Working Life: A writer and a cleaner - that's me
If you're going to compete with trust fund kids, you need an income. Imogen Fox rolls her sleeves up
Sunday 03 January 1999
I'm not alone in my unstructured messy week. It seems that every young person I meet is busy doing a couple of days' work in one place to fund a couple in another. In careers like journalism courses are expensive (the cost of fees alone for an MA in journalism at Goldsmiths College, London are around pounds 2,600) and largely inessential, and work experience (and lots of it) has become the only real apprenticeship. Obviously unpaid work for any amount of time demands huge resources of money - totally out of the question for anyone from a normal background. To have any decent chance of competing with trust fund kids (who can afford to work for free for weeks on end, whilst still having a life), a bit of extra industry is required.
Lots of people in my situation and with my background choose bar work or shop work to balance up the poorly paid half of their week. Personally, the idea of clothes-shop work fills me with horror. Hour upon hour spent pointlessly folding clothes and re-folding them 10 minutes later does not appeal. Nor does the idea of demanding customers. However, a hearty bit of scrubbing, an all-over body workout and listening to the radio? That pleases me.
Ironically, my cleaning hours can be some of the most enjoyable in my week. A lot of people think hours spent polishing are a very mundane way of earning extra income. It is - which is exactly what makes it so pleasurable. Time spent working on something which has nothing to do with what you want from life is a blissful release from striving to carve a career. For me, my scrubbing is not an aggravating obstacle to the rest of my working week. (Domestic cleaning is nothing if not flexible.) Rather, I see this as some essential blank time when I don't have to worry, or even think of anything else. I can never understand cleaners who say they can use the time to think constructively - you have to switch off from any of useful thoughts and consider whether Jif Bathroom will do the job better than Flash Excel.
Getting into cleaning mode takes a bit of effort. I never wash my hair - ritual dictates it has to plaited back. I wear some extremely fetching Adidas tracksuit bottoms, an old T-shirt and a dirty pair of white trainers. There's something immensely comforting about this uniform and the ritual of wearing it. I feel nostalgic for what might have been if I hadn't decided to set my sights on a career. Admittedly it's a completely idealised picture - no having to rush out in the morning, just a pile of ironing with a coffee and This Morning.
Thankfully I'm not under any illusions - should this start to become my only career option the appeal would doubtless disappear in a puff of smoke. The joy of cleaning for me is that I can be detached from it, safe in the knowledge it's not forever. Obviously it's not the perfect choice of employment, but as a means of making some extra money to support my writing, with no strings attatched - for me, it's ideal.
Jane Evans, a successful journalist and one-time waitress agrees that the mentally fulfilling half of the week can be enjoyable in itself, but should necessarily outweigh the mundane. "At first when I was trying to break into writing I hated waiting. I thought `Oh my God I'm spending far more time being a waitress' and I worried I'd never make the crossover into full-time journalism. I'd get what I called day shift dementia - I was so bored just filling water, gossiping, smoking fags and waiting. I had so much mental energy that I didn't know what to do with that it literally gave me a headache. But as soon as things started to take off with my writing, I started to really enjoy my shifts - it was like a holiday, a breath of fresh air."
Like Jane, many people feel that it's when their `real job' starts to take off that they can start to reap the benefits of their mundane job, rather than just being frustrated by it. Louise, a poorly paid fashion assistant and sometime shop girl finds her work on the side provides her with confidence. "I feel competent in the shop which builds my confidence for when I'm working on a fashion shoot, because in that situation I'm still learning the ropes," she says. She stresses that she can feel like this only because she knows that working in the shop is for a couple of days a week.
Striking the right balance between the two jobs is very important. At the moment my cleaning time is shrinking rapidly but I'm not ready to hang up my feather duster just yet. I suspect it's going to be quite hard to decide when to stop altogether. Jane Evans thinks that she continued her waitressing longer than she needed to: "I didn't burn my bridges completely - I kept my name on the rota. I felt scared."
Whether Ms Evans was scared of severing the ties because of the loss of the extra cash, or whether she was scared that she'd never be able to go back to working in a place where she didn't have to think, is debatable. Sandra Powell, a trained psychotherapist about to set up her own private practice is determined to keep her job as a sub-editor firmly incorporated in her working week.
"I want to stay working one day in the office because it's a change and a release from counselling which is such an intense one-to-one thing. Also, I don't want to see everyone as a potential client and being in an office doing fairly mundane things keeps me from that." Sandra never worries how her psychotherapy colleagues think of her split week. "I think lots of counsellors understand it because the nature of the work is so intense."
My sideline profession is not something I'd usually broadcast. I'm not ashamed of it, but equally I don't particularly want to be looked on as a full-time char girl. When I am outed though I can almost guarantee the reaction. More often than not colleagues smile and recall some mundane job they've had in the past. Then they ask what my rates are.
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