New Year, nothing to lose
It was a year ago today I was enjoying my Christmas break in the knowledge I was to start a new job in the New Year. I wasn’t 100 per cent about it – the East London agency was pretty shabby compared to the glistening West London one I’d left, but the commute – ten minutes by bike to Shoreditch, beat 45 minutes on the nose-to-armpit cattle truck of the Central Line to Paddington of a weekday morning. I left because, having spent close to three month looking for alternative names for slim cigarettes for the day when marketers are no longer allowed to convey a sense they may be less bad for you (yes, I was copywriting for the tobacco industry – compunction flies out of the window where higher wages are concerned, especially if you’ve tasted the long slow sting of destitution and you have a family and a mortgage in London) writing for the chocolate industry felt innocent by comparison. I can tell you for free, though, it ain’t – there are far more child slaves harvesting the beans for your chocolate Santa than the tobacco for your Marlboro Lights, for a start. And the hierarchy and sensitivities at stake are every bit as power crazed.
Anyway, for little old me, it was a chance to move onwards and upwards, closer to home – and yet I had misgivings from the start. Partly because I’d been offered the job on a crazy night out by a guy shoveling coke up my nose – a friend of a friend who’s never been all that friendly; a guy who, with an upper class lisp and Oxbridge arrogance about his place in the universe, who told me with confidence it was a 60k role then offered me 45, barely more than the amount I’d sold my soul to big tobacco for, but an easier commute swung it, for all I felt somewhat betrayed.
I should have known he had a quiet vendetta against me, perhaps for sitting on his boyfriend’s knee right at the end of the party, at about 7 am when I’d got floppy and soppy on sleep deprivation and artificial stimulants in that moment when we were just tired lonely human beings seeking solace, from the haphazard way he conducted the interviews; sauntering downstairs some fifteen minutes after it was due to start with a barely professional smirk, dawdling over sending me a series of ever higher editorial hurdles to jump, which I passed with flying colours; and then too relaxed about letting me know I had got the job, though someone’s livelihood was at stake. But then, it was all just a game to him.
The thing is, I was pissed off with a life that felt increasingly undermined by the children I had, for all I love them dearly; and blinkered workplaces that failed to understand what it might be like to have them; pissed off to my back molars with my current job, where I was expected to alchemise gold from dust, with little input from a Creative Director who equally seemed to be in the throes of a nervous breakdown. Frequently I managed it, but it was a thankless, miserable task. I left just before Christmas, the day I brought my children into the office but no one else was there – and I left early, relieved, in a way to be out of it, saying goodbye to no one. But then the way the system works means no one gives a shit. Everyone just wants to save their own skins.
I didn’t get to say my goodbyes at this latest role either. Sacked after eleven months of averted gazes, passive aggressive cancellations, petulant and overzealous feedback, vitriolic reviews which notably came from only one direction. Most of the people I worked with glowed about my work. I made their jobs easier, rarely complained, and did things with a sense of humour and a smile. All except my boss and his hatchet-faced female crony, who seemed to take an instant dislike to my eager-to-please confusion at her mixed instructions and shifting goalposts, and the perceived threat I posed to her hard won queen bee-dom.
So why was I hired in the first place? To act as his de-facto secretary so he could swan in late to meetings and generate creative ideas drenched in double-entendres that bamboozled and mocked the foreign client and risked the account for everyone who worked on it? Perhaps that first night, without a hierarchy in place, I could just be myself – a more confident, tongue-in-cheek version of the teacher’s pet I usually present when hierarchy is involved. Perhaps he sensed my desperation. After all, accepting line after line of coke from a virtual stranger is hardly the behaviour of someone who is fully confident about their place in the world.
To be fair, I’d been having a miserable time, with both Tom and I suffering multiple job losses over several years amid a fractured jobs market for top feeder industries: the ad world and financial markets, on whom capitalism’s perpetual devouring growth depends. The sustainability stories I spun at this new job only added to my sense of dis-ease at the concentric circles of power whose cogs I oiled, when given half a chance.
