I’m only human after all

Its official: March was rubbish.  The month started as the “Beast from the east” plunged the UK into a deep freeze.  I was lucky and despite the snow I made it to all my engagements including flying from Stansted to Germany for two days out there.  The weekend after I developed a cough and flu-like symptoms.  Now I’ve had man flu enough times to know that you ride out the worst of it and it passes in few days.  This though was different.  It was like I was a car with a flat battery and all my usual tricks for jump starting myself simply didn’t work.  I just couldn’t imagine being able to engage and energise a primary school audience and for the first time ever I had to call a school and say I wasn’t coming.  I felt terrible about it and was left wondering which was worse; the flu-like symptoms that had left me staring at my bedroom ceiling or my feeling of guilt at having let so many people down.

The following week I was back at the races and went up to Preston and had two beautiful days in North Wales.  When I got back to London my cough returned with vengeance.  This was the Thursday and by the Saturday it was clear I wasn’t getting any better.  A trip to the emergency doctor later and it was confirmed that a probable throat infection had developed into bacterial tonsillitis!  I was sent away with antibiotics and instructions to rest (tricky with a 13 month old).  In the end I had had to cancel four dates in three weeks.

My job is a lot of fun.  I have had the most exhilarating few years seeing the world and being offered all manner of extraordinary opportunities.  The highs have been high but the lows have also taken their toll.  I have been aware for a while of the strain my workload was having on my body and voice but my attitude had been to carry on.  For years I’ve dragged myself out of bed to travel to the four corners of Britain and beyond and I have pretty much ignored my health for the sake of the job.  Looking back now its pretty clear that in 2016 my demanding schedule for The Twits left me close to a point of utter exhaustion and in 2014 Private Peaceful took a toll on my mental health as I went through such an emotional tale three times daily but until this most recent episode I have always managed to keep going.

Having now been there I can confirm that if a freelancer lets you down you can be sure something pretty serious has happened.  You see if I don’t turn up I have a lot to lose.  Firstly there are the professional consequences.  I am ultimately responsible for fulfilling the commitments in my diary to the best of my ability.  I really like what I do and most of the time I take bookings because I want to rather than have to do a job.  Yes, I work with others but this is my gig and I’m very proud of it.  It’s gutting to have to pass up exciting projects because you are ill.  I also don’t want to develop a reputation for cancelling.  It’s taken a long time to get where I am and what people think of my work matters to me.  My feedback shows that not everybody likes my style of storytelling.  I accept that, I have a pretty distinct way of working which some people don’t realise when they book.  I don’t need people to dislike me because I repeatedly reschedule dates.

Then there are the financial consequences.  The scenario is simple: if I don’t attend I don’t get paid and as I don’t ask for deposits my upfront costs aren’t covered (this includes any travel expenses I might have incurred).  Finally, doing the job is much easier than not because having to reschedule is a logistical nightmare and isn’t always possible.

My friends and family who get wonderful things like paid holiday and sick pay say I can’t can’t expect to not have to reschedule or cancel work in the future and they are of course right.  For ten years I burnt the candle at both ends to meet my professional liability with little regard to anything else and I was very lucky that nothing happened.  Verity changed everything.  Lauren’s maternity period has ended and she has been offered a very exciting job beginning in June.  I have therefore arranged for Dan McGarry to cover some of summer commitments so that I can look after Verity (much as we did last year in Northamptonshire).  In spite of knowing this is right for my family and having total faith in Dan, the workhorse in me found e-mailing people I regard as friends to tell them I have to change or cancel agreed library visits a very difficult thing to do.

Its been an awkward and unprecedented couple of weeks which have left me feeling hollow and like I’ve let a lot of people down.  In fairness I’d been riding a positive wave of momentum for a long time and it was time it came crashing down.  This is a wake up call.  I have to become more responsible for myself, my family and my working partners.  At times in the past few months I might have felt invincible and that I could conquer the world but it turns out I’m only human after all…