Thoughtcat’s nine lives

This was a page I started at Thoughtcat’s inception in 2003 with the intention of updating every so often with details of my various “careers” over the years. See also this more recent blog post.

If I really was a cat, and a job was a life, in terms of pure numbers I would surely have used up my allowance years ago.

In fact, one of the reasons I quit my job [in 2003] to become a full-time writer was that I felt I’d already reached my ninth life in terms of formal employment; it seemed only fair on employers at large to stop sending them my CV. Then again, my decision did also have a fair amount to do with the company I worked for – a press-cuttings agency in central London staffed almost entirely by laid-back people in their twenties and thirties, 90% of whom were less interested in making a career in press cuttings than in taking advantage of unusual shift patterns to pursue their chosen form of creativity outside office hours. In the nearly four years I worked there, I saw a lot of these people leave, themselves after having worked there for several aeons, and equally with the now-or-never feeling about their “part-time” endeavour. Perhaps the work was so repetitive that it was in itself the biggest motivator anyone ever had to do something constructive with their lives, or maybe it was just the unusually high concentration of untapped talent within the workforce that made it hard to stay. Either way, whenever anyone told you they were leaving, even if you really liked them you tended to congratulate them rather than express regret. The feeling was akin to a PoW camp in an old movie: “Jack, have you heard the news? Ginger’s tunnelled out!”

Having said all that, with the exception of one staff member who won a young writers’ competition and had her first play performed at the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs, I don’t know of any ex-press cutters who have actually made a success of their creative endeavours having left the firm. It’s a bit like that Monty Python sketch where a milkman is beckoned into a house by a sexy woman, led through the door and up the stairs and into what appears to be a bedroom, only to find half a dozen other bewildered milkmen rotting away inside – maybe we’ve all been led astray by a beautiful muse up the stairs into what we think is success, but is in fact just another, well, room full of old milkmen.

But having said all that, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I wouldn’t want a career in something like accounting; I haven’t the temperament for it, not to mention the maths (although post-Enron, that might not actually be much of an obstacle). I could have spent my spare time over the years doing an Open University course or training for a formal career, but instead I’ve used it to watch films, listen to music, play the guitar, read books and, mostly, try to write. In the meantime I’ve had quite a few odd jobs, and this page is given over to memories of some of them. I doubt that any of them could actually be described as “interesting” in itself – as Simon Armitage wrote, “I have not bummed across America / with only a dollar to spare, one pair / of busted Levi’s and a bowie knife. / I have lived with thieves in Manchester.” Well, er, neither of those experiences are jobs as such and I haven’t even lived with thieves in Manchester, but the point is that every job I’ve done has been interesting in its own way, and largely because of the people I worked with. They say the staff are an employer’s biggest asset – well, people are a writer’s biggest asset.

* * *

The first proper job I had was kitchen porter for a short-lived American-style burger restaurant in Richmond high street, just around the corner from where I lived at that time with my mum and dad – the fire escape from the kitchen faced directly across at the block itself. I say “proper” job even though it was only a weekend position and I was a sixth-form student at the time; my first real, full time job was assistant at a photocopying shop, but that came a while later. This was my first “proper” job because (a) I had already worked irregularly as an assistant and cashier in the grocery shop my parents ran when I was growing up, but that was unofficial and didn’t count anyway because I only got the job through nepotism, and (b) I remember coming away from the “interview” at the burger restaurant full of determination and enthusiasm for the simple idea of working, of going to a place and being with other workers, of making new friends, of having new experiences, and of earning money that I could do what I wanted with. I had always had mixed feelings about school and college, and even though it was only a weekend job in a burger bar, I could relate to it, I could see the purpose and meaning of it. It was tasty – more so in fact than the burgers themselves.

In fact, I think I had something of an epiphany on the evening of that interview, which was all the more surprising given the inauspiciousness of the meeting, the job and the establishment itself. It was a small, narrow restaurant divided into two sections, one at the front facing onto the street with eight or nine tables, and a second area up a couple of steps at the rear with room for another twenty or so diners. The two areas straddled a brightly-lit central bar. I was shown up to the rear section by the owner/manager, a professional and efficient American woman with power-cheekbones. She did most of the talking, while a lanky, sinewy, tattooed guy from the kitchen sat smoking inattentively by her side. The thrust of her spiel was that this was a fast-moving, hectic business, and the most important quality I needed to possess was speed. A busy person herself, she went away and left me with the kitchen guy, whose sunken dark eyes and nervous cigarette action indicated that speed was something he possessed in both abstract and powdered form. “It doesn’t actually worry me if you’re not that fast,” he confided, nodding over to the manager and shrugging dismissively. “This is a rest-aurant, after all.” I was doubtful of the etymology, but couldn’t fault his attitude.

He then showed me upstairs, where he sat me down at a tiny table a couple of steps down from the kitchen area. He put his head round the kitchen door, called to someone that “the lad’s here about the job”, told me to wait there for a minute, and buggered off. The table where I was sitting was wedged between two freezers, in a section that seemed to double up as a staff rest area and a stockroom. Drawn prominently on the table’s green vinyl surface in black and red marker-pen was a large, crude penis. At the opposite end of an arrow pointing to the penis was the name VERNON. I was trying to work out where to look when a tall, gaunt man in kitchen whites with a close ginger crop and beard appeared in the kitchen doorway. By way of a greeting, he scowled at me. I smiled back and he disappeared. Another man turned up, a rugby type, tall and well-spoken with curly blonde hair and perfectly round eyes that never seemed to blink. He introduced himself as Malcolm, the assistant manager, and shook hands. Then he looked down, saw the penis and laughed. “Who drew that picture of Vernon on the table?” he boomed to nobody in particular. No answer came, and he disappeared.

The gaunt ginger chef then reappeared from the kitchen. “You’ve come about the KP job?” he said. (They had all referred to the job as a “KP”; I didn’t know it stood for kitchen porter, presuming a kaypee was some French culinary term.) I nodded. He fumbled in his pockets, produced a packet of Marlboros and a lighter, and then attempted to walk down the two or three steps from the kitchen into the staff area-cum-stockroom without bending either of his legs. He was obviously in some pain, and I half-stood to help him, but he held up a palm to show he was OK. “Just ‘ad an operation,” he said by way of an explanation, and struggled into the chair opposite me. He had taken a cigarette from the packet and told me a couple of things about the kitchen when a buzzer sounded, indicating a new order coming through. “I’ll get this lit in a minute,” he said pointing to the fag in his mouth with his middle finger. He stumbled back up to the kitchen, clanked about a bit, stumbled back, sat down again, put the fag in his mouth and started talking about the job again. It was only after we’d had this part of the “interview” when he introduced himself as Vernon.

I got the job, I think purely because I was the only candidate, and it all went downhill from the penis. Vernon spent most of his time travelling up and down in the goods lift and winding me up, milking to death a story about the last KP who’d been “debagged” and chased out into the street – in fact the worst thing he ever actually did to me was drop a rasher of bacon down the back of my tee-shirt. Dope was comprehensively smoked in the staff rest area. A tape-deck blasted the same two tapes over and over again – Dire Straits’ Greatest Hits and a Yazz thing featuring about ten remixes of The Only Way Is Up. The first chef with the tattoos lost it one very busy evening when the waiters hassled us for the orders, by screaming abuse into the intercom, which resulted in the power-cheekboned manageress racing upstairs and slapping him around the face. And I won’t even go into the details of the staff Christmas party. In short, it was the best job I’ve ever had.