So we’re fully started with winter, 2011. The annual tassel bearing fur-clad, dick head hat has been purchased. The gloves are out and I have pleasantly failed to break my personal best of losing the left hand of the first pair inside four days of withdrawing them from the middle drawer in 2009. That winter would also see a total of three pairs lost before seeing out the season with a fourth set intact. It’s been a mere ten days since I last found time to write and in that time, Colonel Gadaffi has been shot dead in Libya, The UK’s largest illegal travellers site, Dale Farm has been smashed and cleared out and The Stone Roses have been reformed and I got a ticket. Hearing that these tickets have been shifting for four figures means that should all else fail, I have an asset in my ranks even though I would be loathe to miss Ian Brown warble through a stoned rendition of the She Bangs The Drums at Heaton Park in the summer of 2012 except in the most desperate of circumstances. Tonight’s opening episode of BBC’s Frozen Planet goes out and will undoubtedly provide ample nutrition for my already fragile mind to greedily chew out of all logical proportion in time for my next hangover, my grasp on the logic of life melting faster that the poles documented in the series. Just to cement my belief that times are indeed changing, I have been swept away by an unpredictable maelstrom of work. The first breeze brushed around me, brooding over whether to take me off my feet as I wrote the previous chapter or just to tease me like every other time the marketing vixen has fluttered her make up laden lashes at me only to leave me in the dirt, bank bachelor once more. The advertising commission came through, I am not at liberty to disclose details at this point but let’s just say that within the space of one week, I had earned the average wage of a Championship footballer (and a £20 bet, small but a win nonetheless). I do not brag or gloat as if you have been reading this, you’ll know I had hit personal financial lows and spent the first forty pages living off my overdraft and my tax money with no discernible method of replenishing them. I just think that this purple patch, even if it is the last faux-recovery before the untimely death of my business, will place the exclamation mark on the end of just how much of a rollercoaster freelancing is. All that moaning would have been futile without the good times lending some contrast. Suddenly my tax is accounted for, the overdraft can be cleared, my morbidly obese student loan statement can shed a pound or two before putting it back on at Christmas when that fucking bleak statement festers on the doormat under the letterbox, all evil and macabre awaiting my knowing hand to make contact, like the first time Frodo touches the ring, with £500 interest added. If I can keep this busy run going, maybe, just maybe I can enter the black.
I remember being at University and completely freaking out when the course leader dropped the bombshell that we were going to turn around a project in two to three days and that down the line, a one day deadline would be next up. As we were warned to get used to it, I couldn’t compute the idea of this impossible deadline hell or how it would be achieved, pressure from outer space compacting my aspirations and youthfully innocent abilities into some ghastly black hole, immune to the mathematics and physics that govern my existence. Even if I worked until I fell asleep each night, around the clock to get the job done, I still could not process the idea of this being ‘the norm.’ You could actually see the postures give way on some of my peers right there and then in that room when they realized what they had signed up for. They limped on a couple more weeks before berating the tutor as if it all rested on him and vanishing into the sunset, broken and sent back to the starting blocks. Who could blame them? Right now, I am on the Phoenix Hostel floor of room 4, in central London, here for a five-day stretch including two teaching shifts at St Martins College and a mural project in Channel 4 HQ. I am looking out the window and my eyes feel as heavy as the dark night staring back at me all murky and impenetrable. Sometimes I wish I could swap my worries for the anxieties of small beasts, squirrels, pigeons or perhaps domesticated cats but then in an odd sort of way, I have come to embrace them and learned to channel them into my design. Typing this, I have to think to myself that I should at some point upgrade to a nice travel lodge deal, or some gutter standard guest house where the retired owners are in bed before me but when it comes down to it, no matter how much I complain, I love the lottery of what breed of head case you could chance upon in these glitterbox treasure chests of oddities. I put up with the stale sweat of a generation of directionless Aussies and European backpackers just to take a back seat and watch the madness unfurl when these real life action figures have their coils yanked and are set to the ground under the roof of the same budget doll house. On one early portfolio meeting visit, five of us, all from different countries got so pissed that we all understood each other. At least enough to realize that we were getting kicked out for waking two thirds of the hostel at 5am and ending up on a double mattress in a partially decorated room until we were sober enough to pack and leave.
The elation from finally getting the nod on one of these advertising near misses came crashing to the ground when I learned I had five days to turn around fifteen A2 illustrations complete with hand drawn type. I work fast because I have to. It’s a trait that brings me work because I have developed an effective method of working fast without compromising quality, embracing ‘less is more’ in the process. I am lucky enough to have a big enough mouth to sell this perk.
