C is for: “CAKE!” The cookery dept was famed for its traybakes and every now and then the siren call of Pat, the kitchen assistant, would echo round the corridors. The team had baked to perfection, the stylists and photographers had done their bit, the art dept were all geared up to work their magic on the pages and now it was every woman and man for themselves as they hurtled towards the source. Within seconds, the trays were empty as satisfied chomping sounds were heard from every corner of the office. An ex-editor once wrote in her weekly letter that, if a fire drill practice bell went off, there would be groans and grumbles as everyone reluctantly shuffled out of the building. Come the rallying call of “Cake!!” however, and it was a completely different tale.
C is also for: Christmas lunches, Canteen and Coffee shop. In our December pay packets, we received a voucher for a free Christmas lunch in our canteen. There was often some serious bartering going on and you would see the same people trot upstairs for their third turkey-and-all-the-trimmings that week. For one week only, the canteen had been turned into a festive grotto, grimacing staff having been forced to wear jolly hats and aprons. Santa Claus had been persuaded to come down from the North Pole, at great expense no doubt and carol singers went largely ignored as everybody stuffed their faces courtesy of the company for one day of the year (or three, in some cases; see above).
The rest of the year, there was a daily carvery for a pound, fish and chips on Fridays, separate hot and cold puddings counters and as much salad from the salad bar as you could cram on to your plate. As one of my colleagues liked to do. Not for nothing was her nickname “Desperate Dan” – her plates resembled small mountains. Her physique contained somewhat larger “mountains” and during one particularly riotous lunchtime, one of her earrings fell into her copious cleavage. Quick as a flash, our production editor quipped: “There’s gold in tham thar hills.”
In the really good old days, there was more than one canteen – a basic one for staff and a posher one with tablecloths and waitress service for guests and VIPs. After lunch, you could retire to the coffee lounge and – er – lounge about on the sofas until someone reminded you there was a deadline looming for your pages. It was all change in later years and the coffee shop moved downstairs. It lacked the ambience of the other place and there was certainly no longer room for any sofas. But good old Jean was still on the till, having moved down along with the tea, coffee and cakes and her bracing good humour, cackling laugh and no-nonsense attitude continued to perk us all up, including the time she announced that I was “on the verge of a nervous breakdown”. “I can see it in your eyes,” she informed me and the rest of the queue. It was true I was going through a particularly nasty relationship break-up at the time, but I had liked to think I was hiding it quite well. Dear old, good old Jean.
B is for: Birthdays. A WW birthday was a revelation. I had been warned when I first joined the magazine but, even so, it was all a bit overwhelming at first. The cookery dept baked a cake for you, there were cards and presents galore, everybody crowded round your desk to sing “Happy Birthday” and almost everyone on the magazine came out to share your birthday lunch. The cakes were pretty special and specifically geared around the recipient so, for me, it was nearly always chocolate and for my boss, who had wheat and dairy allergies, a glorious edifice of ices in various hues and flavours (she didn’t really get on with sugar very well, either, but hadn’t the heart to tell them by then).
Leaving cakes could also be quite – er – interesting. One year, a red-haired male colleague was presented with a rather startling concoction complete with a naked icing sugar man reclining on top, anatomically correct down to the last detail and with extra embellishments, also red, to match the hair on its head.
The first sign that the cutbacks were biting deep came when an apologetic email was sent round to announce that the cookery dept were no longer able to bake cakes for everyone. So that’s “S” for “Sad end of an era” plus “S” for “Spoilt”.
B is also for: Books. It was Christmas every day for us when a small avalanche of jiffy bags would hit our post tray. Whether they contained early book proofs for forthcoming titles or the finished published product itself, each package was pounced on with great glee. Since leaving, I have found myself on a bit of an ongoing book-buying spree which, as someone tactfully pointed out, was most likely me trying to “fill a void”. I tell myself it’s all research but, whatever it’s called, it’s certainly filled my bookcases.
A is for: Awards ceremonies (and Alcohol). Every year, my company held an in-house awards ceremony at a swanky venue in town. On the Big Day, the excitement and tension were palpable and, as soon as was decently possible, we all left our desks to crowd into the loos, which had morphed into highly-scented changing rooms where our party outfits were duly admired (or not). A fleet of coaches whisked us all off to the venue and drinks and canapes were served as soon as we arrived, followed by a sit-down three-course dinner and raffle, a celebrity compere announcing the awards and a disco to round off the evening (my favourite part. I didn’t get out much). Awards ranged from best art director, best feature writer, best use of design, best campaign and many more, culminating in the Lifetime Achievement award, which the recipients used to joke meant the kiss of death for what remained of their careers.
A colleague who liked a drink or three had ignored earlier warnings to tone it down by those who had seen it all before and ended the evening on the floor under the table, shouting to any passing young waiter: “You just want to have me.” It took several men and women to wrestle her into a taxi, then some kind soul thought it best to make sure she got home safely and tossed a coin as to who should go with her. In the end, after much huffing and shoving (she was a well-built lady), they had to leave her in the stairwell of her block of flats. There was no lift and no way they would have been able to get her up to her flat, which was on the top floor. She turned up late for work the following day, apologetic and contrite, but no one was very amused.
While waiting for my taxi home from the venue one year, I spotted two men having a scrap outside. They were from opposing music magazines and one had the right hump because the other had received an award he felt he was more entitled to. “It should have been me!” I heard him wail.
The same evening, I overheard the editor of a notorious lads’ mag giving a taxi driver his address. I had imagined he must live somewhere really edgy and “hard” (in those days) – the Elephant and Castle, Hackney or Peckham, say. Not a bit of it. “Primrose Hill,” he chirruped, as he climbed into the cab.
I’ve just written a very short biog piece and tightened and updated my notes on how to get stories published (there’s always room for more editing). All in readiness for my first-ever stint at a literary festival in June, where I will be part of a panel of experts on writing (ahem) and will also be critiquing and talking through a selection of stories previously sent to me for my opinion. Talk about out of my comfort zone (or CZ)! Well out.
In fact, ever since I reluctantly took redundancy last year, I have been pushed out of my comfortable and cushioned CZ in ways I would never have expected. I was definitely cocooned while nestled in the Fiction Dept of Woman’s Weekly for 29 years. I had found my niche, or my “happy place” as they say these days and I never stopped feeling grateful. But pressures of work and the stresses of commuting, horribly early starts (I had two alarm clocks at one point), not to mention lugging bagsful of books and manuscripts back and forth between the office and my home, meant that I didn’t always make the most of any invitations that came my way and, if I regret anything, it is that I could have enjoyed that side of my job a lot more, with the added benefit of expanding my contacts. (My other regret is that I didn’t start my pension much, much sooner – only about halfway through my working life, when I had a promotion. There is no doubt that I am going to be poor!)
Well, I’m certainly making up for all that now. I have no excuses for no time any more. I’ve written blogs for a writers’ website, given a talk on how to write stories for magazines to a writers’ group I now belong to and been to a book launch lunch – any more out there?! I’ve critiqued stories for writer friends for free and have started to do a bit of my own writing – still very much a work in progress. I take my hat off to writers everywhere. I don’t know how you all do it but, as I used to say when I was working, I’m very glad you do, or I’d be out of a job! There were many hair-raising times when we realised we didn’t have any stories for an upcoming issue but somehow we always managed to find something, often at the eleventh hour.
And now – eek – the festival and the most important thing of all: Is it possible to lose three stone between now and June?!