Believing this, does it really matter that I left my creative service role in disgrace? I would argue I’ve done nothing wrong but more than I was asked, with good grace and to the best of my abilities. Yes, I occasionally blogged – when I had nothing else to do, which was frequent – clients were cutting budgets and 20 people were let go in the time I was there, so I had cut down my hours to fill my time better. There was only half a role, in any case, but of course, they couldn’t offer that as a reason to get rid of me. So they hinged it on the odd first draft typo- inevitable when you are churning out copy eight hours a day – other than that, my conduct was flawless – except for one drunken slip up at the office summer party, where letting one’s hair down was inevitable given the quantity of booze and the long days we all put in. People did far worse.
Often early, sometimes staying late. Never more than two thirds my allotted lunch break, though frequently less. Any more would have been met with dagger eyes. Only my boss was allowed to slip off early, or return late. But then, frequently he would be found in the office after hours, although whether that was simply poor time management or whether his nose was genuinely to the grindstone, I won’t hazard a guess. I don’t doubt his dedication to his role, but his particular style grated on me, who needed to work my contacted hours – perhaps the biggest sin for white collar wage slaves, but who handed everything in on time, without anyone having to chase, with very little need for review. In short, I provided a great service.
So why sack me? Perhaps it was simply a personality clash. I don’t think he was basically unkind, just unclear what he wanted both to me and to himself, clearing up the mess he’d made for himself that night through a drawn out process of bullshit reviews and feedback meetings he never seemed bothered about attending while simultaneously creating a world of anxiety for me. It is thoughtlessness that’s the world’s biggest evil after all. But, perhaps I’m as guilty of that as anyone. But then, as a gay man with no plans to have children himself – he told me that on drugs the first night we met – he doesn’t ever need to think about how parenthood might affect one’s career, and more particularly how it affects mothers’.
After all, how could he understand my desire to get home on time to deal with needs more pressing than my own; and certainly more pressing to me than the businesses’; the chronic fatigue which set in from the constant, out of office demands on my time? Being a mother is at odds with being a worker and I’ve felt disadvantaged by it my whole career. Despite that, I did my best at every opportunity, working harder than many pf my peers to attain the same career level with two kids in tow. Apparently it wasn’t good enough. But then, pulling someone’s confidence to shreds in a disciplinary process feels a little bit of a harsh way to deal with it, especially, let’s face it, when it wasn’t my fault he hadn’t thought through my role much to begin with. And, of course the client pulled the account – I found that out afterwards. But then, I didn’t have nearly enough power for that to have been my fault.
It is tempting to blame myself for this failure. Perhaps I could have worked harder or tried a different approach. Perhaps, in that case, my eventual dismissal would have been all the harder to take. But my impervious mask didn’t crack, not once, until HR called me in for an “exit interview” on my kids’ last day at school before the Christmas holidays, when there was so much else I had to do. I finally told them where to shove it. The HR lady, pregnant with her first, feigned understanding. In time, she might actually have an inkling. I hope she gets the whole damned squid.
In the end, I believe they got rid of me because I was expensive; that I refused to work for less than I felt my qualifications deserve; that I felt a man in my position would surely ask for, but sadly for which, more often than not, women have often been historically underpaid. My boss kept referring to my pay in the review sessions, daring me to offer a cut to save my skin. I wouldn’t. I’d already shaved my hours to suit the role, or lack of it. Certainly, he wanted to freelance me back some of the work I did because it would be cheaper, but HR smelt a tribunal and put a stop to it. Perhaps, in the end, he sensed I wasn’t desperate enough. Unlike many in the private sector, I no longer need to work till I drop to afford my home, my children, my lifestyle. I may have once, but no more. Tom has produced gold, lots of it, out of the thin air of the money markets. I may be a cynic, but for now the system (by which I guess I mean the patriarchy, the one that enables me to have the babies while my partner wins the bread) is operating in my favour) and for a while I can stick two fingers up at the absurdity of the workplace and its politics of bullshit until the next time fate and the economy gives me a kick up the arse. But it’s not really good enough, for all, for now, it’s propping me up, for now.
And guess what? I think I may be pregnant.