Friday, 21 February 2014

But what do you do REALLY?

An actor, an author, a medical writer, a graphic designer and a film maker walk into a bar. OK, it’s not a bar.  That’s later.  For now, they walk into an unremarkable 1970s office block, stuffed with cubicles.  Each one has a screen, a headset, a phone unit, and a creased crib sheet, tattooed by a hundred bored biroes.  This is the market research call centre I worked in for six months in the nineties, and every single person who worked there was doing so to pay their way through training or see them through a fallow period in their real job - nearly all of them in the creative industries.  

It was a great place to work, there was always someone to have an interesting conversation with during breaks, always something new to learn from a colleague.  But the pay was low and the days went slowly, and as soon as I could, I went back to my usual job as an advertising copywriter.

I was in good company - so many great writers have worked in advertising agencies.  Don de Lillo, Salman Rushdie, even, somewhat alarmingly, William Burroughs at one time paid the bills by writing encouragements to buy more stuff.  It was soon obvious, though, that while I could combine advertising with the odd bit of freelance journalism, fiction was completely beyond my capabilities after a day of copywriting.  I could not manage more than one way of “making things up for a living” at a time.  It was as if I had a finite number of sentences, and by 5.30pm I’d exhausted them.

But what else can a writer do to earn a living if not write? Larkin was happy enough (as far as one could tell in his case) to remain a librarian.  Many writers teach, especially now a private income is rarely expected and government funding is rarely generous.  Rarer is the artist who, like William Letford the roofer/poet, does a manual job by day, transforming into actor/dancer/novelist when the factory whistle blows.

I now write stories, not sales pitches.  And I work part time in a supermarket.  When I’m at work, I’m submerged in all the everyday tragedies and unthinking heroisms of ordinary people’s lives, the customer request for “adult baby wipes” for a husband with dementia, the pride with which a colleague talks of his disabled daughters.  I come into contact with ignorance, kindness, prejudice, decency and straightforward stupidity to a degree I wouldn’t have imagined from my desk in an ad agency.

But, for me, the real benefit is that my tiny spark of writing creativity is no longer bludgeoned and sat upon by my need to use up every scrap of possibility at my day job.  I’m not saying that a lurid nylon uniform is the way to creative greatness.  But it might be less restrictive than you think.

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Why are we Arguing?

For some reason, this subject has come up a lot in magazines and online discussions recently, and it always always turns into a nasty argument (look at the comments on this article for example - it's a bit one-sided to start with, but there are some really hurtful things being said by those who agree and disagree with it).  Each “side” seems to expect judgement and abuse from the other, and tries to get it in first.  All I can give is my own perspective, but given that I have been subject to aggressive and insensitive remarks about my childlessness, I have to assume that those with children sometimes, sadly, face similar unpleasantness from the childfree.

If you’re a reasonable person and don’t behave like this, you may not know what it’s like for 40+ women who don’t have children.  I have people telling me I’m selfish for not wanting children.  I hear that there is no point in me being on this earth if I am not going to reproduce.  I am told that I will never experience love if I don’t have a child.  I have NEVER felt  any pressure from my partner, friends or family to have children.  But the pressure from strangers, acquaintances and the media is immense.

At forty eight years old, I STILL have people telling me it’s “not too late”, that their aunt gave birth to a bouncing young cousin when she was fifty.  That’s nice.  But your aunt is (one presumes) a human being and so am I, and that means we are different.  

That’s the problem, I think.  I can’t speak for those with children, and the assumptions made about them - I’m sure there are many.  But many people I meet start by assuming I am a parent, based on my age and gender.  It’s irritating and insulting to me.  I can’t imagine what it’s like for those who have lost a child or tried desperately for one for most of their reproductive lives.  I can assure you the charity collector who greeted me on my own doorstep with “I bet the kids are driving you mad today” had the door firmly shut on her, and I sincerely hope that she thought twice about saying that to anyone else.  There wasn’t much I could do about the JobCentre advisors who delayed my claim by (without my knowledge) registering me as having dependents.  I had filled in the form correctly, but apparently my appearance and the law of averages overrode this.

I don’t know if this view of the childfree as oddities, anomalies has changed over time.  I’d like to think we’re assumed to be less tragic than we once were.  I have certainly felt the shift in the nation’s view of children since being a child myself in the 1970s, when children were expected to do what adults wanted.  Now it seems that an adult’s life is governed by his or her children.  Pity the generation that got the worst of both worlds, never being the important one in the family!  I remember the shock I felt when I first heard children being asked their opinion on things, and the first time an adult apologised to me.

