prevailing mood.  Or at least the red one does. Sadly the C100 M75 Y2 K17 (dark blue) Mayfair and Park Lane card may be more appropriate next year. £3.95 for a pack of 6 or £11.95 for two packs of each set.
And because they are produced by just a samll independent northern design outfit trying to make their way in a harsh world, they could be argued to be a charitable cause.
Mrs Scrooge by Carol Ann Duffy, illustrated by Posy Simmonds (£4.99 Pan Macmillan)

The uplifting little tale of cuddly eco-warrior Mrs Scrooge  that will make you appreciate Christmas and good poetry. Some of Mrs Scrooge’s husbandry might feel familiar to those who’ve also been watching the pennies this year:

‘She hated waste, consumerism, Mrs Scrooge foraged

in the London parks for chestnuts, mushrooms, blackberries,

ate leftovers, recycled, mended, passed on, purchased secondhand,

turned the heating down and put on layers, walked everywhere,

drank tap-water, used public libraries, possessed a wind-up radio,

switched of lights, lit candles (darkness is cheap and Mrs Scrooge

liked it) and would not spend one penny on a plastic bag.’

Make do and Mend. An updated version of the Wartime classic from (who else?) the people’s republic of  John Lewis. I quite like the tips about cleaning your shoes with banana skins, freezing leftover wine (as if) for cooking, keeping tomatoes in the fruit bowl, and using mint as fly repellent, but perhaps the most middle class tip must be :

‘To shift stubborn deposits at the bottom of wine decanter, add crushed eggshells and a little water, swill briskly, turn out and rinse well.’ Doesn’t say whether the eggs should be barn laid or from which bird. Organic duck eggs ok?

Proof that socialist principles are not incompatible with a bourgeois lifestyle. Sadly they’d sold out yesterday when I went to buy a job lot for friends.

Why Not Socialism? GA Cohen Princeton University Press (£10.99)

Possibly the clearest argument for socialism, beautifully and wittily written, especially the chapter setting out the case for socialism in terms of a camping trip. Plus, it allows anyone down on their luck to parade newly-imposed lifestyle choices (such as state education or public transport) and political and ethical badges of honour. It’s a huge loss that leading political philosopher ‘Jerry’ Cohen died unexpectedly  of a stroke in August, just before this book was published. But brilliantly titled works such as If You’re An Egalitarian, How Come You’re So Rich? live on.

Cuffs, wrist warmers, finger-and-thumbless gloves… whatever you want to call them, these allow you to keep typing through winter without having to give in and put the central heating on. One friend I gave them to says it’s a bit like wearing a long-sleeved studenty jumper, without having to be a student. They are also achingly on-trend (according to a piece I read in the Standard). I got mine (cashmere, pink) for a tenner from my friend Lou who has a Saturday stall at Greenwich Market. See, again selflessly helping the independent designer/maker.

Home-made marmalade, £2. Not made in my home, obviously, but bought at the school Christmas fair. Comfortingly homely with a hint of bitterness – unemployed life embodied in a condiment.

#17 Scour the jobs pages for a laugh

In Down and Out, Jobseeking on December 14, 2009 at 11:19 pm

Rather than worry about all the jobs I’d be great at but have failed to get, this week I thought I’d amuse myself with those currently being advertised that I’d be fundamentally ill-suited to. Here’s just a few:

Weight Watchers’ Magazine – senior sub

Fertilizer Week – fertilizer markets analyst

What Laptop – staff writer

National Farmers’ Union – Press Officer

Tunnels & Tunnelling International – news editor (in fact I once worked for the same publisher as T&T and, to be fair, it does involve a lot of foreign travel)

Leasing Life and Motor Finance – freelancers

Horse magazine – acting editor

Football Punk – digital journalist

Meat Trade Journal – features ed (OK, I was tempted)

Soul & Spirit – dep ed

Mountain Biking UK – editor

The Strad – assistant editor

FT Geopolitical blog – brainbox

and travel writers based in the Maldives

If you hurry, they might still be available on Gorkanajournalism.co.uk,or  Guardian.co.uk.

