Wednesday, 18 April 2007

A day in the City

I live in an English market town, similar to dozens of others, large enough to have a good range of employment opportunities and amenities, but small enough to avoid most of the scourges of today's big cities. Every now and then, however, I feel the urge to plunge into London and replenish myself from its abundant if slightly hazardous waters.

Taking the train to London, and then the tube, my first stop is the City for the walk down to the river and across the formerly wobbly bridge. It is of course a shining reminder of the perils of engaging fashionable architects, but it gives access to a magnificent view of the south facade of St Paul's amidst the jumble of City buildings - so many new since I worked there in the 80's.

There are a lot of people wandering around for a workday, some purposeful but others totally relaxed, quite a lot of men are wearing a smart suit with an open collar and no tie. Is this the new office fashion, or is it a nod to casual Friday ?

Crossing the bridge leads conveniently to Tate Modern in time for lunch, where both food and service are surprisingly good for a public institution, although it seems expensive, but then again in London everything seems to cost so much that it is hard to tell the difference between normal and expensive. Unfortunately there is not enough time to look at the pictures, although the crowding suggests it might not be a very pleasant experience in any case, but there are a few minutes for a shufti inside the Turbine Hall to admire its brickwork and the exposed frame of I-beams. There is something noble about it, as so often in buildings designed rigorously around a narrow purpose.

The afternoon's entertainment is 'Comedy of Errors' at Shakespeare's Globe. I saw this once on TV and was not greatly impressed, but it is a completely different experience when you are standing right next to the stage, and for the first time I find myself laughing at the Tudor jokes about twins being mistaken for each other. Being open to the elements inevitably means you get wet when it rains - Is such a degree of authenticity really a good thing ? and it also means from time to time the actors have to compete with the non-Elizabethan noise of helicopters going to and from the City. All in all, it is a very intimate arena, and for me the play works very well, as the cast ham it up almost in Morecambe and Wise style.

Intellectually refreshed, it is time for a brisk walk back over the bridge and across to Piccadilly via Fleet street and the Strand, to get some Japanese cakes at the Minamoto Kitchoan, as snacks for the train ride home, before meeting up with an old friend from University days. We find a quite pub in north-west Soho which a couple of hours later is jam-packed and incredibly noisy. This seems to be normal for central London, I suppose there are no quiet pubs there on Friday evenings, but it does not matter because it is time to move on to the evening's entertainment. This is the rock band Porcupine Tree, supported by the Swedish band Paatos. On the way in my bag is searched, presumably for drugs, and I wonder what they will make of some of my stuff - the wine from M&S for the train-ride home, the bottle of aspirin and codeine, the pork pie. However the search is barely cursory, and after being asked what is in the package with the Japanese writing on it - answer Tsuyaguri - I'm waved through. Paatos are playing and are quite good, and while Porcupine Tree are on stage Paatos stay in the bar to sell their CDs, sign autographs, and chat to their fans - but mostly chat to each other because it is cruelly obvious that the fans are only here to hear Porcupine Tree. The main show falls into two halves, firstly an hour of new material that we are told will be the basis of a new CD, followed by a second half consisting of favourites from the current CD going right back into the past. There is a good atmosphere, with the crowd alternately singing along and listening in respectful quiet.

Finally it's the last train home, with banter from a group of people on a birthday outing arriving at 2am in good humour to ride the bike the final leg of the journey home, tired but excited.

© steve_roberts 2007

Monday, 16 April 2007

A day in the country

Although I was brought up in the countryside, I am at heart a townie, and cannot bear to be parted long from the many amenities of urban life. But a small notice in the local newspaper for the annual meeting of the Steam Plough Club immediately put me into the rural frame of mind. I thought of the village where I grew up, where the local blacksmith kept a traction engine and fired it up for the village fete, I remembered the smell of freshly ploughed fields, the flocks of lapwings wheeling overhead, the gently rolling vista from hedgerow to hedgerow, and the great elms standing out amongst the blackthorn.

Steam ploughing is one of those Victorian techniques with a logic all of its own. A pair of traction engine stands, one on each side of a field, and they haul between them a double-ended plough on a steel cable, with a driver steering. Steam ploughing only works effectively on large rectangular fields, within large estates with plenty of money and manpower. Although the actual ploughing is very quick there are a number of disadvantages of operating on a small scale - the margin where the engine stands is not only unploughed, but because the weight of the engines compresses the soil, is made unsuitable for growing crops. Normally a five-man team is used, two at each engine and one riding the plough, and the engines need to be kept supplied with coal and water, in practice requiring a horse-drawn cart and driver. Smaller farms with smaller, irregular fields kept to the more flexible and less costly attentions of horse plough teams, until the internal combustion engine was brought to the point where it swept away both horse-drawn and steam ploughing.

