The Diaries of a Fleet Street Fox – through my personal lens.
This isn’t a book review of Fleet Street Fox’s book in the normal sense. It’s more me trying to express how I relate to her as an individual and how she has written about her experience of marriage, divorce, and the white-hot environment of working for a national newspaper. These days, Foxy is a columnist at Mirror Online & the Sunday People.
“Yeah, that’s great Pooffles, but is the book any good?”
Oh, it’s a riot of a read – gripping and compelling from start to finish. It’s also written in a pulls-no-punches style (even though lawyers pulled a lot of them for her lest she be sued) that is also extremely fluid. Basically, if you’ve been through a difficult split with someone, there are a lot of things in here that will resonate.
The difference with Foxy is that she has written them in a language that strikes a chord that tells a rollercoaster of an experience as well as providing a window into her soul.
I guess that’s the strange thing about having met her and having read the book. I feel I ‘know’ her far better than she will ever know me, even though in the grand scheme of things I hardly know her at all.
A few chats in the pub and reading her book – it’s not like we spent the past 30 or so years together. Yet at the same time I find her one of the most fascinating people I’ve ever met. If she tweets that she’s going to be on TV – whether on say a panel show or on something like reviewing the papers, chances are I’ll make the effort to watch. I rate her analysis on things through her context of working as a journalist – even though I may not always agree with her!
Snippets of snaps inside the newsroom
Perhaps one of the reasons the insights into the newsroom is fascinating for me is because I’ve worked in policy areas that were one step removed from one of the newsrooms’ adversaries: The Whitehall press office. On one hand there was the fear of having your policy area being shredded to pieces by the newspapers, and on the other hand you were wondering why journalists did not ask the more targeted questions that could have had various politicians and ministers squirming. This was in the days before social media – these days journalists are keeping tabs on people who specialise in different policy areas in order to ask more awkward questions. Has the newsroom downtime of the past now been replaced by scanning Twitter and Facebook?
Booze, booze and more booze. And testosterone too.
I wouldn’t have survived five minutes in Fleet Street. I was lucky to survive banking during my year out in the late 1990s, where business was done by men, and all of the senior managers were men. (And most of the businesses they did business with were run by men.)
I don’t know how much journalistic licence Foxy used, but I certainly got a picture of a heavy-drinking, male-dominated culture not too dissimilar to that in Westminster. At the same time, I also got a feel for how Foxy lived up to her nom de guerre, using the cunning instincts of the woodland and now urban carnivore to pounce on her prey despite all of the latter’s attempts at deception.
One thing that struck me about the newsrooms were the power games. Who were the people who had the power and influence? Who was there through talent and hard work? Who was there by sheer nepotism? At the same time, the insecurities that are being faced by many people across the economy are also being faced by journalists as everywhere seems to be moving to a ‘freelance’ model with zero job security. One where you are no longer an employee and where you are the one who has to fill out your tax return. Want to know the macro-economic impact of this? Have a look what Frances Coppola wrote.
Married with babies
About 15-20 years ago, I promised myself that by my mid-30s I’d have found the girl of my dreams, found the ideal career and would have settled down to a life of 2.4 children till retirement. Um…ooops. I’ve lost count of the number of people I’ve met who kind of had similar expectations then found out that life wasn’t so simple and things didn’t work out like that. This is what happened with Foxy, who ended up going through a divorce a few years after getting married in her late 20s. Prior to that, there were plans to buy a house, do up the house, prepare it for children etc. But what do you do if halfway through your other half ends up walking out on you, leaving you with an expensive mortgage and a barely-furnished house full of broken dreams? There was one paragraph that struck me as particularly powerful. The context is estranged husband asked her if she missed him.
“[Do I] miss you?…I don’t miss ‘you’, no. I miss having a husband. I miss talking about what we’d call our children, and where we’ll go on holiday next year. I miss someone having to run my bath when I’ve had a long day, sit on the toilet and talk to me. I miss cuddling on the sofa and watching telly. I miss someone having to cook for, or shave my legs for.