I believe you, today’s parents, when you say how rewarding and fulfilling parenting is, how it’s the best thing you’ve ever done and how much it’s taught you.  But quite honestly, when I hear that, it sounds exactly the same as someone telling me how great it is to be a multi-millionaire.  I’m really happy for you and I admire you enormously for getting there, but I don't have any reasonable way of putting myself in the same position.

I wanted a family, once.  I wanted to make up for what I never had growing up.  Then I learned how often neglected and abused children repeat these mistakes with the next generation.  I learned how likely it was that any children would inherit my long-term illness.  And, even if I’d felt I had the personal strength to overcome these issues, I didn’t meet my partner till I was 40.  I call myself child-free by choice, but we don’t all have the same choices.

I have nothing but respect and admiration for parents.  I agree it is the hardest job in the world.  Those who are my friends know (I hope) that I find their children fascinating, engaging and adorable people, despite my not being terribly interested in babies per se.  Parents who I don’t know personally, I hope that you know I’m not judging you for your choices.  And in turn, I hope that you won’t judge me for mine.

Dead Centre

I know very well how ridiculous this sounds, but:

So it was Lovely Paul’s birthday, and being humble as well as lovely, he decided that after a day out at the Birmingham Sea Life Centre peering at otters, all he wanted was dinner at Pizza Express.  Seemed worth coming back to Coventry for, so we could just hop in a taxi home straight after dinner.  We didn’t bother with a reservation because a) who makes reservations at Pizza Express? and b) what Pizza Express is booked out at 7pm on a Friday?

As it turns out, we now know the answer to the second of these questions.  It’s the kind of Pizza Express based in a city centre with not much else in it.  Our other options were: The excellent Turmeric Gold on Spon Street (so excellent we go there all the time and fancied something different).  b) the Blue Bar and Bistro (nearby, but small and we, perhaps unfairly, assumed it would also be booked up) c) Browns (usually too busy with student drinkers on a Friday night to relax in over dinner), and a couple of places that we discounted because their “vegetarian option” was a dish of flabby pasta that I could do better at home.

That’s about half a dozen restaurants, including a couple of bars/chains that aren’t really restaurants at all.  In one of the UK’s biggest city centres.  No wonder Pizza Express is so bloody popular.

And here’s the other thing.  We would have had quite a walk to get to most of those other places.  From one edge of the city centre to another.  While some of the suburbs have busy little hubs of bars and restaurants, Coventry City Centre itself is desolate after dark.  The shopping areas turn grim and forbidding, with the odd tiny beacon of enjoyment calling from across the deserted precincts.  The nice places to go are let down by the expanses between them.

I have established myself with the council as the kind of beady-eyed busybody who likes filling in surveys, and every now and then they ask for suggestions about the city centre.  I usually tell them that part of the problem is that all the shops are shut by 5.30pm, making vast swathes of the place look post-apocalyptic.  And there is no one area where restaurants and bars are concentrated.  The square where the BBC is had a good try, but I think the problem there is it’s inaccessible by car - everything but Nandos seems to have shut down now.  There is a nice area by the theatre which seems like it should have a choice of establishments, but all it contains is a Bella Italia.  

I can’t help comparing Coventry to Leicester, a city centre which also suffered in the war (though it wasn’t as comprehensively obliterated), but which is bustling with independent shops, cafes and restaurants.  Despite having a broadly similar immigration pattern to Coventry, Leicester is famous for its curries, while Coventry boasts just one or two good Indian restaurants.  (incidentally, Coventry possesses a vastly impressive guildhall, but you have to wait for the annual Heritage Open Day to see it.  Leicester’s, interesting though smaller, less well preserved, and less soaked in history, is open all year round.)  What’s going on here?  I’m not a town planner, I can’t put it right.  But when they rebuilt this city, the architects intended it to be an enjoyable place to be, full of life and business and entertainment.  The nature of city centres all over the country, even the world, is changing rapidly.  I hope councils and governments and businesses see this as an opportunity for ideas, not just for decay.

Maybe if we lived just out of the city, in Earlsdon, or the developing Far Gosford Street area, Paul would have had a birthday dinner out.  As it was, we went home and ordered a takeaway.  It was excellent.