On November 3, in the Cambridge house in which we had been living for the last two and a half years, my wife and I discovered that we were going to have a baby. We were one of the lucky ones: we had only just begun trying, and suddenly, in a tableau we’d so often seen on screen that we could scarcely believe it was happening to us, we were looking at the incontrovertible pregnancy test proof: in eight months’ time, there were going to be three of us.
But November had even more news up its sleeve.
Less than a fortnight later, the editorial team at ShortList were summoned in sombre tones to the basement of our Emerald Street home. It looked like it was either extremely good or extremely bad news. We were told immediately that it was the latter. The “male portfolio” – the magazine and website for which I had been writing since 2015 – was for the chop. The new year would come around but ShortList magazine wouldn’t be part of it.
Having learned I was going to be a father, I had now learned I was going to be jobless. When I got home that evening, I cried while hugging my wife.
Being made redundant isn’t great fun at the best of times, but this was especially heart-wrenching. Working at ShortList was perfect. It was the pretext that allowed me to visit Patrick Stewart in his LA home, dance down Oxford Street with the Hare Krishnas, arm-wrestle Evander Holyfield, and become best friends with Dwayne The Rock Johnson. A job that provided me with an endless stream of anecdotes, it was where I realised with a certainty that shows no sign of crumbling: I need to be a writer.
The cruel irony of the magazine’s closure was that it was better than ever before. Under the editorship of the hairy and sublime Joe Mackertich, we were publishing vibrant, ambitious work, crafted by people who cared. We weren’t just the biggest men’s magazine in the country; we were the best men’s magazine in the country. Under our Mankind banner – a campaign that questioned the merits of old-school masculinity and spoke to the modern, complicated, insecure men of the early 21st century – I wrote, for the first time, about the crippling effect my mild spots had had on my self-esteem as a young man.
Even when I was at ShortList, however, I had flirted with the seductive idea of going freelance. Now the decision had been made for me.
And this new reality meant a number of things. On the one hand, it meant I would see a great deal more of our baby; on the other, it would be calamitous for buying a place to live. All of a sudden, in the eyes of the bank, I was a leech, draining my wife of money. Having sold our house in Cambridge to move home to Oxford, we were (and still are) living with parents, waiting to buy somewhere else.
This has been a painful transition because my self-worth was – and, to some extent, still is – tied up with my job. If I didn’t write for ShortList, who was I? In the first flushes of freelance life you can feel incredibly infantilised. Although my wife is nothing but perfect and supportive, a number of primal feelings kicked in: I need to provide for my wife and baby. How can I do this if I don’t have a ‘proper job’? How can I do this if we don’t have somewhere to live? While I was adjusting to freelance life, I was also adjusting to life in limbo as a dad-to-be.
After spending February to June trying to buy a house that ultimately fell through, we are still living with parents and still looking for somewhere to buy. Oh, and the baby’s due in less than a month. But, even if buying a house takes a few months, in less than a year I will have lost my job, gone freelance, sold a house, bought a house, and become a father. It’s…it’s quite a lot.
Like every freelance journalist will tell you, freelance journalism is up and down. I had a wonderful January. I had a crap February. May and June were kind to me. Going to a wedding in Australia meant ten days of lost income. Much as I relish a lot of what freelance life affords me – I can spend an entire day writing a sitcom script; I no longer need to do a four-hour round trip commute; I will never, ever become complacent – I miss things too. I miss the ready access to fascinating, high-profile people; I miss travelling to America; I miss my colleagues and our in-jokes. I know that many other freelancers might say that, for example, being fired from one job was the best thing that ever happened to them because they were suddenly able to walk their own path; but, in the first few months at least, the reality feels less triumphant. You’re a baby again, learning to walk by yourself.
For some reason I have always liked to remind myself that a huge number of the people who command adoration and admiration are freelancers: Jim Carrey; Lady Gaga; a little fella called Jesus Christ. They had to start in exactly the same way as the rest of us. Once upon a time, the bank considered them ‘dependents’. (Less true for Jesus.) On good days I will convince myself that being freelance means that I have the same capacity to do anything, to earn millions, to write my own future. But, as any freelancer knows, a good day will be followed by a bad day – a day when everyone ignores your pitches; when it feels like your hands are made of lead; when your invoice still hasn’t been paid. When these times do come around, I’m learning to stay optimistic and have faith in my talent. A bad day shouldn’t mean a good day isn’t coming up.