Friday, May 29, 2015


A few weeks ago I went to a reunion of ex-Ottakar's booksellers and met people I hadn't seen for nine years. For a few hours, it felt as if I'd woken up from a bad dream and that we were all back together again. 

To add to the feeling of discombobulation, nobody appeared to have aged, even slightly.

It was a bittersweet evening. It was lovely to see people that I'd once felt a genuine affection for, but it also made me sad that I'd lost an enjoyable and rewarding career. Working alone in a remote barn, for a slowly diminishing income, isn't what I envisaged I'd be doing at this age.

However, I'm not alone. Most of my contemporaries have either experienced 'burn-out' or been made redundant. The world of work is becoming increasingly cut-throat and it's hard to compete with someone who is half your age, full of enthusiasm and willing to accept a lower salary.

Of course, male employees can always crack open the Just For Men, go to a gym and try and seem a little bit crazy, but they'll still come across as embarrasing dads having a midlife crisis. It's an unforgiving world out there.

A friend of mine complains that there is nobody in her office over the age of 35. Where have all the middle aged people gone? I suspect that like me, quite a few of them are eking out an existence, some more comfortably than others, trying to juggle the demands of young children and/or elderly parents.

Next September, my son will hopefully be starting at a new, specialist school, which could be the making of him. I will be taking and collecting him by car every schoolday for the best part of two years, so any work I do will have to fit around that schedule.

At the end of it, my son will hopefully be independent enough to make his own way to appointments and lessons. Legally, he will be an adult and in theory, I'll be free to find a proper job. But what will I do?

Men of my age aren't exactly hot property in the jobs market.

Self-employment can be a godsend if you have a child with 'special needs'. I've lost count of the number of meetings I've had to drive to, or the hours that have been spent coaxing my son back into the outside world. But the erratic income and social isolation can be debilitating.

After sitting alone in a shed for a whole day, I don't come home brimming with energy and my limited repertoire of work-related anecdotes usually involve birds, rodents or invertebrates. I feel bored by myself.

For my own sanity, I need to find something else, even if it's just a succession of temporary or part-time jobs. I can't imagine never working with anyone again.

But, of course, there are also positives to being self-employed. The other afternoon, when I ran out of work, I was able to come home early and go for a walk with my younger son. We stopped here and for the first time in years, I lay on the grass and watched the clouds merging into each other:

The whole afternoon cost nothing and gave us both more pleasure than a visit to any tourist attraction. My son started to tell me about all of the things that were on his mind (most of them involved Lego) and for a while, I felt like a half-decent father.

So I think that answer is to carry on as I am for two years, then look for a part-time job that doesn't involve wearing a green uniform or short trousers. But what, how and where? That is the question.


Annie said...

For the record, I think you're a brilliant dad.

Um, excuse my presumption, as I only know you from your blog, but I wondered what you thought about this job (seems it can be done full or part time)

I'm in the same middle aged boat, I went for an office job at the BHA recently and didn't get it, but it made me think about the option of retraining as a celebrant.

MaconLeary said...

Well, obviously , you should be writing. For money.

Lucy R. Fisher said...

Hugs! That sounds like a good plan. Ordinary jobs are great therapy. How about running the occasional bookstall at local fairs? Very sociable!

Kid said...

Lying on the grass watching the clouds merge together is one of my favourite pastimes. Hope things perk up for you in your self-employment soon.

Val said...

Well if you are at all interested in Radio plays .(But you may not be?)..(for the interim less social period) I belong to a group that collects Saturday Night Theatre radio plays (from the 60's onwards)and they are quite very willing to share.
Great fun listens if that's what you like...they can make the most boring chores entertaining.
The new school sounds most promising... and well worth the effort.

Tororo said...

Let's just say that I can totally relate to both "[doing what I'm currently doing] isn't what I envisaged I'd be doing at this age" and "most of my contemporaries have either experienced 'burn-out' or been made redundant" parts... so I feel especially empathetic with a discobombulated Steerforth. Couldn't we be members of some (old style, albeit virtual) club... the Discobomb Club, perhaps?

Rog said...

I don't think you'll ever recreate the buzz and cameraderie of working as an employee with like minded souls once you pass the 40 mark. It all gets a bit Shawshank Redemption. I stuck it out till 55 before jumping to self employed and wish I'd had the courage to do it 10 years earlier.
Is there anyway you could provide social interaction with customers and competitors at book auctions and collector's fairs?
From the comments in this blog there are a lot of people wishing you well and urging you on so that's at least a bit of cyber support!

