Here's something I have been pondering. Is it better to be a big fish in a small pond or a little fish in a big pond? Having experienced both in my long and illustrious (lol) career I feel I can answer this now with some degree of certainty.
But to find out why, we need to cast our eyes back through the mists of time, all the way to 1989 when I was a fresh faced teenager with 3 A levels and no idea what to do with them. Despite having two firm offers of University places, I turned my back on them as I had had enough of education for the time being, and somehow it just didn't seem the right thing to do at the time. It may have seemed an illogical decision then but not one that I regret, My whole life has been based on taking risky decisions and gambles based on gut feelings and I've never been afraid to walk away from the obvious choice if I sensed it was not right for me. All of which has led me to the person I am today, doing what I am doing today. Could I have done things differently? Undoubtedly? Would I have ended up as happy and rounded (and I don't mean fat, though you can interpret it that way if you wish) a person as I am? I like to think not.
I am digressing, hope I am not losing you. Back to the plot. What I did do was to sign up with a temping agency and spend a few months doing all manner of different jobs. From stacking shelves in Gateway in Wheatley (now Asda) to making sandwiches for the patients at the Churchill in Oxford (hope I didn't kill anyone) to working on a removal lorry, it was an interesting time. But eventually I decided I needed a more permanent job, and so it was in November 1989 I found myself starting work at Martins the Newsagent as an assistant manager.
I loved this little shop. I used to buy sweets from it as a kid and had grown up there. It was only a small shop with myself and the manageress as the only full time staff, two part time middle aged women, one who did the morning and one the afternoon, and one or two other part timers who did a few hours here and there. Plus of course the paper boys.
Within a few weeks of me starting, the manageress left to go on six months maternity leave, which left me as acting manager. I managed to get the area manager to get me a relief manager to cover some of the hours otherwise I'd have been working 5:30am - 5:30pm seven days a week, but effectively it had become my little kingdom. I was a big fish in a very small pond, and very poorly paid. I was taking home something like £89 a week which even a quarter of a century ago was not a lot. Fortunately I lived at home still so I used to bung my mother about 20 quid for food and piss the rest up. It was only about £1 a pint in the pub in those days so my £89 went a surprisingly long way.
Poorly paid it may have been, but I loved my little kingdom. Opening the shop at 5:30am was no big deal, in fact it was probably good practice for the later years of parenting. In fact I used to enjoy those mornings a great deal. There were never that many customers before about 7:30am and a young lad used to come in to mark up the papers so I didn't have to do that much other than man the till, drink coffee and keep an eye on the paper boys to make sure they didn't nick anything. Which they did, frequently. I soon learned that sacking them wasn't the best punishment though, as it would often lead to me having to go and do the round myself as soon as the first staff member came in at 9am, by which time I'd usually have had more than one irate customer on the phone demanding to know where their paper was. Nicking wasn't just confined to the paper boys though. On Christmas Eve that year, £50 went missing from the till. Very luckily for me, I had finished work at lunchtime on the 23rd, not to return until Boxing Day, so the relief manager got the blame. The culprit was never caught. As for the paper boys, goodness knows how much they got away with but the stock takes were always down.
We had some very interesting customers, particularly some of the pensioners who could talk the hind legs off a donkey. We also had one very famous regular, the retired film director, Roy Boulting who was once married to Hayley Mills. He used to come in every day for The Times and 20 Dunhill International and had impeccable manners. I once gave him one of my scripts I had written asking him if he would read it and whether he'd consider making it into a blockbuster film. He said he was retired but would read it, and he was as good as his word, giving it back with a handwritten resume saying he'd enjoyed it but thought there might have been a bit too much sex and swearing in it. I've toned my writing down a bit since then, bearing that in mind!
On an average day, once my first member of staff came in to man the till, I could retire to the office to do my paperwork. Being quite good at this sort of thing I got it off to a tee quite quickly and the procedures which the manageress reckoned took an hour or two each morning I had quickly got down to about ten minutes. This left me free for the rest of the morning to enjoy my "breakfast". This effectively consisted of chocolate and crisps. Back then newsagents did not sell the wide range of convenience foods that they do now. Effectively our shop sold the following: Newspapers & Magazines, Tobacco, Soft Drinks, Confectionery, Crisps and Snacks, Ice Cream and Greetings Cards. That was about it. We didn't even sell milk. So I was able to enjoy my breakfast relatively undisturbed with a wide range of reading material from the shop at my disposal. Yes, I know what you are thinking, well, I'm not going to comment!
If I was working the full twelve hours I used to go home for an hour at lunchtime and watch Neighbours and Going For Gold before coming back for the last stint. 4pm to the end of the day was another fun time. A young lad (about 16) used to come in and work the till after school and we used to have a really good laugh.
I loved being in charge, it was the only time I was ever really a manager of people and never had any problems with them. There was none of the back-stabbing of ambitious people you get in the business world, just part time staff who wanted to do a job and get paid. It was my little world and I loved it, but my time there was all too brief. I could have stayed longer but I needed to earn more money at that time if I was to achieve my ambition of leaving home, so after just 8 months in the shop I got a job at Nielsen where I was to stay for almost 15 years.
I was now working not in a small shop of half a dozen people but a massive building of 500+. I may have doubled my salary in the process but I was under no illusions that I was now at the bottom. It was as if I'd won the Football Conference and been promoted directly into the Premiership. Here I had to conform, "play the game" and all the rest of it if I wanted to get on.
Looking back in hindsight now, I stayed too long, it wasn't right for me and I was like a square peg in a round hole. After I left I moved on to other jobs, in other large organisations, but I very much knew by then that none of this was right for me. I did not want to be a small fish in a big pond, but I didn't want to be a big fish in a big pond either. So, at the end of 2007 I took a mighty leap out of those big ponds altogether into the smallest pond of all - that of self-employment.
And so for the past six years I have been swimming happily around in my own personal little goldfish bowl, earning a living by various means doing things that I love and I've never been happier. Would I ever go back? I have to admit to a certain nostalgia about my time as a newsagent, and if I could go back to 1989 for a day, I'm sure I'd enjoy it, but career wise it looks like I'm set to plough a lone furrow for the conceivable future. It's big fish, small pond all the way for me!
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