#ICYMI Booze, lies and politics
What my short-lived Westminster career taught me about work and mental health
My first office job was back in 1993, when, aged 18, I was a junior researcher for Harriet Harman MP at the House Of Commons. It was a real privilege to be exposed to that world at such a young age, one year before I went off to study politics at university.
The older I get the more I realise how lucky I was. Labour was still in opposition back then and Harriet Harman was Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury. I learned a lot and she was a great boss.
But, to be honest, I was a bit of a sulky and unappreciative dickhead half the time. I was only paid my expenses and I actually resented having to go into the office every day when all of my unemployed mates were sitting around at home, playing video games and smoking weed. I just didn’t like having to go into the same place at the same time every day. Mind you, Harriet did insist that I only ever worked a four day week, telling me that I needed to ‘spend my Fridays buying guitar strings, or whatever it is teenagers do these days.’
The office was on Millbank, the long road that runs alongside the Thames next to Parliament. We shared a department with Gordon Brown and Peter Mandelson. My fellow researchers included Ed Balls, Yvette Cooper and Ed Miliband. They were older and much more senior than me. Miliband was a good bloke who was dead clever but didn’t mind talking to me about football when he came to realise that was the only thing I was capable of showing any enthusiasm for. He got to write speeches and draw up policy documents for Harriet. I made tea , did the photocopying and ferried documents between offices, skulking about Westminster with my Sony Sports Walkman plugged permanently into my ears.
One evening Harriet gave me a draft copy of a speech she was due to deliver at that week’s Treasury Questions session in the Commons. She’d be up against her governmental rival, Michael Portillo. It was a big deal. I was to deliver the speech that night to one of her Parliamentary colleagues for his perusal and comments. Only I forgot to do so and went to an evening match at West Ham with the draft still in my rucksack. On the way to the game, I met up with my pals at our usual haunt, a pub called The Grave Maurice on the Whitechapel Road. A former HQ of the Krays, it was a rough and tumble sort of place, particularly on match days. A couple of pints in to the pre-match refreshments, I produced the speech from my bag and waved it about, trying to show my mates how important I was. Naturally, none of them gave a shit.
When we departed the pub and headed for the stadium, I absent-mindedly left the speech on a beer sodden table. I only realised this twenty minutes later when I was about to enter Upton Park. I probably should have gone straight back to the pub to retrieve it. But I was lazy, stupid and drunk so I just called the Grave Maurice from a payphone, asked a barman to have a look around for the speech and, if it was still there and hadn’t been destroyed or stolen yet, to keep it safe for me until after the match.
But even after the match I didn’t bother going back to the pub. I left it to the next day to collect the speech, which by then was rippled and brown from dried lager and fag ash. I threw it in a bin and told Harriet that I had simply forgotten to deliver it to her colleague. She didn’t have to know about its detour through the pubs of east London. She had another copy of the speech which she used in the Commons that afternoon. I chose to believe the whole incident was chalked off as an ‘alls well that ends well’ sort of thing. But my casual approach to matters of political sensitivity was probably noted by the higher ups in the Labour party. Hey ho.
All I know is that a few years later, Harriet was deputy prime minister and all of the researchers I used to count as drinking pals were government ministers, while I was editing a showbiz gossip magazine. It’s funny how life turns out but I suppose my slapdash attitude was never likely to propel me up the political ladder.
Mind you, it wasn’t just politics that was the problem. In almost every job I’ve ever had, I’ve been reluctant to ever put the work ahead of my own personal affairs. When I was young and working my way up, I hated the way that bosses told me what to do and where to be. I resented having to work more hours than I was being paid for, just to prove that I was ‘hungry.’ Then, when I became the boss, I hated the fact that I was expected to give up even more time and energy to work in return for the big salary and fancy title. Even when I had my own business, I didn’t like the way that work matters occupied my mind at evenings and weekends, when I should have just been focusing exclusively on fun stuff like family, friends and the Police Academy movies.
For many years, the way I coped with all of these occupational frustrations was to drink heavily. Guzzling booze to numb out the pain of exhausting work patterns is no way to live.
Does my reluctance to follow rules and keep my head down make me unprofessional? No. Does it, in fact, make me more in touch with my natural human instincts? Possibly. Was leaving that speech in the boozer when I went to watch West Ham a sackable offence? Definitely.
Work sucks - but it doesn’t have to. My best ever boss was Phil Hilton, who gave me my break in journalism and used to tell me: ‘I don’t care when you get the work done or where you get it done. As long as you get it done on time and that it’s good.’
Of course, I know that advice doesn’t work in every job. I mean, you couldn’t say that to a bus driver or a surgeon. But the principle of his words were important: they made me feel trusted, responsible and respected.
They made me feel like an adult, which is the least any employee deserves.
Tell me about mental health in your workplace
There have been some really interesting contributions on this thread I started a few days ago. Why not join in?
The Reset Podcast
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Paid subscribers to The Reset Extra will continue to get the episode emailed to them directly without any ads. But I’ve had to make the free-to-air episodes carry ads I’m afraid to pay the bills and that. Hopefully this won’t cause too much disruption to your weekly listening pleasure.
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Buy Sort Your Head Out
A couple of recent podcast appearances
Mike O’Hara is a former guest on The Reset podcast. Last week he returned the favour and invited me onto his excellent podcast, The Happy Employee to talk about Sort Your Head Out. Listen here
I also really enjoyed appearing on the Tribe Sober podcast to talk about Sort Your Head Out, my reasons for quitting booze and why I love sober life. Listen here
A forthcoming event at Olympic Studios, Barnes
When? Thursday 30th March, 7pm
Where? Olympic Studios, London’s leafy Barnes.
What? Me in conversation with Simon London about my book Sort Your Head Out. I will be doing a signing afterwards and hanging around for a mocktail or two.
Listeners to Top Flight Time Machine will know the Olympic as my local ‘media hub.’ It’s a cinema, bar and members hang out these days. It used to be a recording studio, where Prince, The Stones, Led Zeppelin, The Who, Oasis and countless others recorded seminal albums.
I have a limited number of spaces on the guest list for subscribers to this newsletter. First come first served at email@example.com
You might even bump into Gary Lineker.
Some services, links and phone numbers to help you through the tough times
https://www.samaritans.org/ Tel 116 123
@calm 0800 58 58 58
@YoungMindsUK 0800 018 2138
@CharitySane 0300 304 7000
That resonates. Not exactly a major political gaffe that would affect the structure of an entire country, but I once absent mindedly set fire to the Newsroom at Granada TV as I hurriedly stubbed out a fag and threw it in a waste paper bin when The Rochdale v Plymouth tapes arrived on a courier bike in 1999.