Steerforth said...

Annie - Funnily enough, I had thought about it once and then forgot all about it, so thanks for reminding me. I've been to quite a few bad funerals and remember thinking that I would have put more effort into it. I've managed events and made speeches during my bookselling days, so it wouldn't be a complete step into the unknown. I'll look into it, thanks.

MaconLeary - Thanks for your kind vote of confidence. Sadly, better writers than me struggle to make a living and with so much free content available on the internet, it's harder than ever. However, I vaguely remember ├╝berblogger John Self being invited by The Independent to write for them, unpaid. Presumably, he was meant to be overwhelmed by the honour of appearing in a newspaper. Luckily, he didn't take up their offer and now writes paid reviews for newspapers with a higher circulation.

Lucy - I might do that. I did a bookfair once and met a few booksellers, who ranged from very pleasant to misanthropic curmudgeons. It was an interesting day out.

Kid - Good for you for not losing the art of cloud watching. I have found it increasingly difficult to enjoy the moment, so I've made a conscious effort to go for more walks and be more aware of my surroundings. It's working.

Val - I'd find it difficult to work and listen to plays, but they'd be great company on a long drive. Old plays from the 1960s and 70s would be lovely to hear.

Tororo - The Discobomb Club sounds rather exciting, with glitterballs rather than oak-panelled studies. I'll get my John Travolta shirt on!

Rog - That's a very good point - it does change as you get older and if you manage people, the age gap widens every year. I remember the day when a young female colleague called me Dad by mistake - that took the wind out of my sails! But I suppose that at Ottakar's, we were all growing old together and it felt more like a family than a business.

I also met some lovely people in my last job, so I've been lucky wherever I've gone. You and Lucy have made a very good suggestion about the book fairs. I'll look into that.

Lucy R. Fisher said...

Another thought - you'd be a natural to retrain as a librarian! And not just bookfairs: there are all sorts of local fairs and markets these days, probably because running a shop is so hard now.

Kid said...

Here's a brief something I wrote on the subject, which you might be able to relate to:

Steerforth said...

Lucy - Alas, I'm completely unsuited to library work. I did try it briefly, after leaving university, and found that I lacked the right temperament. I found the process of selling books far more interesting - the challenge of getting to know your market fascinated me. When Waterstones took over Ottakar's, my job became more like being in a library, as the main business decisions were now being made elsewhere and I was just making sure that everything was in its place. It drove me quietly crazy. I think book fairs are the way ahead.

Kid - Thanks for the link. It's a rare gift to be able to retain that childlike ability. Too many of us forget how to see pictures in the flames and faces in the clouds. Re: Jack Kirby, I used to love his illustrations and devoured the Fantastic Four stories when I was younger.

Canadian Chickadee said...

I agree with your blogger friends who think you should write. And while it's true there are a lot of writers out there, there's only one YOU.

I also think that you are a brilliant dad.

Someone once said that we have to reinvent ourselves every seven to ten years. It's hard though. I had a job I loved with people I considered to be my family too, and when I got laid off, I was totally adrift and bereft. That was nearly twenty years ago, and I still have days of despair when I am lost and trying to find my way. Of course for a woman, there's always something to do or cook or clean or iron or mend -- that is, if the sheer boredom of it all doesn't do you in first! If you are lucky enough to have a supportive spouse it also helps, though if he was honest my poor husband would probably admit he gets a bit distracted sometimes, listening to me whinge, so I try to keep that down to a minimum.

All you can do is the best you can, and just keep trying different things until something "clicks." And it will. For me, the old friends I've reconnected with on the net, and the new friends (lke you) that I've made through blogging are a real comfort.

Steerforth said...

Carol - The observation about reinventing ourselves is so true. What's difficult is when you think you've got it all sorted out, overcome the challenges and found something that works, only to realised that you've slid back down a snake and have to find a new ladder. It can be exhausting!

It's interesting that you're still taumatised by a redundancy after nearly 20 years - I think it's one of the great evils of our time. In the long term, it must be toxic for a workplace to show that they don't value loyal, hardworking staff. How can anyone be loyal to an employer that betrays its employees?

Dale said...

Don't write for a living. It's an industry in collapse.

I've had very few jobs since the 1970s - always supported myself by becoming one of those Portfolio People you hear about, though in my case I was more like the village scribe of yore. I wrote and edited and broadcast for a living, reinventing myself for each contract. Economic times have changed even since the 1990s. The INternet has utterly changed everything. Many of the types of writing that kept me in idle luxury have now disappeared, and many media outlets who previously paid now expect you to work for nothing.