Unique Selling Points will get you a long way in a saturated market. But even I shit a complete brick when I typed the words: “No problem, I can work fast but get me the brief as soon as you can.” Friend and Illustrator Andy Thomson (@sector4) informed me via Twitter that I had nothing to moan about, that eight hours, if I didn’t sleep, per illustration was generous. Cheers Andy. I called in all the reinforcements, BBC Radio 5 Live soccer special, biscuits, quick meals, tea by the pint and a nicely organized desk. Booze was considered but it’s a fine line between gentle refreshment and relaxing of the nerves and leaving the oven on whilst having a nap and waking not only to a missed deadline but a burned flat. I muttered and I trembled and with every drawing that went slightly off course I barked harsh and often non-sensical expletives at my home office mascot, the Gollum statue that came with the Two Towers extended edition DVD who resided in my fish tank until my flat mate’s ex girlfriend lumped In an entire feeding block and wiped them out. For the whole weekend I felt the clock ticking and each below par final would be at the mercy of any stoppage time I would be afforded on deadline day. I swear those five days put a few years on me but the job was done and the money all but in the bank. I feel like I have somehow been leading up to this pressure zenith during my career thus far. I can honestly say that the most challenging part of that brief was to make Birmingham look exciting…
It’s been a while since I have been attacked with such a vile, loaded deadline and it gave me some nasty flashbacks of my toughtest deadline to date. It’s filed next to my glove loss record in the ‘hope I never better this one’ cabinet. Back in 2008 it had occurred to me that I could in fact gain an edge on competition with my speed. Work with The Guardian ensured I had anywhere between three and six hours to turn jobs around because of the day-to-day deadlines. Around this time I had taken to picking up the paper to read Russel Brand’s Articles Of Faith football column on Saturdays. It was always accompanied by an illustration so I called up the Art Director and declared my interest in having a shot at illustrating his lyrical free running. I was told that seeing as I called up I would be held in reserve in case someone dropped them in it. This happened the same week and once again I found myself jumping around, thrilled at this new opportunity. I was however warned that I should be prepared and that Russell could be a nightmare to work with based on his questionable punctuality. I paid little attention to this and took it that it couldn’t be much worse than the normal glass of double-concentrated stress squash. That Friday I sat there shaking like a shitting dog in the corner of the empty, cold, mill studio. Everyone had slipped out for weekend beers and I sat there under the flickering tube lighting staring at my halogen toasty inbox with two hours until deadline. At 6pm, the copy dropped and my brief was to “Not get us in legal trouble and get it to us as close to 6.50pm as you can without giving us heart failure.” It had become par for the course to lay out my entire arsenal of tools on these deadline specials and as the dimensions chased the copy into my inbox, I realized I had forgotten to get my ruler out. Scrambling around desperately I caught my foot on the curled corner of my damp rug and fell onto all fours. In a shocking moment of spilled composure I span around screaming “Not now you bastard!!!” before pulling the pieces back together. I had just wailed at an inanimate object and the echo acted like a lame soap opera slap bringing me back to the pounding silence of reality. The reality was that Russell Brand had left me fifty minutes to read the copy, create a concept, craft and compose the image and send off the file. I would later read in the book version of the collected articles that he was on the beach in the States when he remembered he had to write his piece but despite shaking throughout the entire fifty minutes, I got the job done. Russell was eventually replaced by Dara O’Briain and I am guessing the weekly bedlam that followed the late arrival of the piece had more than a little to do with it, but who am I to speculate?
Pressure is something you can only partially get used to as a freelancer, whether it’s self imposed or very real, the barrel rammed down your throat like the Russell Brand job. The thing is I have yet to let myself down on a job or a deadline yet each time I sit down with a brief and a blank sheet in front of me, I am a paranoid shell of my former self, all twitchy and sensing the impending extinction of my endangered reputation. Tomorrow I take on a mural at Channel 4 HQ, on blackboard, in chalk and I am shitting myself, as the posh people say. It’s a new challenge in a new territory and a return to my artistic roots, the consequences of either extreme are far reaching, a massive opportunity to hit the next level much like the Brand job and last weekends Iron Man five day wrecking ball. After previewing the delights of the squeaky metal hostel top bunk I will slither into in an hour or so, ear plugs in, I am now inclined to think that the labyrinth characters prancing in at 4am loaded up on their potions turning on the light and cackling impishly in their boxer shorts will not be so funny come 06.40 in morning.