Talkback

31st March 2000 at 01:00
Downshifting. Put simply, it involves stepping back from a full-time occupation with an over-heavy burden of commitment, responsibility and stress and developing other, lower-key, part-time occupations, in the hope of gaining a more fulfilling lifestyle. My wife calls it copping out.

I have occasionally raged that I would rather be driving a truck than jumping through hoops as a teacher in a British state comprehensive. But when I looked into the possibility, it soon became obvious that you'd need a degree in truck driving to fulfil even that desire.

Downshifting a gear, I couldn't even obtain any professional development in the white-van-man field, because I could not afford to buy the requisite white van.

Moving on, I thought I could perhaps capitalise on an interest in English language and several years' experience in the marking of IT exams by opening up a part-time career within publishing as a freelance proofreader.

The course setting was delightful. Regency buildings, cathedral city, fellow students with bow ties who seemed to be called Toby and knew people in the theatre. It was as about as far from design and technology as one could get without committing suicide.

I was sharpening my pencil when something occurred in the course introduction that augured ill for my new life. Like the working men's club comedian who precedes a smutty joke about Grimsby by asking, "Is there anyone in tonight from Grimsby?", so the course lecturer beamed and asked, "Are there ny teachers here?" Two-thirds of the room put their hands up. "We seem to get dozens of them," he trilled. "They must be desperate to get away from teaching - ha!" Two thirds of the room bit their fists in silent mortification.

I loved the course - putting little hieroglyphics in the margins to indicate errors, swotting up on grammatical minutiae and learning about publishing. And I received a splendid certificate.

But trying to sell myself to the publishing world took up hundreds of hours. I concentrated first on the London-based publishers, most of which featured "Wharf" somewhere in the address. Then the provincial publishers, often housed in fashionably refurbished premises with a yesteryear tinge. I dealt with Sadie at The Old Saddlery, Beccy at The Old Bakery and Griselda at The Old Granary.

I tried to get into specialist books and then even more specialist books about the original specialist books.

My file of two-line replies grew. After several months, I finally spoke to a man - Walter - based, naturally enough, at The Old Warehouse.

"Are you by any chance a teacher trying to break into proofreading?" he asked. "I get three or four letters a week from teachers. They must be desperate to get away from teaching - ha."

I am sure all the people called Toby now glide effortlessly from publisher to publisher picking up commissions like confetti. Me? I'm back on supply.

Phil Harley teaches supply in secondary and junior schools in the Midlands


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