Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Kirstie and me

I've always had a bit of a crush on Kirstie Allsopp. She's pretty and wears great dresses. I like the mix of successful career woman with crafty earth mother crossed with a dose of poshness and plenty of gob.

It manifests itself by occasional tweets in which I attempt, in vain, to get her attention. This never works  - even the one I send quite often asking where she got her fab black furry hat that occasionally appears on Location, Location, Location never gets a reply.

Now my crushes don't have to agree with me, sometimes the very fact they don't just serves to strengthen my crush, but sometimes there's that pivotal moment when alarm bells ring and, you know, you still fancy them but you just don't respect them any more. It happened with a man I dallied with some years ago, a fully paid up member of the Tory Party. I found the clash of opinions rather alluring, truth be told, and convinced myself that some Tories even want the same thing as normal people (to make lives better, all lives, starting with the shittest, in case you didn't know) and just have a different approach. And then one day, sitting on a hill with a view of the city, admiring each other and London, he said 'what's the problem with inequality anyway?' He dumped me in the end ("They only think of themselves, Tories, what did you expect?" said my Labour supporting friends ie nearly all of them) but when he said that, my ardour definitely died a bit.

So it is with Kirstie, suggesting women shouldn't go to university but should instead have babies in their twenties in this interview.

The thing is, I'm not beyond offering similar advice myself. A postgraduate student once asked me in a lecture on freelancing, how to ensure she isn't so busy trying to be a successful journalist that she doesn't find time to have a family. I don't know, I had to reply, it's why I lecture part time and freelance the rest of it. Do it now, I told her, have your babies first.

But I didn't really mean it. By the time I was in my thirties, even before the children came, I was tired of networking and drinking all evening with people looking over my shoulder for someone more important. I did it for ten years and I was bloody good at it, always the one at a reception or networking event flitting between people, gathering business cards, flattering and quipping and remembering key details to bring up in the next day's pitches. But that kind of thing has a limited shelf life, as it should. Otherwise you end up the old soak at the bar trying to wow interns with stories about how great you are whilst pretending you're not hanging out for one more glass of cheap white wine. Luckily, I did it for long enough and was good enough at it that I am still living off the contacts I made then. Start the ten year process post children, when you need to get home for the babysitter or get up at 6am to watch Tikka-fucking-billa on CBeebies? Not likely.

Then of course there are the added extras that are really what make your career. I've written about them before. Basically you might do your job really well, you might make money or have genius ideas or change the world, but what makes you appear to be doing all of these things are the extras, often last minute, like attending a breakfast briefing at short notice or working all night to finish someone else's project because they are sick or speaking at a conference. In my career it's punditry that makes you most visible. Kirstie's article is exactly the kind of thing that in the past would have led to me being asked for a response - for tv, radio and other print journalists. But that would have relied on me being able to read the article as soon as it was published, work out my response, answer the phone and get to a studio. I can't do that on days when I am looking after my children. And those women Kirstie talks about, who at my age would have kids just about to start secondary school, they wouldn't be able to either.

I love Anne McElvoy's response to Kirstie's interview in the Evening Standard.  Don't listen to Kirstie, she says, but get your education as soon as you can:

"...I would refer you to the inspirational Geoffrey Canada, who transformed the education opportunities of some of the poorest American children. He has one key piece of advice about why learning is useful. “When in doubt, do as the rich folks do.” And the rich folks, the world over, by hook, crook and private tutor, send their children to university."

That's it isn't it? Kirstie approaches this from the position of someone who didn't need to do that to have a nice life. The same goes for me of course - I fully acknowledge that while not plummy like Kirstie, life would have probably worked out okay whatever path I took, because I've had loads of opportunities from the very beginning. Like Kirstie, I was born lucky. I suspect that the difference between me and Kirstie is the same as the difference between me and the Tory boyfriend that wasn't - which is that I acknowledge this luck, and the part it has played. Oh Kirstie, we could have been so good together...


  1. Really good article Ellie. I think it is about making informed choices: of course you can have children first and a career after, but everything gets a whole lot harder when you have to plan work round a family.

  2. Laura Woodroffe5 June 2014 at 10:55

    My sentiments exactly. If having children in your twenties is what you want then great, go for it. But not on the word of Kirstie Allsop for gods sake - her advice is very misleading. I had my first child at 37 and spent the first pregnancy stressfully setting up a new department at my workplace. It meant I was able to come back to something that progressed my career when I returned. No way would I have been in a position to take on an opportunity like that when I was in my twenties. Now on my second pregnancy I am studying for a Masters and freelancing. I have had no shortage of freelance work and have been able to organise it to suit me. Again, no way would I have been able to do that in my twenties. Having kids means my career will suffer a bit, but it is suffering a hell of a lot less now, when I have a reputation and contacts behind me than it would have done if I'd done it in my twenties. Also, without wanting to rant or be an inverted snob, Kirstie is, lets face it, fairly posh. And what she doesn't realise is that her childhood was probably full of things that the less privileged amongst us only get to experience if we pay for it in our twenties. Foreign travel, gap years, eating food elsewhere than the local chip butty place. I spent three years after uni doing snowboarding seasons, travelling and working theatre contracts - all made possible by contacts and skills I got from uni. I paid for it all myself and paid for my mum to come out and experience the mountains with me. And I'm so glad I did it then. Apart form anything else my knees wouldn't take it now. But the point is: had I spent that money bedding down, finding a mate and getting on with it I would have missed out on so much (and incidentally have children with a man I didn't love anymore - another possibility that Kirstie seems to ignore). Excuse the rant, but yours is the first decent article that has prompted me to comment on this and as you can tell it's been on my mind :)

  3. Brilliant stuff, Ellie. I live in an area where poverty is rife and many people rely on foodbanks to get through the week. Every day I see pregnant teenage girls looking worn out and skint with no hope of a job let alone a career. Don't tell me that they are better off than women who have gone to university at eighteen because they aren't. From where I stand university is an escape route in my community. If anyone is lucky enough to get through A levels and go to university they are celebrated, not just because they are living the dream (and that's not me being facetious, it really is seen as a dream) but because they are defeating the endless cycle of under-education and unemployment. Allsopp speaks from a position of immense privilege. She needs to come to a town that knows nothing of her privilege and repeat her claims that babies should come first. She'd get a pretty big bite of the reality sandwich, I can tell you.