I was in McStarbucks today, not because I’m any great fan of their coffee (because I actually like coffee) nor do I get the whole global casino-capitalism imperialist thing they’ve got going on. But they have free internet. Also, a very beautiful and generous friend had sent me a £10 giftcard in the mail, which meant I could hang out there for 4 hours with a tall filter (which comes in a small mug…) on endless refill, while I did my weekly download of trash TV and the odd retrospective mini-series. And all for a quid, which really drives the staff nuts, and is the best reason for doing it. But, when you’ve only got £7.30 in your pocket, it’s amazing how good crap coffee can actually taste, because crap coffee is better than no coffee at all. Seriously, it is.
My landline was cut off months ago, the TV went on eBay a year before that, ditto the DVD player, CD collection, and anything else of value I’ve ever owned (except the Bill Shankly autograph, Bob Paisley football and Houdiniana….obviously). Losing contact with the outside world (or so it felt), it was in July that I was introduced to my new boyfriend, Mr Dongle. It was a rocky start, on both sides, as he and I navigated our way through that always-awkward, slightly icky first few dates; me thinking we had a connection, him telling me we really didn’t, especially when it was raining. Generally, though, we’ve gotten along OK and I think this could be a long term thing, which is certainly a first for me.
After the first 1GB, though, Mr Dongle begins to lose interest. He starts to ignore my not-unselfish demands to just, I don’t know, load a simple news page without crashing; send a webmail I just spent an hour typing out; open an extra tab etc. It’s the little things, things we’re going to fall out about soon, if he keeps pissing me off. And it’s Mr Dongle’s unreasonable behaviour that sends me to McStarbucks too-many-times-a-month, to abuse their Wi-Fi for the sake of having SOMETHING TO WATCH in bed on my laptop, that doesn’t take three weeks to download. How had it come to this?
Three years ago, I was doing OK. I’d had my first TV script commissioned, and my other business of writing questions for pub quiz machines, was bringing in regular gigs. I’d been freelance since 2001, and life was good. I had a car, I went to the match every week – home, away, Europe – and my natural itchy feet allowed other expeditions three or four times a year. I never saved anything I earned, because I’m a fatalist and I know that a few grand in the bank is a bit useless when you’re lying dead under the lorry that just jackknifed into you. I didn’t have a pension, either; again, because I seemed incapable of planning for something that may never happen. I was single and childless (in a totally non-tragic way) and, whatever I earned, I spent, and spent willingly, joyfully, decadently. I saw no reason for things to stop being that way. I’d worked all my adult life, never been on benefits, was law-abiding (mostly), and loved my family and other animals. Why shouldn’t I enjoy the downtime, my way?
I’m a good judge, on most things. That’s not to sound arrogant, I just think I am. I know when people are lying to me, I know when someone’s being insincere, I know bullshit when I smell it. And I’m very good at saying to people “well, you know what’ll happen if you do that, don’t you…???” But two things happened, that same three years ago, that I should have seen coming, by a country mile, and didn’t. The first; that having your show on the telly is no guarantee of future work, of any work – you’re still lower down the creative food chain than an intern or cockroach. The second; that when a recession hits, you are not immune (unless you’re one of the fuckers who caused it).
When Moving On was first broadcast, I was as proud as punch, and rightly so. I’m not a show-off, ask anyone; if anything, I’m the wallflower in the garden, not the sunflower. But everybody involved on the show had sweated all the proverbials to get it made, and we knew what a miracle it was that it was made at all. They say you never forget your first, and I wasn’t going to forget this. I was seduced, hooked, totally addicted. But I was addicted to the wrong thing. I’d written stuff all my life; scripts, articles, novels, even really crap poetry. That wasn’t anything new or sparkly to me, it was something I would always do, paid or not, because I wanted to do it, needed to do it.
What I got seduced by, was the idea that I could really make a living out of this, that I would no longer have to drink copious amounts of (real) coffee every night, or pop dangerous amounts of Pro Plus, just to stay awake long enough to finish this script or that article, before having to get up for my ‘normal’ job two hours later. Perhaps, now, I would become one of those lucky people who would be able to say “I get paid to do what I love”, and not have to break my back doing it. Granted, the industry was, as I’d expected, one big pissing-contest of back-scratching, plumage-plumping, cigar-smoking amateur golfers, but I’d got something on the telly! Finally, after twenty years of trying, I was going to be an overnight success. So convinced was I that this single screen credit could only ever go straight down the Yellow Brick Road to BAFTA that, as I lounged beside my imaginary swimming pool, I was totally oblivious to my real-life, feet-on-the-ground, bread-and-butter business going completely tits-up.
When a regular contractor emailed a week after my small screen debut, to say that the monthly quota of quiz questions I’d been writing for them for the past seven years, was no longer required, I was unconcerned. I don’t think I even asked him the reason why. The truth was, I was relieved. Writing a thousand multiple choice factoids every month was draining, tedious and unchallenging. This way, I’d have more time to devote to writing my next script. You know, the one that all of Hollywood would be bidding for; Bruckheimer and Grazer slugging it out over the canapes at Chateau Marmont, me on Rodeo Drive, already eyeing the dress, faster than you can say “Kodak Theatre”.
