Category: Work

Free lunches, or the freedom of the freelance life?

Nearly seven years ago, my husband came home from work one day and said, ‘I don’t think I can work under her for much longer,’ meaning his line manager. Nine months prior to this, we had taken on a mortgage on the basis of his salary. Some nine months after this moment, we agreed that he should resign from the job, after several months off work with anxiety and depression. His supervisor had been micro-managing him, finding fault at every opportunity. The last straw was an appraisal, filled with negative feedback, which he was then asked to write up.

Work-based counselling, talk of mediation – any benefits were cancelled out when, on a phased return to work, the first thing she asked of him was to complete the appraisal process. The very thing that his counsellor said should not be raised at this time, as it was the trigger for his illness. We realised that there would be no positive changes as long as he worked under this manager. The only way was out.

So, for some five years plus, my husband has been working freelance, pursuing the work he loves – commissioning and editing books. (The paid employment had not been so interesting, editing examination questions.) The work is often speculative, and there is no income while book projects are in development; they may or may not be taken up by publishers. In short, some of the work does not pay at all. And outlets for the kind of books that he commissions are in decline, with some of the big players pulling out of that area of publishing (Science, Technical and Medical). When he does get a book accepted, or does a piece of editorial work, it often takes several months of chasing up invoices to receive the money.

He has no sick pay, no holiday pay as a freelancer, even on some of the long-term contracts. He has worked through sickness, and if we have taken a holiday, it has been in the knowledge that there would be no money coming in that week.  One ’employer’ ended his contract the same day as he sent notice of termination, with no financial recompense; he had worked for this publisher for eighteen months. Legally, the contract should have been on a direct employment basis, as regular work of the same kind for the same employer. He should have received the same rights as an employee, but who would argue this point when the work could easily go to another freelancer? We had discussed approaching the publisher about this, to put my husband’s work on a more permanent footing. Then came the termination notice. He saw a solicitor about pay in lieu of notice – the contract gave two months. The employer said that he was giving this notice, but had no work for my husband during this time, and payment was only due for work actually carried out. The solicitor thought my husband had a case, but when he approached the employer with this information, asking for two months’ pay, the scoundrel threatened him with bad-mouthing his work publicly.

As for myself, I have worked in a very stressful environment and found it hard to stop the speeding waltzer that was my working life. It felt more dangerous to jump off than to cling on tight and carry on. I was brought to a halt by ill health. That was sixteen years ago, and despite periods of extreme poverty (as a single parent on sickness and disability benefits), and relative poverty (still on benefits, married to a freelancer, growing older, and with a mortgage outstanding), I would not go back to that life, employed and relatively well off financially, impoverished in health and leisure time.

Were we right, my husband and I, to decide that he should resign from that job? From sick and holiday pay, from the free lunches (no such thing as…) in the staff dining room, a perk of that job? Hell, yes! He now chooses his work, his hours, his commute is from the living room to his study, in the cellar. If we want to  go off to the seaside on a summer’s day, he can decide to do that. He is free to pursue his music, to potter in his shed, to spend time with our granddaughter. The lunches might not be so good, but he can eat them in his armchair, in my company.

Every so often, we have ‘the conversation’ about whether he should apply for jobs in London, which would bring in twice his freelance income. The money seems attractive. The commute, about three hours per day, the unknown nature of management, the fact that he reaches sixty this month, and deserves to be slowing down … it’s a no-brainer.

Wellbeing versus a reasonable income – it shouldn’t be a choice. And low income, money worries, can affect your wellbeing. My closest friends and family regularly listen to me talk about money, the lack of it, particularly when unexpected expenses come up. We recently had a leaky roof. Rain was dripping through the bedroom ceiling onto the bed. We were bailed out by a loan from a friend to pay a roofer, spared some of the cost by using a scaffolding platform owned by another friend. We often wonder if we can carry on living in our house, whether we should sell it and rent another property. One friend reminded me that she had heard me say this before, a couple of years previously, and yet we were still there.

We begin 2016 overdrawn, like many people. In 2015, we borrowed off Peter to pay Paul, so that we could keep up with the mortgage. It’s something I learned from working alongside a debt advice service – meet your housing costs before anything else. Holidays were dropped, as were meals out, takeaways, concert tickets, gym memberships. It’s felt grim sometimes, but we are better off than some.

Hopping Down In Kent. Freelancer Bob Carling, on guitar.  Area 51 Photography

Hopping Down In Kent. Freelancer Bob Carling, on guitar. Area 51 Photography

On New Year’s Day, we went for a walk, ending up at a pub. ‘Let’s pretend we are rich people, ‘ I said, and we had lunch at the pub, toasted the new year. And remembered the amazing things we had achieved in the last year: publishing eleven books with Cultured Llama, my husband producing Hopping Down in Kent, a community-based folk opera from scratch, in less than three months. And we were thankful for our families, friends, and the freedom of the freelance life.

Bob Carling is a freelance commissioning editor, editorial consultant, publisher, science journalist, and typographical designer. He is also Managing Editor of Cultured Llama Publishing. See his website here.

