Nicer work

The 50-hour week is now common in Britain. Office stress is an epidemic. Have you ever wished you could decamp to Northumberland and start a llama farm?

Sarah Edghill
Monday 06 November 1995 01:02

Getting a life at the opera

Anthony Marber used to work in the City as a director with the SG Warburg Group, earning a six-figure salary. A year ago, aged 35, he left to become a professional opera singer.

I didn't start singing until I was 27. I'd gone to a ball and saw a chap from school singing in a barber-shop quartet. I was amazed at how well he sang and decided I wanted to have a go. I booked some singing lessons straight away, and after the first one, I was hooked.

I was ascending the ladder in the City, which took up a lot of time and was very stressful. Singing was a revelation, and my passion for it became all-embracing. I would leave the office at 6pm, then spend all evening rehearsing or having lessons.

As I sang regularly, my voice got better. I started performing with amateur opera companies and loved the feeling of being on stage and getting immersed in a role. In December 1994, I was asked to sing in Tosca for Pavilion Opera [a touring company] - my first professional role. It was the culmination of all my dreams.

It wasn't a hard decision to devote myself to singing full-time. A year earlier, I'd left Warburgs and set up my own company, but I decided to close that at the same time that the offer came in from Pavilion. The first day of rehearsals was one of the happiest in my life. I couldn't stop smiling.

I'd enjoyed my work in the City and it was wonderful earning all that money. But it was stressful and I'd grown progressively more discontented because I didn't feel good about what I was doing with my life. As an opera singer, I was being paid a pittance, but was doing something I loved.

Like many people, I fantasised about being able to devote my life to something I felt passionate about. Now, no day is wasted, and my whole heart is in my singing, which it never was in banking. I don't even earn enough money to cover my outgoings, and at 36, I'm back at the bottom of a ladder, having already worked my way to the top of a different one. But I'm about to start rehearsing with the English National Opera, only my third professional job, and I've never felt more fulfilled.

Rewarded by sweet charity

Joanna Wade, 38, from London, was a partner with a firm of solicitors. She left a year ago, and is about to start working for a charity.

I always wanted to do something socially useful, and had assumed that being a lawyer in private practice was the best way to do that. But as the years went by there was more pressure to get new clients and hit fee targets and I became increasingly disillusioned. I had got to the top of my firm and couldn't bear the thought that I'd still be there in 20 years' time, doing the same things.

I thought about changing my life before I realised I actually could. I had always thought it was decadent not to work. Then one day I happened to be at home at 11am, and realised that I never normally saw my house at that time. I decided then that I wanted to be there more often, and to make time for living as well as working. I had a very small mortgage, and had some capital in the firm, so I was quite lucky.

I didn't want to cause too much distress to the other partners, but there came a point when I realised I could leave without catastrophic results, when the firm took on a new partner. So I announced I was going. When I came out from telling them I went back to my desk feeling enormously relieved and excited. When I left I had a "freedom party", because that's what it was for me.

Once I'd resigned, I signed up for adult education courses, got a dog and started digging up the garden. I felt like a new person. Ever since I left school I'd been doing voluntary work for Crisis, and over the next year I continued with that. I'm now about to start work as a legal officer for the Maternity Alliance, a charity that supports pregnant women and their babies. I'll earn a very low salary, but I want to be poor and happy, rather than rich and stressed. I used to forget I was allowed to have fun, and now I've learnt to put myself higher up the agenda.

When I first resigned, friends said to me, "Gosh, you're brave." I hadn't thought about it like that at the time, but now I look back and think that it was brave, and I'm proud of myself.

We'd rather be in the pub

Ricky Thomas was a computer liaison officer for a unit trust company. His wife, Sue, was a senior research executive for Thames Television. In 1988 they bought a pub in Cumbria. They have two children, Hope, aged 3, and William, 16 months.

By the time I was 28 I felt I was falling into the office trap. I could look around me and see blokes about to retire who'd worked for the same firm all their lives. I thought there had to be more to life than that. Sue and I started thinking about getting out and starting our own business. My project at work was coming to an end and my flatmate wanted us to sell our house. Sue and I decided there'd never be a better time to do it, because we didn't feel tied to London.

