25 years ago this month I was given the sack. Although I wasn’t happy in my job, it came as a terrible shock. Until then, I’d always seen work – and life really – as something that went onward and upward. Failure really didn’t come into the equation. Yet there I was, just before Christmas 1996, without a job and, so it seemed, without a future.
In fact, of course, although I couldn’t see it at the time, nothing could have been further from the truth. Within a few weeks I had a new job, not as prestigious or as well paid as my previous one, but a job that would keep me and my family going. But if I look a little further I can draw a direct line from that moment to where I am today. And I couldn’t be happier about it.
I suppose I really should be thankful to the man who sacked me, although I can’t actually bring myself to forgive and forget. He’d arrived a year or two earlier to edit the daily newspaper where I worked on the newsdesk and it was dislike, to put it mildly, at first sight. He was the kind of boss who’s impossible to work for because you could never predict what he was going to want next. I would suggest X and he’d want Y. So the next day I’d suggest Y and he’d ask me how I could possibly propose anything so boring. This happened day after day after day. I lost my confidence and I started looking around for another job. Although I got close to plenty, I never quite managed to land one. I was miserable.
But that was nothing to the blow my confidence took when I was called into the editor’s office on that dismal December afternoon and told I wasn’t wanted anymore. Until then, I felt I had a promising career in journalism. I’d graduated from the newsroom to the newsdesk, which meant that instead of writing, which I loved, I needed to have ideas and tell people what to do, or to be more accurate tell them what the editor wanted them to do because of some ludicrous idea his wife had mentioned to him at the breakfast table. But well, that was what happened as you progressed up the ladder to become an editor yourself, which was what I imagined myself doing one day.
Now, as I sat there in the evil editor’s office, all that was over. I realised instantly that it was a ridiculous dream. I wasn’t editor material at all. For a start, most of the editors I’d ever known, barring one or two notable and honorable exceptions, were, at least to some degree, egomaniacs. In any case, there was really only one thing about journalism I enjoyed, and it was something I’d barely done in years: writing. I began to realise three things that were to shape my professional future, making me a freelancer in waiting:
- Any security I thought I’d ever had was a complete illusion;
- I really didn’t want to have a boss; and
- I wasn’t going ever going to be diverted again from work I really loved doing.
I never went back into that newspaper office. I sorted out my redundancy from home with the help of a lawyer and threw myself into Christmas preparations. Within a week or two, I was offered a new job back on a newspaper where I’d worked before on the other side of the country. I’d have few real responsibilities and I’d be working on what were thought of as the dullest parts of the paper – the business pages – but I didn’t care. And once I started the job I cared even less. I discovered that my new boss, the business editor, didn’t much mind what I did so I started spending more and more time writing features for the business supplement – really good features, I thought.
At that point, my marriage, which had been under tremendous strain for some time, fell apart and I found myself alone and single. Without going into too much personal detail, not too long afterwards I met the love of my life, who happened to come from near Barcelona, and I was faced with deciding whether to move out to Catalonia to start a new life with her. After what had happened to me, I didn’t hesitate. I knew that the apparent security of my steady job on the business desk was an illusion. I knew that my nice, hands-off boss could be changed at any time for someone who’d make my life a misery. Although it might not have appeared that way to an outsider, there was really nothing to lose.
So I took the plunge, moved, learned Spanish and Catalan, failed dismally to establish myself as a freelance journalist because I didn’t want anything to do with the kind of xenophobic drivel English papers wanted me to write about my new home, did some English teaching which I hated, and eventually secured myself a foothold in a career I liked a lot more: translation. History has proved me right: as a translator I’ve been consistently earning far more than I’d ever dreamed of as a journalist – and that was before the utter collapse in British regional newspapers which no-one foresaw when I left the industry in 1999.
But I’ve never forgotten the lessons of that December day. I did have one or two bosses in my English-teaching days, but I never hesitated to walk out if any of them became unbearable. I wasn’t afraid because I knew, as I still know, that security is an illusion. Now, as a translator, I’ve been my own boss for nearly 20 years, and I’ve always stuck to doing what I love, which is translation, pure and simple. As for those people who say “A translator eh? One day you could have your own agency…” I just laugh as I imagine how miserable I’d be diverted into project management and sales. They simply don’t get it.