From ‘Kidney bingo?’ to selling books by Rochester Castle

Stephen Morris signs a copy of his book for Elaine Woodhams

Stephen Morris signs a copy of his book for Elaine Woodhams

I’ve been a punter at Rochester Sweeps Festival for some 25 years, starting when my children were small through to now being the grandmother of an 18-month-old. This year, for the first time, I was stallholder, helping to sell books for Cultured Llama Publishing. We at Cultured Llama have just published Do It Yourself: A History of Music in Medway by Stephen H Morris, so we set up alongside stalls selling musical instruments and records in a car park by the moat of Rochester Castle. It brought me back to some happy days in my teens.

My first job was selling fundraising bingo cards door to door, when I was about 12 or 13, for a charity supporting kidney patients. My line to my regulars as they opened the door was, ‘Kidney bingo?’ I wondered if, after carefully tearing the perforations on three sides of their pale mauve bingo cards, their numbers matched those in the winners’ brochure, they might win a new kidney for themselves.

The council house customers on my round were quick to find the money for their weekly gamble-in-a-good-cause. The few in what we called the ‘private houses’ in Castle Road, especially the harrased-looking woman in the house that gave the road its name (it had a mini-tower with castellations), often did not have the change to pay for their tickets.

From there, I followed on to serving on the sweets counter at Woolworth’s, after school and on Saturdays, then graduated to International Stores. After serving my time shelving and on the tills, I gained the role of Saturday chief cashier, working in the office, getting change bags for the tills from the heavy-doored safe, which stood in the front window of the shop. Anyone who was so inclined could have challenged me with a knife, a shotgun, or just the threat of violence as I stood with the safe door open exchanging bags of ten pence pieces for ten pound notes, or storing the till drawers in there at the end of the day. But no one ever bothered me.

Of all the jobs I’ve ever had, I had the most fun working in a shop. I made friends who I met outside of work, going underage drinking in the pubs of Epsom, off to discos and parties. Although the work was hard, I preferred being busy all day, as it made the time go fast.

What I loved most was the brown paypacket with actual cash in it, and a little payslip on thin paper with pale numbers printed in the boxes marking hours worked, pounds and pence earned.

So when it came to being a stallholder at the Sweeps (if only for a day or two), I was quite excited. Laying out the stall, pricing up with coloured stickers. Preparing the float for the cash tin. Marking down sales and giving change.

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Daughter Rachel and granddaughter Caitlin lend a hand on the Cultured Llama stall

It all came back to me – customer service, as we didn’t call it back in the ’70s, and with the bonus of having a part in the production of the books we were selling. I was able to tell people about our stable of Scottish poets, for instance, and even introduce some of our authors who dropped by to the customers who were looking at their books.

Not everyone bought a book. Some chatted a while and left empty handed, some scanned the book table at high speed, not even noticing that there was a human being sitting behind it. For some of the time, I sat with my granddaughter on my lap as I waited for customers. Georgie on a neighbouring stall shared homemade lemon drizzle cake with the other stallholders at quiet times. Customers on the Hobgoblin stand offered virtuoso performances on melodeons, guitars and mandolins (husband Bob included) and my granddaughter danced with joy to a reggae band on a nearby stage. My daughter and I joined in with her; three generations dancing at my favourite festival.

Life has changed since my teens, when I could lift boxes off warehouse shelves, stack them in a trolley cage, and wheel it out to the shop floor. A bad back prevents me from carrying much more than a tea tray; chronic ill health means that a day selling books must be followed by several days of rest. But, for a short time, I was taken back to my shopgirl days. Next time, I fancy one of those aprons with zipped pockets for the change.

‘Saturday Girl’ is a story based on my experiences working in Woolworth’s. Here is an extract:

Sharon looked at the clock above the centre checkout as she dashed to the sweet counter: one minute to nine; just on time. She hated that clock. In the last hour on a Saturday afternoon the minute hand seemed frozen, moving at the rate of the glaciers she’d learned about in geography. Now it meant an hour and half until tea break.

Steve answered her smile with a nod and a ‘Morning, Sharon.’ She wondered when it would be all right to say, ‘Steve and I are going out together.’ She wasn’t expecting a full-on snog in the staff canteen, but some acknowledgement – a wink, a glint in the eye.

She pulled a box of chocolate-covered brazil nuts from below the counter, and tipped some into the Perspex container next to the Quality Street. Paul whizzed by, dipped into the chocolate brazils and pocketed a handful. She flushed and glanced around. Steve was bundling a box of toothpaste onto toiletries; Mrs Harris was demonstrating the Avery pricing machine to a new girl. Both dashed to the records’ counter as The Stranglers clashed across the shop floor. Ralph had broken the rule of playing only the latest Top-of-the-Pops not-by-the-original-artists album. Everyone who had the good fortune to be on records gave it a try, playing their favourite record. No one, so far, had got beyond track one. Meanwhile, Paul bounded up the stairs with a brazil nut-shaped bulge in his cheek, looking like her brother’s hamster.

Steve came over as she was laying out the scoops on the loose sweets. He picked one up and ran it over the top of the chocolate brazils, as if to smooth them. ‘Lou’s favourite, these,’ he said, and wandered off with a pained look. Sharon took the scoop and dug it into the back of the display.

‘Saturday Girl’ is available in my collection of linked short stories, As Long as It Takes.

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