Saturday, October 26, 2013

Braving the Storm - My Life as a Chicken Drumstick Thief

As Britain prepares for “the worst storm since 1987”, which will apparently hit southern England and south Wales on Monday, I have been thinking back to that memorable day 26 years ago.
I had been in London for three years, signing on the dole and living a miserable existence gate-crashing events just to stuff my handbag full of the bread-crumbed chicken legs from the buffet, as I had hardly any money for food.

I used to arrive at events with a virtually empty bag in order to stock up for the week, and I also had a duffel coat in which I could pack a bottle of wine in each arm (apologies to the Reform Club cloakroom, by the way, when I forgot about the cache and put my arms in the sleeves, only to smash both bottles over the floor).
At this point in time, I had been TV critic of the London Evening Standard for eight months. I wrote five columns a week, watching TV all day, writing the column at midnight (by hand – I couldn’t afford a computer) and getting up at 7am to file to the copy-takers over the phone. Then, the sub-editor would ring me at eight to go over any corrections. I did that for nearly four years and it was gruelling – but great training.
On the day of the storm, my phone was not working. The TV was reporting the weather, but it never crossed my mind that every other journalist in London was in the same position as me, unable to file their copy (or, indeed, every employee whose phone line had been cut off).
I was hysterical. I was crying. I had been brought up with an incredibly strong work ethic: if you are late, behind with your work et al, it is NEVER, EVER your employer’s fault; you alone are responsible for getting your work in on time. My dad drummed that in to me from the year dot, and I have never missed a deadline as a result.
So, with copy in hand, I set off from my Belsize Park bedsit at 7am to walk to the Fleet Street offices – over four miles: in a storm, with wind, rain, branches falling on my head, fighting against the current. I was in fear of losing my job, of not fulfilling my duties; it never once occurred to me, I swear, that everyone else might be in the same position; I had a job to do, I was being paid to do it, and no natural disaster was going to get in the way of my doing that.
I wonder how many people – of any age – are instilled with that same work ethic today. I know many wonderful young people who do a great deal for their community and go unnoticed for their efforts; but I also know a great many others who, because of the lure of reality TV, are after the quick fix. They want to be famous, and they want to be famous now.
To them, fame is everything they think they want: lights, camera, action. Premieres, red carpets, the attentions of famous boy/girlfriends, money, fast cars, TV shows. Fast Fame has replaced Fast Food as the easiest – and, seemingly, cheapest – route to satisfaction, on the part of participants and consumers.
I receive many letters from young people asking me how to get into journalism and, in particular, how to become a TV critic, which is my area of expertise. In over 25 years, I can count on one hand the number who have even managed to spell my name correctly when they write. My view is: if you can’t even copy my name out of a newspaper, why do you think I would take the time to tell you how to take my job?
Many of the people in my working environment when we were all relatively young 30 years ago are at the top of their tree today, and many of us are still on the top branches. Boris Johnson is Mayor of London; Piers Morgan is anchor on CNN (I could name many others, but you know who they are). What they all have in common is not just fierce ambition, but an ability to harness that ambition and find increasingly new routes (because, in a changing society, you have to have adaptability) to see it realised.
There will always be storms. And wind. And rain. Literal and metaphorical. The survivors are still the ones who don their Wellingtons and brave the elements.

I am proud to be of the generation that learned – and continues to do – just that.

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