Some people thought we were utterly crazy, especially friends who were on the career ladder, making more and more money. Some used to talk about how they hoped that, by the age of 40, they'd be running a little pub in the country with roses round the door. We didn't want to wait that long. The Fox Inn at Ousby didn't have roses round the door - in fact the door was falling off its hinges - but we were prepared to work at it.

In London, if you couldn't get to the bar of a pub in seconds, it was a matter for grave concern. When we came up here, it took us six months to calm down and adjust. But being here put everything into perspective. We realised that if something doesn't get done instantly, it's not the end of the world.

As a boy, I lived in a block of flats off the South Circular. Now my children have six acres to run around in. I still work seven days a week, and have to open the bar at 7pm every evening. But I can take the dogs for a walk on a Monday morning, knowing that everyone else is piling on to the Tube.

We've still got a huge mortgage and no reliable income. If we'd stayed in London, we'd probably have a nice big house in the suburbs by now, plus a company car each, huge salaries and a nanny for the children. But instead, we love what we do and the quality of our lives is incomparable.

A more commercial tune

Roger Press, 40, has changed his career path in the opposite direction. After spending five years as a concert pianist, he has gone into business, recently setting up his own company.

After leaving university I decided to work seriously as a pianist. I loved the music and performing, but it was hard work. I played at concerts in Europe and America, appeared at the Wigmore Hall, made recordings and got reviewed. But after a while I felt I had gone as far as I could. Unless you're one of the world's top 20 pianists, it's difficult to make a living, and I wasn't one of the greatest.

I have also always thought that it's important to be commercial, to participate and compete in the modern world. So although moving on was a difficult decision, having reached it I felt relieved in many ways.

When I gave up my career as a pianist, people around me were more sad and disappointed than I was. Friends said: "It's going to be terrible - how will your life develop?" But I felt free and at last I knew I was getting serious about life.

After getting an MBA I joined EMI and started their classical video division, producing programmes about famous artists. I then went to work for Polygram, in a similar field, and a year ago I formed my own company, New Media Systems, which specialises in multimedia programs.

People might think it strange that I've given up the sort of lifestyle many of them would aspire to. But I think it was easier for me to go from something creative into a regular work environment. I don't envy people who do it the other way round.

With my own company I am in control of my life. Although the stress is high and the hours long, the stress involved in piano playing was much worse. It took physical, emotional and mental skills. I prefer the pressures I live with now.

The shop till we drop

Sue Inglut, 38, gave up her accounts job in Newbury, Berkshire, and invested everything she had in a village shop. After five years, her husband, Frank, gave up teaching and joined her full time.

For eight years, I'd worked for a tyre company, doing bought ledger accounts. I worked my way up to supervisor and was earning a decent living, but the job was boring. I was sitting in the same office, doing the same sort of bookwork and had got as far as I was ever going to go in that company. I'd always had plenty of drive, energy and self-motivation, and it got to the stage where I felt I was wasted in what I was doing.

Frank and I had often talked about getting out and running our own business. One day, we went to look at a shop that was on the market - just out of interest, really. We walked in and could see that it wasn't being very well run. We came out afterwards, turned to each other and said: "Let's do it." We put the house on the market the next day. Once we'd made the decision, I felt quite sick with worry. It was one thing to talk about it, quite another to do it. At the time I was 28, and we'd done well and owned a nice house. But we had to put every penny into the new venture. I even sold my Mini.

The village post office and stores in Aldermaston had been on the market for some time and was in a dreadful state. We had everything replaced - roof, floors, windows, wiring - all while we were living there and keeping the shop open. It was horrendous, but we had a massive mortgage and there was no going back.

For the first couple of years, it was very stressful. We were working seven days a week, from first thing in the morning to last thing at night. I lost two-and-a-half stone. But after three years, things started going our way. We've now been here 10 years and I'm working harder than I've ever done in my life. But it's work I enjoy, and I'm never bored. Frank and I get a real sense of achievement from what we've done.

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