[The last book I wrote a chapter for, three months ago, donated a proportion of proceeds to an Alzheimers charity. Not the bookseller's or the publisher's whack, of course, but the soft-hearted authors' royalties. Writers are absolutely expendable. Also have no sense of self-preservation.]

From what I know of you, you would not like the type of writing that pays best (lobbying for big business and general hardcore public relations BS; or political press officer work. If you stray into that line of work, and it's not easy to access, the only course is to hold your nose and think of how you'll spend the money.

Evidently, if one is not a captain of industry by age forty, nowadays one is facing irrelevancy. Offices have now been reconfigured to provide a paid mating market for the under 35s - or is it a playground for Outward Bound challenge contestants? (Has the fad for physical challenge "team-building" sessions completely passed in the UK yet?) Each time I entered one of these child-care centres I had deja vu - planning sessions repeatedly exposed one to hoary old ideas being passed off as brilliant innovations, and it was hard not to wearily say "We tried such-and-such in 19XX and this is why it did not work." It takes effort to avoid being known as that negative old knowall.

So there's a lot of lip-biting and tongue-holding involved in doing contract work as an older outside participant who's been round the block a bit. Could result in oral damage!

Nope, bookselling may end up just being one string to your bow as you work towards your Portfolio of career elements.

Can you write computer games? Now there's a growth industry, and as a conscientious father of boys you already have insight into boy-tastes. I wrote one on contract a few years ago for a games company in Birmingham; the whole project conceived, briefed, completed and paid for all online, very swiftly. Someone on staff there did the actual programming, I just provided multi-choice and multi-levelled questions of a comedy nature. It's a thought.

Finally, don't you think those ex-colleagues of yours may have been secretly very jealous of you? Your time to call your own, an income as large or small as the effort you put in, no head office to ride roughshod over your every decision, minimal commuting hassles, and rural splendour on your doorstep? Perhaps they laid on the camaraderie a bit thick and exaggerated their own contentment levels, as a result. In their position, you would probably make the same choice again to go independent.

Steerforth said...

Dale - You've confirmed what I'd heard, anecdotally, about writing for a living. I don't even have the meticulous eye for detail that would make me a good proof-reader or editor. Perhaps, 70 years ago, I could have earned 10 shillings a week writing a column for a provincial newspaper, but those days have gone.

In fairness to my ex-colleagues at Ottakar's, they were all quite self-deprecating about their current jobs. One of the things I liked about that company was that any attempt at self-aggrandizement was ridiculed - a working culture that came from its founder, who is a refreshingly honest man.

I should have aimed to become one of those grey-haired men in grey suits who aren't particularly good at what they do, but earn a small fortune because they're part of the Old Boy Network. They're only sacked if they're really awful and even then, the redundancy package is very handsome. They invariably resurface in another boardroom position.

I used to bump into one man every few years and it was patently obvious that he hadn't a clue what he was doing, but was laughing all the way to the bank. I should have asked him what his secret was.

One option that has been staring me in the face, which I'd forgotten about, would be to resume my work as a magistrate - something that's interesting, worthwhile and involves contact with some fascinating people.

zmkc said...

I look forward to Beachcomber type 12 Redbearded Dwarves reports. Passing Lewes as I write this (fortunately for other cars, husband is doing driving) - isn't it where you live ( oh hell, have I got it wrong, perhaps it is actually Rye)

Steerforth said...

Yes, I'm in Lewes. Rye's similar in many ways.

Canadian Chickadee said...

Steerforth, self doubt is something with which I have always struggled. For the most part I think I've recovered from the redundancy, but the feeling of helplessness and uselessness still occasionally makes itself felt. I worked very hard at my job and I hate to fail, so I found it very humbling and humiliating to be let go. However, in some ways it was a blessing, because it enabled me to take care of my aging parents and deal with a lot of other family stuff. But when it was all finally over about five years ago, and I thought, "Now I can get back to normal," I couldn't, because everything and everyone had changed. Which meant I still had to reinvent myself. I still consider myself a work in progress! xoxox

GSGreatEscaper said...

If I had the option of being a magistrate, I'd be there in a minute. Here in the US we don't have that system.

Since your current occupation seems to involve packing and shipping books, could you expand that to packing and shipping other things? For example, for local craftspeople who would pay you to keep the inventory of shipping supplies and do the work?

