How I became a journalist
On Sunday, we would visit my Grandma. I was 16 or 17, and she had recently stopped hosting lunches for her extended family — where a £5 joint of beef would be stretched to feed 15 or more. Bread and gravy had featured heavily.
Gran was starting to show the first sign of the Alzheimer’s which would mar her last years, but was for the moment still the formidable matriarch I’d known through my childhood. These visits always ended the same way: at some point, when why grandfather wasn’t looking, Gran would slip £10 or £20 of her state pension to me, for university. There was to be no argument: any attempt to refuse or pass it back would be rejected. At times, she would simply slip the money into a jacket pocket, knowing it would be discovered later.
That money was for university. For various reasons, my older siblings had left school by age 16, as had my cousins. I was the first in my family doing A-Levels, and my parents and grandma alike were adamant to support me to get to university.
This isn’t a poverty story, or anything exceptional: my family was a fairly ordinary one. This is a story of the regular struggles normal families have to go through to get their children into the professions — the struggles invisible to those who grew up more comfortable.
I’ve never worked so many hours as I did during my A-Levels, though little of it was attention devoted to school. On Thursday and Friday, I’d leave school and by 4pm be working at Tesco, where I’d do shifts until 11pm and get home after midnight. Saturdays I’d work 1pm-10pm. I’d work any Sunday I could, as time-and-a-half meant I’d get £9 an hour. I pushed for a promotion that would pay an extra 80p an hour, and got it. I had school 40 hours a week, work 25–30 hours, and socialising happened Monday to Wednesday. Homework happened in registration and lunch break, just about.
That’s how we built the savings account that just about pulled me through my undergraduate. I went to Oxford, thanks in large part to an English teacher who persuaded me to go for it just to prove I could — “wouldn’t you rather say no to them than have everyone think you chickened out because you couldn’t do it?”. My school, who’d discouraged me from applying, lost our application forms, meaning a teacher drove down a UCAS form handwritten in under an hour as my university entry, the biggest thing I’d ever done. Somehow, thankfully, it was enough.
We had no idea what expenses to prepare for at University. We hadn’t done this before. In my first year, you had to pay fees in advance. My mum took a break in paying her mortgage to cover it. It was the only way. For Oxford, it turns out, you need to buy a gown to be able to eat in food hall. We hadn’t planned for that. You also needed something resembling black tie, to matriculate (officially enrol at university) and take exams. We managed to find an ex-hire suit for £49. It looked okay, surprisingly. I quickly learned most other people there didn’t need to make such choices.
This, and a thousand other tales of working, scrimping, and borderline scamming to get by were the backdrop of my undergraduate degree. But about three weeks before finishing it, after nearly missing an exam to get a student magazine to press, I realised I should probably give journalism a go. Thanks to a new course launching at City, I was still in time to apply for a qualification due to its later deadline — I had no idea bursaries existed, and would have been too late for them in any case. I got in thanks to a series of happy accidents and a direct email to the then-head of the department.
City was possible thanks to a government-backed Career Development Loan, which are much worse than regular student loans. I would have 13 months without repayments, and then have to repay £210 a month, no matter how much or little I was earning. When, halfway through my first term, I realised our sums weren’t adding up and I couldn’t afford to pay my rent, I downgraded my MA to a postgraduate diploma — a shorter course, but more importantly, a course £1,600 cheaper. That refund made all the difference.
I skipped lessons to work shifts, predominantly at Press Gazette. I wrote pieces for Comment Is Free at the Guardian for £70 a time. An article a fortnight made the difference between a week of 8p noodles (they’re not great) and actual food. I’ve never pitched more frenetically.
First jobs when you can’t afford to work for free, and when you have no connections are hard, as every journalist starting out knows. I was left with the situation of having three days left to find a job before I’d have to move back home. At that point, any job interview would involve the cost of a trip to London, which could quickly prove insurmountable.
I struck it lucky. I got offered a job at interview, based at an industrial estate on the outskirts of Crawley, a few minutes from Gatwick Airport. The job was as a junior reporter on a business-to-business magazine about supermarkets and convenience stores. It was not remotely the journalism I had imagined doing, but it was — to my surprise — a great place to learn how to break stories and learn a patch, and I remain grateful even now to my first editor.
After rent, travel and loan repayments, I would have around £50 a month left for everything: food, socialising, clothes, the lot. I used to pitch Sunday newspapers — the Sunday Telegraph, News Of The World, whoever I could — with stories I’d generate through Freedom Of Information requests for enough money to have any kind of life, and to try to break into the sort of career I wanted. This would generate tension at work: if I had a scoop in a Sunday paper, but nothing for the day job, it wouldn’t end well. I had to sprint to stand still. This was a year of dodging the pub in case a round was more than the £10 I had in the pocket (and in the world), of sleeping on a beach because I couldn’t afford the deposit for my landlord’s spare keys, of struggling.
There were better days ahead. I feel grateful every day for my national journalism career, for the people I’ve met, and for the stories I’ve had a chance to tell. I am acutely aware of the degree of luck involved in getting there, and how if any one of hundreds of small things had gone differently, that all of these chances would have gone to someone else.
This isn’t, as I said, a hardship story. Tales like this one are fairly common among people in national journalism. People have worked for it, they’ve given things up, they’ve panicked, and they’ve struggled. We’re lucky to have the platforms we have, but many of us are acutely aware of that. It’s a bitter and frustrating irony to be condemned routinely — as I and others are — as “posh”, “privileged”, “public school” types.
Yes, there are plenty of those. We know, we’ve had to compete with them. But those who casually throw such accusations around create another obstacle, another struggle, another reason to give up for people who have plenty of reasons already.
MSM journalists we disagree with are people too. There is space to be kind.