My first job

25th September 1998 at 01:00
Few people enjoy a career path uncomplicated by the odd dead-end, diversion or wrong turning. Pamela Coleman rounds up a celebrity selection of faltering first steps


For about 18 months I was a teacher. I started as a supply teacher when I came down from Oxford, and was offered a permanent job teaching English at Barnsbury School for Girls in Paddington. My degree was in history, but that didn't seem to matter.

Discipline was all, and difficult to maintain. I seemed to get all the unruly classes, but I'm good at acting and projecting myself. I'm a strong character, and that's what you need. My method of keeping control was to be domineering and vicious, then, once I'd got their attention, to relax.

It was a secondary modern school so the girls were mostly grammar school rejects, but the energetic headmistress, Miss Henn, wanted to put them in for O-levels. Some of the set books were dire and it was my job to make them interesting. Many of the girls did get O-level English, and I was thrilled about that. One of my pupils later became a star of EastEnders, but I can't remember her name.

I enjoyed teaching, but I didn't like what went with the job - the staffroom politics and regimentation. I was one of three young women on the staff, and we'd go and have our lunch at a pub just round the corner from the school. The girls loved to see us, dressed in mini-skirts, sitting out in the summer drinking beer - but the head of department was shocked and said we projected the wrong image. We carried on doing it regardless.

I didn't stay a teacher, because I wanted to be a writer. Teaching was a means to an end. I would never go back. It was too exhausting.


When I left school I went to work in the smart hairdressing salon in Manchester where two of my brothers and a sister worked, called Pierre Alexander. I had to sweep the floor, run errands for clients, pass them magazines, make coffee and sandwiches and suchlike.

As a junior I was assigned to one senior stylist, who used me as a guinea pig. I had the worst haircut in the place.

I was there for about a year. Then one day I came across David Niven's autobiography, The Moon's a Balloon. It struck me that here was a man with no prior experience of acting. From being an Army officer he decided to be an actor. I thought if he can do it I'll try. I gave up hairdressing and went to drama school.


I had a series of non-serious jobs when I was a student at the Royal College of Art. I cut Brussels sprouts in Norfolk, sold petrol in London and was in the wine business.

I had a friend who imported non-vintage wine from Tarragona in southern Spain, and I sold it on at the equivalent of 50p a bottle. It was in the mid-Sixties, when people were just starting to drink wine instead of beer. The lack of labels on the bottles gave them a sort of cachet. I supplied wine to the students' union and friends and staff at college, making around Pounds 1 a case.

Then I made furniture. The difference between being at a university and an art college is that we didn't stop in the holidays; we carried on with our design projects. My dream was to be the Isambard Kingdom Brunel of my day. And I wanted to make what I designed. Making something and then having someone buy it is exciting. I was never tempted to go into the wine business. I had enough sense to know I'm no businessman.


Working in a bookshop certainly provided me with some useful material when I came to write. From the age of nine my ambition had been to be a second Shakespeare, but I didn't fancy starving in a garret - so I starved in a bookshop instead.

I worked at Sanders in Oxford High Street, an antiquarian bookshop selling prints and old maps as well as books. We had some very interesting customers. I remember Evelyn Waugh coming in smelling of cigars and eau de cologne.

John Betjeman would arrive in his old broken-down van to sell us review copies. Although he was famous as a poet, he was also a book reviewer, and Frank Sanders would give him Pounds 10 for a half a van of awful drivel. Betjeman was very friendly and sweet, and shabbily dressed. We sold the few of the books he brought that were saleable and the rest I put into a suitcase and took by train to Foyle's, where I got about 20 quid for the lot.

Another friendly regular was the bibulous Dylan Thomas; and there Sanders met his match. Sanders was a great charmer, a great talker and could sell almost anyone any book. Dylan Thomas shared these skills. He would come in, generally fairly late on a Saturday, and start charming Mr Sanders and the rest of us with his conversation, which was funny and bawdy.

I liked working for Mr Sanders, but he did make you work all hours. And the wages were intolerable. I stayed for about three years.


My first job, at 15, was in the local paper shop. I was there for three years on Saturdays, Sundays and school holidays selling newspapers, magazines, records and cassettes, and cheap gifts such as blow bubbles.

It was the sort of shop that doesn't seem to exist any more. It was near my home in north London, and I knew all the locals who came in to pay their paper bills. On my birthday, people would give me presents and, when they went away on holiday, bring me back souvenirs. I was desperately shy, but in the shop I was chatty.

