I’ve never done a better day’s work than the day I entered the Observer’s young reporter competition. Those 850 words changed my life.
My parents were bohemian hippies living on benefits in Wolverhampton, and they encouraged us to read the liberal press. We couldn’t afford generally to buy newspapers, so every week I’d go to the library and read the Observer. We were also inveterate competition enterers, so when I saw the competition, I jumped at it.
Unfortunately, because I never left the house and nothing ever happened in Wolverhampton, I didn’t have anything to report on, so I turned my weakness into an advantage and did a Kate Adie-style war report on my mother trying to give my three-year-old brother a hair wash, which involved lots of screaming and shouting and running.
Comedy won the day, and as part of the prize they invited me down to the office to meet everyone. It was the first time I’d been to London and I came down on the bus with my friend Jules. I’d bought myself a new pair of white pixie boots from a jumble sale, which I wore without socks. I had no concept of how big London was, so I figured that I’d have time to pop up to the British Library to look at an exhibition, and tootle back to Battersea for my meeting with the Observer at 2pm.
I had no idea how very quickly I’d get lost, and how quickly my pixie boots would tear all the skin off my feet, and I ended up being two hours late, with the staff of the Observer freaking out because, as far as they were concerned, a child was lost in London and it was their responsibility.
I’d been reading Maureen Lipman’s autobiography and her advice was: whenever you meet someone new you should always bring them a gift. So the night before I’d made a lemon sponge cake and I’d put it in a little suitcase. In the heat and the two-hour walk around London the cream in the cake had split and turned into cheese; so I opened up this suitcase to reveal what appeared to be a pile of vomit, that I’d brought all the way from Wolverhampton. And still, nonetheless, at the end of this disastrous meeting, they offered me a column all through the summer holidays.
The man who later became my husband read one of these columns while he was at university and apparently instantly fell in love with me, and showed my picture to all of his friends. So not only did the Observer give me my career, and the ability to leave Wolverhampton, but it also gave me my husband and my children! Which is why I now love being a judge in competitions, because if you live in Wolverhampton the idea of being able to work somewhere in London seems impossible, and you need someone to put out a hand and say: “I’m asking you to come and work for us.” You need to be invited – you can’t just ask a friend of a friend for an internship.
I think things are going to get worse for newspapers before they get better. We’re living in a post-truth age and people don’t seem to care, because we’re drunk on the internet; and I think things will have to get a bit messier before we start wanting to have facts again. The tone of politics right now is one of shouting and trolling, and that tone has absolutely been set by social media. At some point, probably when society and the economy have got much worse than they are now, we’ll reinvent the idea of having a creditable, trustworthy press.
To me, the Observer is like those beehive cells you had on the west coast of Ireland. In the first wave of Christianity there were Christian monks all over Ireland and they got driven out by the pagans, and they existed in these little stone cells on the coast for around 400 years, until the resurgence of Christianity allowed them to move back out across Ireland again. And that’s what the Observer is to me: a little beehive cell clinging to the edge of our society, keeping these ideas and thoughts alive for a time when they’ll be able to roll back out and become mainstream again. God bless the Observer and all who sail in her.