'Find another job, love. They're killing you.'
Why did I once put up with 40-hour days on the job? Lots of reasons.
Last week a newspaper got in touch to ask if I’d ever worked so long in the office that I ended up just sleeping there. I think it was a question inspired by this photo of a Twitter exec sleeping in her office last year.
I think it was back in the news because this sleeper, Esther Crawford, was one of 200 Twitter employees laid off over last weekend.
They went with another writer’s story which was definitely more intriguing than mine, but it got me thinking about the days when I regularly did 30-40 hours straight in my first job at TV Hits magazine.
Yes, you read that correctly. But in our case, there was definitely no sleeping. I mean we literally got to work in the morning, and stayed there, working, working, working. It was junior doctor hours but we weren’t saving lives, we were producing a teenage pop magazine, so mostly writing about Take That, East 17 and Dieter Brummer of Home and Away fame.
We shared a tin shed of an office with one other magazine, Inside Soap. That team - which at the time included TV’s Richard Arnold - would arrive at work at around 10am on any given morning, fresh-faced, showered, perfumed, in clean clothes. At some point during the day, one of them might suddenly do a double take and say, ‘Hey… weren’t you all wearing these exact same clothes yesterday? Oh my god, have you been here all night?!’
The answer to those questions was, very regularly, yes.
The reasons are not because we were so dedicated to, or in love with our craft that we lost track of time. It was because there was about six of us creating a very thick and labour-intensive magazine. We were also very young - I was 23 - and very disorganised.
None of us had yet learned how to manage the contents of our fridge, let alone staff or an office. Our editor, Pauline, got the job because she was clearly incredibly talented. I adored her. She was energetic, creative, bursting with dynamic ideas and always the one who could pull a brilliantly funny headline out of her arse at a moment’s notice. She was hilarious and her sense of humour crackled through the mag. She was exceptionally lovely and kind and loved a party. Also, she took a big chance on me. I was new to the UK and beyond grateful to have landed this job. I was well aware that, fresh off the boat as I was, I had much to learn about British pop culture and yet here I was being given a chance on a magazine that was all about that.
Pauline also believed that creative genius only came via chaos. I came to realise that she was deeply suspicious of being organised. For her, it was the death of creativity and as an editor myself, I understand that fear all too well. She couldn’t trust herself to do a good job unless she was feeling that stressy adrenaline and told me she needed to feel that her feet were really being held to the flames. So she waited for week four of a four week production schedule for her muse to show at the last, terrifying moment.
Pauline really was brilliant at what she did. It’s just that it was impossible to get her to do it until about five days before a magazine was due to print. A monthly magazine typically takes 20 days to produce.
Occasionally, as the deputy editor, I would make a stab at galvanising the team around her, trying to get at least the easy bits of the mag done well ahead of time. But the culture was too strong for me to fight and so I leaned in. We buggered around for three weeks every month, and killed ourselves for one. We agreed that we thrived on chaos, which is fascinating to me when I look back on it now.
And chaos it was. Some examples: Discovering at 1am, when a cover was due on the presses in a few hours, that we’d lost the actual transparency - the photograph - that needed to go to the repro house. (Nothing was digital in 1993.) Or realising at 2am, that no one had heard from that person who was supposed to file an 8-page horoscope special. Yes, I wrote (made up) a year ahead for every sign of the zodiac, which ran to about 2000 words, and that I started from scratch at my desk at 2am. If you were a devout horoscope believer and avid TV Hits reader back in the day, I truly hope you did not build your life around the delirious horoscope ramblings of an overworked underpaid magazine writer. If you’re a Pisces I bet you did, didn’t you? Sorry.
There was the morning, at around 6am, when I’d been struggling for hours to proofread a feature and my computer kept crashing and leaving me with no choice but to start and do the whole thing again. When this happened for the fifth time, I got so angry (my regular rage, no doubt exhaustion-related, was the butt of many jokes by this stage) that I got up from my desk and went and locked myself in our office’s one toilet cubicle. I don’t know why. But I knew I wanted to vent, and how did I do that? I kicked the cistern. I know. Insanity. That was the morning I discovered that while the cistern might have looked like porcelain, it was not. The plastic cracked as soon as my Adidas gazelle hit it. I prayed no one had heard, crept back out, returned to my desk and said nothing.