The steam plough club in full flight is a magnificent sight. Along a huge rectangular field there is a line of ten or twelve traction engines, each paired with another on the opposite side. Some are in steam, emitting a faintly intoxicating mixture of sulphurous coal smoke and hot oil-vapour, others are standing in position, having ploughed their competition piece, or waiting for the tender to bring them coal and water.

To complement the picture there are a couple of horse-teams performing, demonstrating the difference between man and beast and man and machine, in terms of power and efficiency, but also flexibility and teamwork. And in the next field, petrol and diesel-engined tractors also hauling ploughs, conquerors come to gloat over the vanquished.

After a stiff walk up and down the line to inspect the machines at close quarters, inhale their vapours, and criticise the straightness and regularity of the furrows, it is time to find the refreshment tent. Here we are offered mostly the products of the renascent rural economy - farm-made ice-cream, hand-raised Melton Mowbray pies, courtesy of pigs from a named farm only a few miles away, and beer from a microbrewery not much further distant.

It has been a grand day, and an interesting one from the point of view of an amateur economist. You have to wonder, would steam ploughing have lasted longer but for the boom and bust caused by government actions during the 1914-18 war ? Will the charming niche products we ate today flourish, or will they be washed away by the tide of low-cost commodity foodstuffs ? Will estates like the one in use today remain in productive use, or will they be forced by the weight of subsidy to covert to wasteland (set-aside) or woodland ? No-one really knows what the future holds but at least today brought a whiff of a glorious past and a taste of the best of the present

© steve_roberts 2007

Thursday, 12 April 2007

Becoming a freelancer

We filed into the large conference room apprehensively, about 200 of us, in order to hear the announcement about the future of the business that employed us, which had been put up for sale several months previously.

As soon as the boss walked in and faced us from the stage, we knew it was bad news. 'Despite all our efforts, we have been unable to find a buyer...Accordingly Corporate have decided to close the business'. A few more words filtered through into my stunned consciousness '..consultation period..three months notice... redundancy terms...pension scheme....'

We filed out again, disbelieving, twenty years of employment dissolved in about ten minutes flat.

I had sensed some time before that my own job was at risk, and that I should think through how to handle redundancy - after all a new owner would probably want to install their own management - but it was a huge shock to hear that the site was to be closed and the whole staff laid off. It was a small comfort that this included everyone, the boss too, so that we could all support each other, and no-one could feel more aggrieved than anyone else.

My forward thinking had been quite simple. I knew I was unlikely to get another career-type job in the same line, and certainly not without moving house, with all the expense and family disruption involved. Even then I would have no real job security, and no further compensation package until I had built up several years of service. For me then, the future had to be freelance / self-employment / contracting. I would do whatever would enable me to earn a living without having my professional future bound up with any particular firm. Surely I could exploit my own skills, knowledge, and experience better than anyone else, and if that meant travelling, then I would travel.

This logic was backed up, on the day, and for weeks afterwards, with an instinctive determination that I would never again put myself on someone else's payroll.

Three months later I feel I have successfully made the transition from employee to freelance, and although I have the simplest possible business model (no staff, no stock, no premises) I am actually quite impressed at the number of different things that I needed to do, and have done. More than that, I have enjoyed tacking many of the business issues that I was sheltered from as an employee, even as a departmental manager. So I have drawn up a profit & loss account, and filled in my own VAT and PAYE returns after studying the guidance documents.

Have I become a real freelance yet ? Maybe so, but maybe also it's true that a freelance is only a freelance as long as there is work booked ahead. I get more highs than I did as an employee - for example I love posting out my invoices and I am thrilled when I check my bank account and find another payment has arrived. There are also more lows - such as when I am not awarded the business I pitch for, or when the very occasional industry contact from my past treats me like someone to avoid. However, these are easily offset by the employees who have said 'I envy you, I wish I could leave and start again, but with the mortgage, pension, etc, I can't'. There are also the freelancers who, having established that I'm quite determined to live this way, tell me that after a year or so I will never regret my redundancy.

I have thought for some years that while being an employee was a fairly straightforward way to make a living from technical skills, it wasn't necessarily a good deal for everyone, and carried a significant risk that individual talents would be wasted by the employing organisation. However, bearing in mind my career, pensions, and in the last few years the possibility of a redundancy pay-off, I had not taken action.

Now, of course the action has been taken for me, for better or worse. I genuinely believe that whatever I want - money, leisure time, travel, security - is more easily available outside employment than inside. The most liberating fact of my new situation is that, if I am dissatisfied about anything in my professional life, there is only one person I depend on for a solution - me.

© steve_roberts 2007