Jack of all, master of one?

It’s often a question people ask, and often I don’t think they want to hear my hours-long explanation and observations. After all, ask me how I am and I will tell you, from my impending alopecia to a stubbed toe to my suspected but never proven blood sugar issue. So here, in a nutshell, is a summary of the various non-editorial jobs I’ve done, and some perspectives about each, looking back in the first instance to me aged 13. And that’s almost 30 years ago. Wow…

Your 5am news call, sir!

My first job was as a paper boy when I was 13. In fact, as soon as I was 13, I started working with the strong encouragement of mum and dad. Being the all-or-nothing person that I tend to be, I took the longest, deepest, darkest, remotest and, yes, rainiest job of all the rounds (it rained on more than anyone else, I rather feel).

This was in Sway, in Hampshire, in the UK (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sway,_Hampshire). This means I was delivering across the vast open and unforgiving hostile steppes (this was my 13-year-old perspective, of course), in a national park, in some areas with no real roads, and many wild horses—most of which seemed as worried to see me as me them at 5am on a Tuesday morning.

Note that during this time, I also delivered a Thursday-afternoon freesheet and did a Sunday morning round (before my kung fu lessons, but that’s another post). Perhaps my love of print came from this? Who’s to say. My dislike of early mornings may well have done so…

When I left school to go to college at 16, as we do in the UK, I had to graduate to a new job. Forcing newspapers through waay-too-small letterboxes with snappy dogs or huge hounds the other side wasn’t cutting it for me any more. So I trod the path that many Sway teenagers had done before me—and I don’t (just) mean to the off-license. One fateful Saturday lunctime at the behest of mum and dad ( and I love them for it), I trudged to the White Rose Hotel (now Sway Manor, http://www.swaymanor.com), then run by the Winchcombe family, or “sir” and “madam” as the senior owners liked to be called. My question at the time: got a job?

It was Peter Cutler (now of http://www.oldfarmhouseinburley.co.uk/) who, when I walked in at about 12pm, said: start tonight. Yikes!

That Saturday night in May 1986, after a busy (120 or so) service, I walked out of there vowing never, EVER to return to the stinking, disgusting pots and pans, the loud and brash attitude of my colleagues, and the endless ribbings I took as the newbie (AND losing my Saturday night freedom). That was 1986. I actually did leave in the very end… but in 2000 (I even worked part-time as a national magazine editor). In between was one of the best and most rewarding jobs I’ve ever done. For 16 years and not one night.

Being the ambitious type that I can be if I try, I ended up as third chef and either to my eternal shame or eternal luck, I graduated to assistant chef. Peter Cutler will always be my head chef, but I was a pretty good number 3. Or number 2 from time to time, and occassionally number 1 on breakfasts. My remit was starters, salads and sweets, and I still remember the recipe for salad beaucaire. Julienne of leeks, bacon, egg, something else… I think (I may need to look it up). They even offered me to stay and become a fully trained chef.

I worked there also to support my time studying biology at university—Portsmouth Polytechnic as was—during breaks, and worked every summer. Once I graduated, I was happy enough going in at 8:30, finishing at 2pm, then starting again at 5:30 then nipping into the bar at 9pm. And cycling home later on, often crashing into rose bushes (always roses, always). I made some of the best friends I have ever had, many of whom remain so in my heart if not on my Facebook page), and learned (and I do mean this seriously) how to think “on the fly” and how to prep a good “mis en place” to prepare and second-guess the service. And I made the best custard my chef had ever tasted. Just the once… Later on, Anne and Paul, the brother and sister team who ran operations, become close confidantes. Well, I did spend one or more nights propping the bar up, as I said.

Of course, this couldn’t go on forever, despite my love for the job—I did, after all, study chemistry, biology and physics at A-level. So when I was offered the job of assistant scientific officer at the UK Ministry of Agriculture’s Horticulture Research International (HRI) at Efford, Lymington, it seemed like I was going to find my life-sciences feet. But a monthly-renewed contract and laughable pay put paid to that. Nonetheless, again, I made some of my closest friends there and, among the roses, the magnolias, the trees and the glasshouse tomatoes, we had so much fun (and mutual suffering). This was in 1994/5. I know as I remember hearing “Wannabe” by the Spice Girls when counting tomatoes in a glass house.

No more flowers…

After a brief interlude during which I obtained a post-grad diploma in environmental management, I returned to HRI briefly, but then saw another opportunity: science graduates needed as editors! Well, I’d always had a passion for reading and writing, and was an avid magazine collector. So again, I jumped in and got great hands-on education in the dark arts of sub-editing.

Onto editorial…

This was for science journals, not magazines, mind. Not for Nature, or for New Scientist of whatever. No, this was for Computers and Structures, Applied Mechanics, Theoretical Physics and the like. Here, grammar was the rule of law and I learned to wield it. I’m still sure many of my colleagues who went to journalism school have NO IDEA what a “comma splice is” or could not talk about conjunctions and coordinate clauses.

That lasted for a year or so, but when I saw an ad looking for a staff writer for magazines about the Internet, I jumped. After all, ad my dad’s behest, I had taken a Higher National Diploma in graphic design and did work experience at my dad;s ad firm and elsewhere…He must have seen the potential of a cynical writer with an eye for cover design.. (Charlie Brooker: I was only a few months behind you…)

You see, I did fancy myself as a writer and I had always wanted to try the Internet, so in the first few weeks, I wrote 300-odd website reviews. And the rest is editorial history…

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