Steerforth said...

Carol - You couldn't get back to the old normal after all those experiences, but I hope the new normal is getting better.

GSGreatEscaper - The magistrate system works very well for simple, petty crimes and I like being part of an institution that's 900 years old. I'm very disappointed that we don't get to wear wigs, but you can't have everything ;)

Canadian Chickadee said...

It is, Steerforth. Really I am okay. But it's sweet of you to ask. Take care and God bless. xoxox Carol

Chris Matarazzo said...

I once helped run a cookie store in a local shopping mall. I could decorate a mean "cookie-cake." Once I even successfully copied (God knows why) a picture of Juan Valdez onto a cake. It was during my school years. Back then, I was looking forward to a more dignified career. But I do often find myself thinking, at the age of forty-seven: "What was so bad about running a small store with good friends?" I guess it took me a long time to come to grips with the fact that I would never really become a big deal.

That said, it seems to me that the afternoon spent with your son, discussing Legos (with me, it's always Mario Bros.) and watching the sky is pretty good payback for some necessary concessions made. And in a way, it's nice to still have some career uncertainty during middle age; I'm likely to face a large dose of it myself, soon...

Steerforth said...

Chris - I'm sorry you're worried about career uncertainty, but with your family, friends and the band, at least you have a rich life to fall back on. In the end, we all have to decide whether the glass is half full or half empty - easier said than done. It does take a long time to come to terms with not being the special person your teenage self thought you might be - I resist the word ordinary, as you clearly aren't. But not everyone has the emotional make-up, connections or random opportunities to rise to the very top and it sounds as if you've done better than most people.

I know several very successful, wealthy people who are also pretty unhappy. It must be awful to fulfill your ambitions, only to find that it's a poisoned chalice. So I try not to beat myself up about the things I haven't achieved and be grateful for the good friends and family that I'm lucky enough to have.

Steerforth said...

Dale - One other thing that confirmed your point is that a friend of mine is, on paper, a successful Hollywood screenwriter. One of his films was mentioned in an episode of The Sopranos. He flies off to meet people at the likes of HBO. But he also sells clothing in eBay because he simply can't make a living out of writing. When he has a project, it's great. But a month or a year may go by without anything substantial - projects are cancelled, funding isn't raised and films are postponed - so if he can't earn a decent wage, it doesn't fill me with confidence. I don't know how anyone does make a living out of writing these days, beyond the obvious bandwagons.

Dale said...

"But not everyone has the emotional make-up, connections or random opportunities to rise to the very top and it sounds as if you've done better than most people. "

You're darn tootin'. The decks are stacked and the dice are loaded.

J and I think you'll like this:

As you might guess, I tick nearly all of the Paula boxes.

Steerforth said...

Thanks Dale. That cartoon's been doing the rounds on Facebook and Twitter - it has clearly struck a chord. It's extraordinary how a cartoon or graphic novel can often encapsulate a complex issue with a few simple illustrations.

It's so true. My wife has a cousin who went to Eton and he leads a charmed life, thanks to contacts and the Bank of Papa. Resenting it is a futile exercise, it's better to have more pride in one's own hard-won achievements, however modest they may be.

Canadian Chickadee said...

A very happy day today! Some of my favourite people are coming to stay with us for a couple of days next week. I can't wait! Have a great week end, Steerforth! xoxox carol

The Poet Laura-eate said...

On the good dad front, I think you should look at it this way. T is jolly lucky to have you as his dad. So many families would be less understanding, less patient and less determined to leave no stone unturned to help him. One can only keep one's fingers and toes crossed that one day it will all pay off for both you and him. I am certainly not sure that I could have coped.

On the employment front, have you had your website SEO'd (search engine optimised)? That alone can mean the difference between success or failure, as we are currently finding out with our own website. It does not cost an awful lot to put right but you do need to find someone who specialises. Don't look at web developers though as most of them have no clue, apart from being obliged to offer SEO because it is expected of them. You also need to ensure your website is hosted in the UK and not abroad, as that too will increase your online credibility/click throughs. Book fairs or book events a great idea in the meantime to help increase your visibility. Or even talks about books to WI's and book groups, handing out your cards after and volunteering to act as a 'book doctor'

Dave said...

Hey Steerforth,

I am a former employee of yours! I distinctly remember at one point speaking to you about social media and lambasting the concept of blogging as "revoltingly narcisstic", or something like that. I remember you smiling and politely agreeing.