The mystery of the smashed cistern has remained unsolved. Until now, I guess.
One perk in all of this was the notoriously tight publishing company we worked for would treat us to account cars home at the end of these marathon stretches. A driver! Just like that Anna Wintour has! (Although if we’d ever finished in time to catch the last tube, I’m sure they’d have made us do that). Once, when one of the regulars dropped me home at around 7am on a Saturday, he said, ‘Love, get another job, they’re killing you.’
I think he might have been right. I was always skinny, but when I look back at rare pictures of me from that time, my face is super puffy. I think because my diet was almost exclusively pre-packaged sandwiches from Tesco for lunch, pizza for dinner and sausage or bacon sandwiches for breakfast. And I was ill all the time - headaches, colds, general lethargy. I was such a bore because if I ever did manage to be free to go out with friends during this chaotic schedule, I usually cried off so that I could sleep.
Speaking of sleep, the whole situation really fucked mine. I became obsessive about it, which brought on anxiety any time I couldn’t drop off within 20 minutes of climbing into bed. I would lie there, wired and unable to switch off and often sob in the early hours when my body simply refused to do what it should and give me some desperately needed rest. Somehow my new boyfriend - now my husband - tolerated this.
It’s hilarious to think that, prior to TV Hits, I’d been waitressing in London’s Soho for months in a job I loathed. As we were cleaning up after the last 3am stragglers on this, my last shift, I gloated about how next week my life would be all about civilised, normal hours.
I’d been existing in this pattern for about 15 months when the company decided to launch Sugar magazine.
I knew I wanted to do it because I loved broader lifestyle magazines and I hoped my experience at the very similar Dolly magazine in Australia would at least get me an interview. I ended up being appointed editor, under the brilliant editor-in-chief Kath Brown.
We had a slightly bigger team, which I thought might make this a calmer job, but what really did it was Kath. In the nicest, most respectful way imaginable, she is probably one of the most anally organised people I have ever met. She’s obsessive about lists. She loves forward planning. And whereas, we bunch of TV Hits children were quite easy to pat on the head and told to jog on if we asked for more staff or more money, Kath was six years older than us. She was almost 30 - imagine! So old and wise and she was not getting dicked about by anyone, management included. I learnt a lot from her about how to be clear on boundaries and what was and wasn’t acceptable to be required by an employer.
Genuinely though, if I had my time over, I’d do it all over again. It’s pretty shameful to think what our bosses thought was OK to expect of us and definitely naive of us to just put up with it. But that job was, in so many ways, an absolute blast.
I learnt so much from that crew. We were such a small team and we had to be nimble. I had to very quickly develop creative muscles to problem solve through crisis after crisis. We had many many laughs and had an incredible amount of fun. I got to put Pammy Anderson in a pair of boxing gloves and make her stand in a urine-soaked alley for pictures.
I had a row with the pop band Eternal on set and wrote about it and got yelled at by their PR. My very first day on the job involved me being sent to the Trocadero in Piccadilly to play at the Quasar dome with the Blakeney twins from Neighbours. Although probably my favourite memory of that whole time is getting drunk with Robbie Williams in Manchester one night and us both getting turned away by the doorman at the Hacienda club.
Miraculously, it didn’t kill me and it gave me the best leg-up I could wish for to begin a 20+ year magazine career.
And frankly, that sleeping bag in the Twitter office looks pretty luxe by comparison.
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Love this piece so much. I did work experience at Sugar when I was 17. The year after I’d gone profoundly deaf. The team was AMAZING and really helped me find my confidence as I’d lost it all. I got to go to the Pepsi Chart Show, met Boyzone and got to add my name to the winners list for every competition that month. The icing on the cake was being able to fill a bag from the beauty cupboard. I still remember that week 26 years later!
You’re a fabulous writer Jo with great stories. I’m looking forward to the book.