On Twitter recently, there was a trend for people to list five jobs they’d had. I’ve had some truly crazy jobs – and that’s before we get to TV sitcom writing, journalism and broadcasting. Here’s my tweet:
My first ever job as far as HMRC are concerned was being a cleaner at McDonald’s in 1996, aged 16, which I wrote about for the Guardian in 2008. But a year before that, in 1995 when I was 15, my dad employed me for six weeks.
My dad was often a physically violent, emotionally abusive, utterly deranged monster. I still have regular dreams (nightmares, really) about escaping from him and my mum, running from the house and never looking back.
But he could also be kind, funny and encouraging – and he and my mum were always very generous with money. So when I couldn’t get a job aged 15, he agreed to ’employ’ me for £4 an hour, writing sticky labels for videos.
[Dad and me in 1982, when I was 18 months old. I was slightly older than this when I wrote the video labels.]
My dad taught at the University of Westminster (which was called the Polytechnic of Central London for the first half of his career). He was Course Leader or Lecturer on each of three degree courses – Film & Television, Media & Communication Studies and Journalism – and it doesn’t take a Freudian to point out that these are all the areas I ended up going into as a writer. Excuse me while I get the brain bleach!
Dad lectured several future celebrities, a couple of whom I now know – Charlie Brooker and Jon Ronson – and I ended up going to the same university for my own first degree (a BA in Commercial Music). Sadly or happily though, depending on how you look at it, Dad didn’t give me any contacts in the media, and he didn’t help me get into university either. I had to graft and do all the hard work myself. I got into television aged 21 after entering a BBC scriptwriting competition I found in a leaflet in HMV, and got into journalism at the same age after applying to do work experience at the NME.
When I was a kid, Dad would occasionally take me into work with him, and I once disrupted a lecture aged four by screaming ‘Daddyyyyy!’ after I got my leg stuck in a chair. My dad had to stride down the theatre aisle and rescue me in front of hundreds of laughing students.
[Me aged four. My parents were not the best at framing photos.]
Anyhow, my dad had amassed what I believe is technically called a ‘shit ton’ of video tapes. For over a decade, he’d illegally taped films off the telly to show in his seminars – every day, he circled all the films he wanted to record in the Guardian TV guide – but all these black cassettes were in blank cardboard VHS cases with yellow Post-it notes on.
Post-it notes aren’t very sticky after a while, as I’m sure you know, so my dad wanted me to transfer the information on them to proper white adhesive labels to stick on the sides of the videos. He could have done it himself – he certainly had lovely neat, precise handwriting. But it was a menial and boring chore, so he delegated it to me, even though my handwriting was very scrappy indeed. And he actually paid me 25p more per hour than the £3.75 I subsequently got at McDonald’s for cleaning toilets!
So I spent the summer I turned 15 holding a squeaky marker pen in the Film & Television department of my dad’s university, hunched over a roll of sticky labels, writing titles like ‘The 39 Steps (1935, Alfred Hitchcock, 86m).’ It was very dull, but school was very dull too, and at least I got paid for this.
[Me aged 14, when I didn’t have any jobs at all. I did, however, have a horrible bag.]
My dad was forced to retire from the university in 2003 when he turned 65. It was truly sad to watch, as he was crushed by not feeling needed anymore. Ironically, it was a bit like the film About Schmidt, as Dad kept on going into the building unpaid until he was told he was no longer welcome. He threw himself into researching his family genealogy for the last 13 years of his life instead – I think it was a suitably academic task that made him feel needed again.
Still, I bet somewhere in a dusty library in the University of Westminster’s Film & Television department are several thousand illegal videotapes of films off the telly, recorded by my dad and labelled by 15-year-old me.
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