About a year later, after you'd left to run your own business Ben told me about your blog and I couldn't believe what I'd said to you! What made it even worse was that after I checked it out I realised your blog was one of the most enjoyable things I'd read on the internet. To this day I check every week or so to see what you've been up to - and I always enjoy your whimsically enthusiastic posts.

Anyway, after I'd had my fill of that wonderous establishment I moved into SEO, which I've been doing ever since. If you have a website and you need some SEO doing then I'd be happy to do it absolutely free of charge. Get in contact on facebook if you need any help.

Steerforth said...

Dave! Great to hear from you. I had no idea that you read this blog. I don't remember you saying that about blogging, but I always enjoyed the way you got so heated about the misuse of "literally". During one of those excrutiating HR meetings, Connie said that when it came to customer service, "We have to literally lick their arses." I remember you replying "Wow. That's real dedication." The joke was lost on some of the people in the room, sadly.

Thank you so much for your kind offer for the SEO - my current website is terrible, so it would be like improving the road signage to Bognor Regis, but if I come up with something better I'll definitely take you up on it.

Laura - Many thanks for your kind words and useful suggestion which, as you can see, has already borne fruit! I might try the Lewes book fair at some point - it didn't make a lot of money when I tried it a few years ago, but I could try a different range of stock next time.

Dave said...

Haha god yes I remember that moment exactly! Thanks for the chuckle, those meetings were truly dire.

I have sadly had to admit defeat over the word "literally" after it got officially entered into the dictionary as a true auto-antonym. It now equally means "literally" and "metaphorically, and let me tell you, my heart literally broke into a million pieces and I literally wanted to die on the spot when I heard the news.

Anyway, it may be that even your current website can be improved somehow, you never know!

Katharine A said...

Just popping by to encourage you. Not sure how though. I've recently known some of your experience (job wise). I'm nearing the end of my 40s and moving from teaching in schools to teaching in museums. It's still to really get going. I've done a shed load of volunteering & could have throttled Cameron when he came up with his 'big society' idea. Whilst I realise that this is probably not actually encouraging you, your writing is brilliant. Keep going with the blog. Another blog I enjoy reading is 'Tincture of Museum'. She writes beautifully too and has shared quite a bit about her daughter with special needs, writing about autism in museums. It's worth a read for the quality of writing and her insights on life (in museums).

Steerforth said...

Thanks Katharine - I agree about the 'Big Society' - volunteers are now seen as a substitute for paid employees, instead of a welcome addition. The culture of not paying people has spread across a number of areas.

My ex-colleague Dave, who posted a comment above, may remember my disagrement with our MD about interns. I dug my heels in and won - I was ashamed enough about paying graduates the minimum wage.

Thanks for the link - I read a fascinating post about the relationship between premature births and special needs. I'd always wondered why there seemed to be more children with SEN these days.

Lucy R. Fisher said...

My sis had an idea that she never carried out - to offer a library laundry service. You, of course, could offer to buy books that people wanted to get rid of, but she was thinking of also advising people on what to keep and what to chuck, and how to store/display what remained. Lots of hand-holding, cups of tea and listening to life-stories.

What happened to the back-office sinecure job which consisted of not much more than making tea and chatting all day? ;-)

Sarah Faragher said...

I read this post of yours a few weeks ago and it's really stayed with me, so here I am, back again, to leave you a note. I worked in bookstores for years and even though the pay was dreadful I still managed to make a living, and besides that, there was a sense that the book trade was honorable and fascinating, and was made up of amazing people. Book people. Now it does seem that we are hiding out, in many ways. I still dream about my days as a buyer in one particular bookstore. We were a family, a dysfunctional one, true, but still a family. I miss the people and the store itself, and the books, and even the customers. Well, most of them. ;O) In the next few years I hope you find a new bookish career that brings you back into contact with book people, not just books. Best wishes.

Steerforth said...

Thanks Sarah - I used to think that there was an unspoken agreement where booksellers put up with the dreadful pay in return for doing a job that wasn't soul-destroying. Then the eye of Sauron lighted on the Shire and all of the humble bookselling Hobbits were suddenly threatened by team-building exercises, KPIs and mystery shoppers - still for the same appalling pay of course.

As you say, we're now in hiding, the last of a dying race.

I don't know what will happen to us, but perhaps someone could set up a game reserve for endangered booksellers where we could go through the motions of selling books without having to worry about Mr Bezos and co.