#14 Treasure your rejection letters – they’re collectors’ items

In Down and Out, Jobseeking on November 28, 2009 at 4:49 pm

I was having a clear out recently and came across some of my old rejection letters:

‘I do hope that you are not too disappointed,’ wrote BBC Good Food’s chief sub-editor.

‘Fiona and I have finally come up with a shot list but I’m sorry to say that you’re not on it,’ apologised moreexclamation mark

‘Unfortunately your experience isn’t quite relevant to any of our current projects,’ said emap élan, promising, however, to keep me on file.

‘Thank you for thinking of us,’ said the Standard.

‘…wish you every success for the future,’ said G+J.

At the time, each one of these drove the dagger of despond deeper into my chest. But that was back in the 90s and I did eventually get a job I loved – after plucking up the courage to leave the one I had, freelancing for a few years, and then hanging around somewhere till they had to keep me.

This time round, of the 15 advertised job applications I’ve made since Easter, plus the intermittent bursts of intensive pitching, I’ve had the following responses: An email from one weekly London magazine on the day a job was advertised saying they’d already filled the position internally. An email from an agency saying the food mag launch they’d advertised for was no longer going ahead. And one magazine that actually gave me an interview but decided that seven years’ in a senior role and a two-decade career wasn’t quite enough in this climate.

Two pitches actually resulted in real paid work. One general enquiry got an extremely generous reply from someone far too senior to have needed to trouble herself with small fry such as myself (thank you, Sarah Sands), but no work. Another elicited quite an interesting meeting, but sadly no work. One offered an unpaid talk, but for a worthwhile institution. And another, some unpaid research on request but eventually no commission.

Other than that, silence. Nada. Rein. Zilch. Zip. Nowt. Even from a magazine I was actually freelancing for at the time. Even for a part time, down-table jobshare on a magazine where I’d previously been shortlisted for the Dep Ed role. Even from people I’d worked for recently who had congratulated me on doing a great job.

Had I at some point committed some terrible faux pas that had circulated the industry causing a blanket blacklisting? I really did entertain this notion in all seriousness for several months. I’m still not entirely convinced that this is not the case, but on balance it is probably more likely that overworked editors deem it unnecessary to respond, even when they’ve invited you to contact them by advertising a position in the first place.

While no one sending enquiries at the moment expects the response ‘of course you can have a job! We’ve got loads!’ I for one would prefer even an auto-reply ‘Soz!’ to the sort of demeaning, paranoia-inducing vacuum with which those of us in search of gainful employ are faced.

Which is why I’ll always treasure those hand-typed, personally-signed rejection letters of yesteryear. They were crushing at the time, but at least they acknowledged that I existed. Right now, some of us are beginning to wonder if we still do.

#13 Grey

In Down and Out, midlife on November 25, 2009 at 2:53 pm

When the whole recession thing started to trickle down to street level, I asked a stylist friend who cuts hair how she was faring. Was she losing clients? ‘Oh no! My ladies say that they’d rather go without food than not have their hair done.’

Personally I’d rather shave my head than forgo good food, and yet I find myself at a follicle crossroads. One word: grey. It is seeping in from the temples and springing from the parting and there is little I can do to stem the tide. The image in the mirror has become a spiteful reminder of my slide towards middle age and anonymity.

In the past, the occasional £75+ to obliterate it with warm chestnut or camouflage it with highlights kept me in blissful denial, but now I can’t imagine ever having that much spare cash again. And even if I did, I’d probably spend it on cheese.

It seems unfair that a man with grey hair is seen as distinguished, even desirable, yet for women it’s still something of a social taboo. (When is a woman ever referred to as a ‘silver fox’?) But then, men are also allowed to be old; women aren’t.