I miss having someone to put their hands on my tummy when I have period pains, or let me warm my feet up on them when I’m cold. I miss having a companion, planning your birthday, having an extended family. I miss the dreams we had. But no, I don’t miss you.”
I had a long ponder over why this was the most striking passage of the book for me. Then it dawned on me. Foxy had got underneath ‘expectations of life’ I had had drilled into me from childhood. (See fourth para of Life on a piece of paper). She scored a direct hit on the emotions button that no one ever mentioned.
You see, in ‘Life-on-a-piece-of-paper-land’, by now I should have a wife. By now I should have married and settled down like one of my siblings – having the conversations about what we’d call our children. By now I should be going on those romantic holidays and city retreats, soaking up the culture in the company of the love of my life. By now I should have someone to cook for, to run a hot steaming bath for, to give a sensual back massage for after a long and stressful day at the office. By now I should be spending every other evening with the love of my life on the sofa, watching the TV shows that everyone else watches and talks about in the office the following day. I should have someone to dress up for and dress up with when we go out to an exciting event in the city. By now I should have a life companion, my equal but not my identical, who complements but does not mirror me, who can teach me new things and learn from me at the same time.
But I don’t have these. Some of them, despite the few relationships I’ve had, I’ve never experienced the sensations that electrify your heart strings. And yes, it’s emotionally painful…but…not necessarily for the reasons you might think.
The pain is from the conspiracy of institutions saying ‘this is how it is going to be’, then finding out that this was not going to be the case. It’s dealing with the disappointment and the realisation that no, this is not how it is going to be. This is not how the world is. No one owes you this stuff.
And that’s what’s both frightening and liberating about where both Foxy and I are headed now, in our respective directions
Frightening because I now no longer have a visualisation of what the next 5-10 years are going to be like. This time last year, I had a mental health crisis, the aftermath of which has left me unable to work full time. I don’t know how long it’ll take for me to get to a situation where I can cope with full time hours. Combining that with the crushing of the sector that I spent much of my working life in – one I assumed I’d spend my entire working career in. Furthermore, combining that with the bleak future outlook both at an economic level, along with the spectre of climate change now kicking in.
Yet at the same time, it’s incredibly liberating. I no longer feel burdened by the expectation of having to get married. Given my antipathy towards institutionalised religion these days, any childhood vision of getting married in a church anyway is long gone. I no longer feel burdened by the expectation to save for a deposit for a mortgage or for a car. I’m not playing that game anymore. I refuse to run on the very long treadmill that’s turned up to a setting far faster than I could hope to run at. Personally, I’d like to teach the world to sing (or something similar) instead.
For Foxy too, the freedom, the fear, and being able to move on is something she talks about towards the end of the book. To rephrase in my own words:
I forgive, but I cannot forget. I forgive in that I no longer ask for punishment to be inflicted, not in that past sins will be erased as if nothing had ever happened. That I can never forget.
A year on from my mental health crisis
The experience Foxy went through would have broken me completely. I wouldn’t have recovered. It’s testament to her mental resilience that she’s come out of the dark tunnel the way that she has – and to have written about it in a manner that shows to others going through similar experiences that they are not alone. Perhaps even being able to put into words things that they were otherwise never able to do, and have it resonate so strongly with a wide audience. The difference between someone who writes and someone who is a good – a great writer?
As for me? At the moment I’m living life from day-to-day. I’ve got ideas that I’m playing with, but none of the grandiose plans of yesteryear – the exciting life in boomtime London of 2006/07, exploring a secondment to Europe and burning the candle at both ends. That’s all gone. And so it should have. For the world is a very different place, and my place in it needs to be, for now at least, somewhere much more stable, much more grounded, and dare I say it, much more local. So if anyone’s in Cambridge, feel free to let the dragon know.