By the time I finished there I was earning Pounds 33 a week, which seemed a hell of a lot.


Although I began my working life as a management trainee in the steel industry in Sheffield, I always wanted to go into politics.

When I came down from university, more than 40 years ago, anyone with a dark suit and a club tie was told they ought to go into management - it was a job with a pension that mattered.

One of my early tasks was to clean out a drain with a piece of wire. When I said I didn't think it needed cleaning I was told no, it didn't, but I was to clean it out to establish proper relationships between other managers and me. Even the canteen facilities were hierarchical. There was a canteen for the hourly-paid staff and one for those who were salaried. The directors sat on a dais-like high table.

I was only there for nine months, before becoming a tutor organiser for the Workers' Educational Association. I think my mother secretly knew I wanted to be a politician and quite liked the idea. My father wanted me to teach history in grammar schools. One of the reasons I enjoyed writing my last book (Fifty Years on: a Prejudiced History of Britain Since the War) is that I knew my father would think I'd done something worth doing at last.


Iwas a nanny in Buckhurst Hill, Essex, for a family with two little boys. When I went there, the youngest, Alex, was two weeks old and the other, Ben, about two-and-a-half.

I'd just left school and was already running, so I needed a job I could do part-time. It was about five minutes from home and I just looked after the children and helped generally so the lady of the house had a bit of time to herself. I was more of a mother's help than a nanny. I worked from 9am until 2pm, two or three days a week, and occasionally in the evenings.

I have always loved kids, but I didn't know much about them before I went there. I am the youngest in the family - I have two older brothers - and there were no children around at home, but looking after them came naturally. I played with them, took them to the shops and prepared their meals. I loved the job and stayed there for three years.

Once I had a child of my own (son Finley was born in June) it all came back to me. I learned a lot from looking after those little boys. You need plenty of stamina - like you do for running.


Chekhov once said he celebrated being a doctor and an author because one was his wife and one his mistress. When he was tired of one he went to the other.

I began writing poetry in the sixth form and continued to do so as a medical student. I had my first book of poems published and a play produced while I was studying, so I had every reason to follow two vocations. I was a chest specialist in a London teaching hospital for many years, taking the Northern Line from Belsize Park to Goodge Street. I went into medicine because I felt sympathy for the family cat, Merlin, when he was sick. I told my brother, who was nine years older than me, that I wouldn't mind being a vet. He said: "Why don't you become a doctor like so many others in the family?" and I quite liked the idea of walking down the main street in Cardiff with a stethoscope sticking out of my pocket.

As a doctor and as a writer one needs the ability to observe things clearly, and sensitivity is another important quality in both vocations. I like C S Forester's quote about E M Forster, that writers should be sensitive but tough - that also applies to doctors.


in Michael Frayn's 'Alarms and Excursions', which is now at the gielgud theatre, london My first holiday job was working with children with physical or mental disabilities. I started as a volunteer, then became a trainee. One summer when I became playleader-director, I seriously thought about doing it as a career - but acting was too much of a pull.

We'd pick up the children with their packed lunches and their medication and spend the day with them. It was the best summer holiday job because those kids had so much love to give. Working with them made you happy to be alive. It was a happy and sunny time; we spent so much time laughing. We had theme days when we'd dress up. Our Womble day was brilliant because the children enjoyed it and they tidied the playground at the same time. We had a Star Wars day when they were whipped up into a frenzy and I dressed as Darth Vadar.

I remember especially one little girl who was in a wheelchair. She had very bad cataracts, couldn't speak and couldn't hear. I'd sit and hold her hand. She liked to sit next to the record player, and one day she started tapping her foot. I could hear her mumbling "llkley Moor Baht'at". When I realised what she was singing, we sang it all day. That lovely little creature wasn't just a vegetable, there was something in there, and there was humour as well.

Another little girl, who had a kidney-shaped head, was continuously popping her eye out. I would pop it back in saying: "Not again, Jenny." And I had to change the nappy on a 15-year-old boy.

As an actor you spend a lot of time thinking about yourself, your character and where your next job is coming from, perhaps what other people are thinking about you. It makes you more selfless to work with handicapped people. It's a world I definitely always want to stay in touch with. My cousin, Barry, is now the principal of a school for children with special needs and I am patron.

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