But if men like my husband can make male-pattern baldness cool by teaming a No1 cut with a Cos shirt and APC jeans, then perhaps women can make grey a fashion statement.

First we need role models, of which there turn out to be depressingly few. After wracking my brains, all I’ve managed to come up with is: Jamie Lee Curtis; Susan Sontag; Indira Gandhi; fashion designer Helen Storey (she was big in about 1990); Vanessa Redgrave; Rogue out of X-men; Alexandra Cabot from 1970s Hanna-Barbera animation series Josie and the Pussycats (see above); and Dame Judi Dench. A motley crew only able to carry it off either by having been already revered in their field when they lost their melanin, or being cartoon characters.

Far more numerous are the women who I refuse to believe aren’t grey: I give you Madonna, Arlene Phillips, Elizabeth Taylor, Dame Shirley Bassey…

Perhaps we can take heart instead from a New Scientist article which claims grey hair can protect against cancer.

Or this beautiful illustration published in Bronwen Meredith’s “Vogue Body and Beauty Book” 1977 entitled The Beauty of Grey Hair, 1920s. The caption reads:

C.R., The Beauty of Grey Hair, 1920s by Gatochy.
‘Thanks to her sophisticated charm, a carefully picked wardrobe and assiduous care the grey haired woman can be charming. Pity the poor deluded woman who weeps over her jet black hair, because she didn’t realize gray hair is much more distinguished. The pot of hair dye did its job — and deprived her of her greatest beauty.’

If only. Pixie Geldof may have flirted with grey at the Elle Style Awards, but until someone persuades Kate Moss to appear at Glastonbury with a prominent grey streak, or Madonna to go au naturel, women will continue to spend a fortune on (self) deception. Or, when they’re broke, simply avoid mirrors.

#12 Don’t cry off attending your friend’s party just because you think you’ll be the only one there without a fantastic job

In Down and Out on November 23, 2009 at 11:13 pm

At an unspecified point earlier this year, when the whole no job=no status thing was really getting to me, I did a shameful thing.

A lovely friend had very sweetly invited me to their birthday lunch in a lovely restaurant with lovely people. How lovely, I hear you say. And ordinarily I would have had to agree. But as anyone who has ever been unemployed for a lengthy period will know, one of the worst things about it is the crippling loss of self-esteem. I’ve seen it happen to other people, I’ve read about it in sociology books, but I hadn’t expected it so soon or so deeply. So in spite of all the loveliness on offer, at the eleventh-hour, I bottled it. I texted (yes, texted!) some feeble excuse about the kids and hid.

One day, when things are on the up again, I promise I’ll pluck up the courage to apologise to my friend (face to face). In the mean time, however, I have, as they say ‘got over myself’. I’ve given myself a metaphorical slap, and pushed myself out of the door and back into social situations.

Guess what? It turns out the recession isn’t limited to my back bedroom. In fact, lots of journalists far more talented and better connected than me are also struggling to find enough work. Ditto lawyers (an increase of 483% in past 18mths), accountants (up 377%), marketing managers (up 28%), PRs/advertising types (up 298%), and architects (up an incredible 1,115%), not to mention actors, directors, IT consultants, and more. In fact, these days it is quite unfashionable to actually have enough work.

As part of my new ‘no hiding’ rule, I’ve taken a deep breath and frog-marched myself along to press launches, professional networking groups, council-sponsored careers surgeries, and redundancy leaving dos. Even birthday parties. And everywhere the story is the same. In fact, some of these get togethers are more like AA meetings: ‘Hello, my name is Jessica, and I haven’t had a commission for five months.’ Without wanting to take pleasure in other people’s misfortune, they’re mutually supportive, therapeutic, and a good excuse for  drink.

Nowadays, instead of feeling alienated from the working society, I’m beginning to feel part of a growing, non-working society. And, financial pressures aside, just knowing you’re not alone makes it all seem somehow ok.