Of course, that didn’t happen. Whilst I was too busy preening my own feathers, believing my own hype and getting into bed with all the wrong people (metaphorically, of course), my real-world clients were dropping off one by one. Blindly, it never occurred to me that, in a recession, one of the first areas to suffer is the leisure industry. People stop going out. The two quid change they get from a round of drinks doesn’t go into the machine next to the bar anymore, it goes straight back into their pocket. Within six months, the fruit machines, quiz machines, cigarette machines…they’d all died on their arses, and pubs were left with dirty big holes on the floor where the cherry-cherry-cherry used to be. From my end, I lost my entire client base in three weeks flat. “We’re not making any more quiz machines. No fucker’s playing them”. A tidy £2k a month became zero pence, and still I didn’t worry. This was a blip, and besides, I had enough cash to keep me in the Kop until the end of season, which was all that seemed to matter at the time.
But the phone stopped ringing, the writing commissions didn’t roll in, and the “downturn” went so far south, it came out in Australia. For the first time in my life, I couldn’t pay the bills, and it wasn’t long before the threatening letters started arriving which, for someone not used to “the system”, was a bit intimidating. A month became two, became three, became six. Stupidly, I’d expected to just walk into another job; I had a degree, management experience, I was computer-savvy, intelligent, and my aversion to misplaced apostrophes was almost legendary; there was just no way I wouldn’t be snapped up by somebody. But, apparently, I was too old, too qualified and, most astonishingly of all, too British. During a telephone interview for a 10p an hour data entry post in a well-known High Street bank, the personnel manager actually told me, “off the record”, that they already had their “quota of British applicants” and that they could only fill the remaining posts with other nationalities, to avoid the wrath of the Equality & Human Rights Commission. My reply is unprintable, even here.
Still, they didn’t discriminate about my age. British, Russian, Martian, I was still an old bint who had no chance of being recruited by anybody, as I was obviously going to get Alzheimer’s, cancer, arthritis, or all three, some time in the next few months. Friends had been urging me to sign on, for months, and I’d refused, unequivocally. There was a sense of pride about my never having claimed a penny from the state, an attitude I look back on now as being absurd, arrogant, and utterly misplaced. I’d paid my taxes and national insurance, so of course I should be claiming, now I’d fallen on hard times. The system was created for people like me. But it still took a while to swallow that pride and walk into a job centre for the first time. Again, another story, another day.
I’ve had to sign on, intermittently, for the best part of a year and a half. And, despite the reality check and realisation that I’m no more or less special than any of the other people in that dole queue, there’s a sense of shame that never leaves me. The sights I’ve seen, the stories I’ve heard, the sheer desperation and despair on the looks of some people’s faces, is something that creeps into my dreams, reminding me that who we are, what we do, where we think we’re going, it’s all transient, fleeting, mercurial. I’ve had a few freelance jobs come and go; magazines, websites, even the long-awaited second telly credit, but it’s week-to-week stuff that you just can’t plan around; just enough to put more “lecky” on the meter, or get the bank off my back for another month, and each time I leave that job centre, I tell myself I’m never going back but, like some cruel addiction, I can never know if I’m just lying to myself.
My debts are endless; a hate-filled, black-faced spectre that haunts me constantly. Being out of work, I’ve never been busier. Every day is an endless trawl of jobsites, e-cold-calling and soul-selling. I’ve found myself literally begging companies in Mumbai and New Delhi to give me the 12-hour a day Captcha-inputting job that pays $0.05 for every hundred lines of data. And I still write scripts in my “spare” time, not even dreaming of “that break” anymore, just dreaming of somebody who’ll actually take time out to read them, in between whiskies at the lap dancing club, or strolls around the golf course.
A few years ago, my proudest moment was seeing the words “Written By…” followed by my name, scroll across a television set. Today, it’s just keeping the roof over my head. That, and not cracking up, as I’ve seen happen to others. Without strong family and amazing friends around me, I’m not sure I’d have stayed sane, and there’s no doubt I’m a profoundly different person to the one I was three years ago. I’ve seen things I didn’t think I’d see, and been to places I didn’t think I’d go to. I’ve been forced to really look inside myself, and not been happy with everything I’ve found. In the long run, maybe it’ll make me a better person.
For now, I’ll still be going into McStarbucks every week for my one pound tall filter, and 24-episode downloads of the best HBO has to offer me. But the change will come. It has to, otherwise what else is there? If you give up on your dreams, you give up on yourself, and I’m nothing if not stubborn. A legendary film producer once said “the harder I work, the luckier I get”. A nice sentiment, but probably utter bollocks. But, like the concept of Santa, or the Tooth Fairy, unless someone actually tells me it’s not true, a part of me will always believe.