Working away

Not so very long ago people’s jobs were not transient affairs but clustered in and around the cathedrals of industry, and that’s where they lived.  Granted there were always the travelling salesmen who ploughed a lonely furrow from town to town, the military and navy types who went abroad to fight and have adventures from port to port, and various other professions requiring travel by necessity.  Indeed, there have been many times of recession when the breadwinner has had no choice but to work away – think Auf Wiedersehen, Pet for example.  But over the years most of us worked locally and commuted by foot, bike, bus, train or, increasingly, car on a daily basis for five days a week, 48 weeks a year, often for many years without variation, through necessity.

Many things have since changed, not least the fragmentation of job security and the fact that we can no longer guarantee finding a close fit to our skill base and experience in any local town.  The big industries were taken over by international conglomerates, many big plants were closed down and the local residents had trouble finding alternatives.  Migration to London might be one solution for the young, and if you wanted work in waiting tables, acting or financial services, that was your best move, but for most of the working community the choices were stark: retrain and try something new; become mobile and “get on your bike”; set up your own enterprise doing whatever sells; or give up, and sadly there have been people who gave up and became institutionalised long-term unemployed.

In my case, setting up my own business and becoming freelance in 1993 was through choice rather than necessity, and on the whole it’s been a good choice since I’ve had many good years, don’t get too bored in any one client assignment, escape routine and don’t have to kowtow to bosses and policies with which I fundamentally disagree.

However, the flipside is that there have been bad years and the fact that I have to go where the work is.  In some cases this has meant the odd jolly abroad, but by and large I’ve done a lot of commuting into London and had occasional spells of long-distance driving (176 mile daily round trips from Essex to Slough on A12 and M25, through three major sets of roadworks, plus directing a play in the evening darn near killed me!), but also have worked in relatively easy locations.  I am a taxi for hire, and I must go where my taxi takes me.

At one time I did a lot of work with One2One as they then were (now TMobile), based in Borehamwood and Hatfield, both a relatively short distance from Broxbourne, where I was living at the time.  This was great though the one occasion when I tried to hop the 17 miles home while my mobile battery was down resulted in a frustrating 3 hour drive due to an accident further round on the M25, and my then wife going berserk with worry.

This year I’ve had two spells away, respectively in Warwick and Mansfield.  Not the ends of the earth but in both cases too far to commute on a daily basis.  The answer is relatively simple when you’re working in hospitals, since hospitals are generally equipped with accommodation for doctors, nurses and relatives at a reasonable cost.  The bit I hate is having to pack a subset of my stuff and hope I’ve not forgotten anything of importance, then to spend the weekends cramming in all the jobs I’ve not been able to do in my enforced absence.

In the case of my current digs they are a short walk from the hospital and comprise a spartan but clean, warm and pleasant single room equipped with en suite, plus a lounge with kitchen, washing machine and TV shared with other people from the same corridor, and free parking – pretty good value at £15 a night!

Other working locations may warrant nights in cheap hotels and B&Bs, both of which I’ve done extensively over the years.  Nice to be put up by your company in a nice hotel, but the days of luxury Corporate jollies are, if not quite gone, then certainly more at a premium when you can do much of the relevant stuff by telephone or video conferencing, travel being expensive and time consuming, even allowing for the fact that more can be achieved face-to-face.

The downside with working away is that unless home is wherever you lay your hat, you are away from the comforts of home and probably have to contend with that for an extended period or, as in my case, an early morning drive on Mondays and a return through the rush hour traffic on a Friday night.  That and eating out alone, unless you have some fellow travellers with whom to socialise.  I’ve been doing this so long it doesn’t bother me nowadays, but the fact that I’m not married and only have the cats at home to worry about probably makes it easier, though all my friends worry about me driving either way early then doing a full day, or driving in the evening after a full day.  Either way it’s not very sensible but given the number of jobs to be done and cats to be fed it’s the only option, particularly since I never want to miss seeing Adam when the opportunity is there.

But then I count my blessings, firstly that I have work to do at a time when very many don’t have that opportunity, and secondly that work with some inconvenience is infinitely better than for the poor sods who come, legally or not, looking for employment in this country but end up virtually working for nothing and living in squalor thanks to the illegal activity of gang masters.

To be treated as a slave and trapped is lower than anybody should ever have to endure, but then we study and qualify and gain experience in order to avoid the perils of being in a dead-end job as cheap disposable labour and to gain a niche, respected for our professional skills and in demand.  That is the theory and often it works that I have expertise in particular areas that is required – but then it means I must travel to where the work is, and the essence of the work I do is that it generally requires being onsite most of the time.

In the ideal world I would earn enough from writing such that I didn’t have to go to work, but that work would come to me, which I could fulfil from the safety, comfort and convenience of my own desk.  Two disadvantages of that scenario are that I would miss the social contact of working with other people, and let’s face it we are at heart social, not solitary animals; secondly, that being stuck in the house is bad for Jack.  There is a happy medium, whereby I could work in the house some times and go on trips at others – reading my work, for example.  Maybe we’re into fantasyland here, though it’s something that could be achieved, given a few lucky breaks.

Of course, the flipside of this coin is that the availability of computers and wifi access means you can keep in touch with your office from anywhere, so in theory at least we should be liberated from the desk and all be much more hot wired wherever we happen to be.  This is the age of teleworking, though there are some professions where it is unlikely you can achieve it in a big way – healthcare provision being one obvious example.

Flexibility in working is nice, particularly if it allows you to pursue your trade and not lose sight of the demands of a personal life. But in the current market you need to do what your employer demands.  Such is life!

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