Former British Vogue Editor Alexandra Shulman on “Going Plural”December 10, 2017
On June 23, 2017, I left the community of British Vogue where I had spent the past twenty-five years as Editor-in-Chief. I stepped into the lift with a job title and stepped out unemployed. From almost the moment I finished my university degree in 1980 to that morning, I had been paid to be a member of an office staff, no matter how slight, on occasion, the day’s achievements may have been. Now, for the first time, I am on my own, with every new job to win or lose.
According to The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary that sits on the newly built shelves in the room at home that has been commandeered as my office, the term freelance is “used by writers to denote one of those military adventurers who in the Middle Ages offered their services as mercenaries, or with a view to plunder . . . . a condottiere, a free companion”. Perfect. The rackety, swashbuckling connotations of that description entirely sum up how I see my new world. I am a gun for hire, a person ready and able to try my hand at any number of roles. I have swapped security and predictability for life as a sole trader, travelling light.
If you are a full-time office-based employee, life conforms to a certain shape and rhythm. You may not clock in and out, but your whereabouts are tagged, your presence noted, as is your absence. This automatically confers a value on the simple fact of being there. Once at work and a member of a team, you are propelled through the hours on an often relentless conveyor belt signposted by regular meetings, lunch breaks, water-cooler chat and fire drills. The day might be fascinating or it might be dreary – more likely, something in between – but you and your contribution are only a part of the enterprise. Drop away from that scenario, and you are confronted with a vast, formless expanse to be navigated and moulded.
Time is different and the progress of the day unfamiliar. Whereas previously an alarm woke me at the same time each morning, now there are mornings where the alarm is not set at all, or alternatively where I am up writing at my desk at 5 am. A breakfast meeting in central London might leave me with several hours to kill until another meeting at lunch. Such mornings are unsatisfactory, involving too many cups of expensive coffee, as I join the laptop crowd subsidizing Pret A Manger, Starbucks and a zillion hipster style coffee hangouts. Others are more successful with an afternoon game of tennis a reward for having completed an article at home (or at least made a start). I reckon that five uninterrupted hours at my laptop at home equate to at least eight hours in the office, where whole mornings could pass without my feeling that I had actually done something myself rather than allocated tasks to others. This means that on a good day it is possible to feel a sense of smug achievement by one o’clock.
Increasingly in my working life, which in management speak is now called “going plural”, there are days when I am far from that journalistic mode and instead working with a variety of businesses as a consultant or adviser. With these short-term commitments there is little time to waste in sussing out the corporate power plays and allegiances; and for one used to being at the top of the office pyramid, in control of most of what I surveyed, floating around the exterior of the structure as a consultant is confusing, engrossing and a little unsettling, too.
Weekends have taken on a different meaning. What is a weekend if you have done no work in the week or have chosen to watch Netflix all Thursday with the promise of more valid industry on Saturday? How newly enjoyable a Sunday evening is, relieved of any back-to-work Monday feeling. And holiday is no longer something that is measured and finite. I can take as much as I wish but what exactly is a holiday now?
Of course I had forgotten about the grey hours. The hours that life in various offices had protected me from for thirty-seven years, with their chatter and companionship and bright overhead lighting. The hours that I have never worked out how to deal with and am prone to being depressed by. The 180 minutes between 3 pm and 6 pm.
Positioned between the optimistic activity of morning and the indulgence and companionship of the evening, these recent darkening November afternoons have reminded me how treacherous this time can be with my metabolic propensity to doziness only really knocked on the head by going to sleep.
Kris Kristofferson’s well-used phrase “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose” captures how I sometimes feel in the midst of those grey hours, on a day when my careful structure of meetings has been fouled by cancellation, I have eaten too many slices of toast, my email is empty of any communication bar the daily drops from Evans Cycles and Lakeland and the man from Porlock seems to have taken up residency. But on balance the freedom offered in this new world is far more about opportunity and experimentation. A place where I am both forced and able to throw myself into things I haven’t done before.
And so it was that I spent September in Southern California, previously a month where, hemmed in between the twin unnegotiable demands of my son’s school term and the international fashion collections, I was never able to holiday. Now, as a freelance writer, I was able to think there might even be an article in the trip somehow, somewhere.
In Los Angeles I found myself staying in a house in the Hollywood Hills belonging to a man who, according to Joni Mitchell in the song “Ladies’ Man”, “could charm the diamonds off a rattlesnake”. From his circular lawn above the city we tracked the movement of dusk to night as the distinctive sparkling grid of LA lit up from Sunset Boulevard over to the ocean, to the soundtrack of rustling coyotes and famous neighbours’ security alarms.
I watched the pelicans congregate in the toxic waters of the inland Salton Sea, where the newly founded Bombay Beach Biennale, a kind of alternative art happening with surreal, crazy and mind altering gigs, takes place. And, more to my personal taste, on the hunt for a vintage muumuu in the retro stores on 29 Palms Highway, I came across the Joshua Tree Inn and the tacky shrine outside room eight commemorating Gram Parsons, who died of an overdose at the age of twenty-six.
A few weeks later, the freelance life found me on a stage in the vast Expo Centre in Sharjah, UAE, as part of the progamme that twinned the London Book Fair with the Sharjah International Book Fair. For one more used to speaking at the literary festivals of Hay and Cheltenham, it was fascinating to watch the tall, elegant Emirati men in their slim white kandura wheel around shopping trolleys piled high with books and the beautifully made-up abaya clad women taking notes as they listened to Neel Mukherjee discuss the immigrant condition at the core of his novels.
Later that evening a few of us from the fair went to the opening of the recently deceased Emirati artist Hussein Sharif’s retrospective show at the Sharjah Arts Foundation. On the splendid candle-lit roof top of the palatial gallery, a colour-themed dinner for at least eighty international arts folk was held. Have you ever eaten an entire plate of purple food or white or yellow? Quite disorientating. It makes you realize how important colour is to our recognition and expectation of taste.
After a glass of non-alcoholic champagne (Sharjah is entirely dry) I returned to the hotel, a luxury tourist spot on a spit of a construction site in the desert sand. Paddling alone at midnight in the warm water of the Persian Gulf and looking up at the same full moon that would be moving slowly across the back gardens outside my London home, I felt extremely privileged to have been able to grab hold of this new life, call it portfolio, plural or freelance.
The Times Literary Supplement