Patron Saint of Temps
Serena Mackesy's unwillingness to get a full-time job is the reason she's now so successful. Amanda Castleman finds out why
She also churns out
a weekly column for a national paper. Her story is the stuff of dreams and
fantasies. If she weren't so charming, Serena would inspire fits of jealousy.
The 36-year-old knows
her subject all too well. Graduating from Manchester College, Serena fought
against Oxbridge expectations. She didn't want to settle down with a nice
She temped on and off
for ten years, in between proof-reading the Oxford English Dictionary
and "teaching the spoiled children of the rich in a crammer". When
a secretary went on maternity leave at The Independent, Serena leapt
into the gap.
"Journalism is brilliant,"
she says. "There's all these hugely intelligent rather eccentric
people taking in information and spitting it out. I love the essay-crisis
She began wandering
up the career ladder: casual sub-editing, deputy crossword whiz, restaurant
reviews, TV page snippets, features. "I just sort of fell into journalism,"
she confesses, seemingly ignorant of the hordes of media studies graduates
battling for a beginning. "I try things and see where they lead. You know,
I've never really had a proper job application with an interview."
Then the axe fell. "There
was a whole round of redundancies. I was given a nice pay-off of £12,000,
then rehired as a columnist the next week."
In this fluid manner,
her column on the perils of temping morphed into a novel.
"I suddenly realised that I had 30,000-odd words and was tired of producing
fish and chip wrappings. Then I got chatting to a friend of a friend - who
happened to be an agent. She swung a very quick deal with Arrow Books, an
imprint of Randomn House."
On the surface , the
novel is glib and punchy, bemoaning the tragedy of middle-class ambition
gone awry. Just when the office anecdotes and giggles start to wear thin,
Serena introduces the plot.
Now, some writer might
have relented far earlier, but she holds out until page 248. Strangely the
book doesn't suffer for this delay, and the contrast between fluff and pathos
richens the story. After all, that reflects the way of the world: we are
often consumed by trivia the sour milk, unpaid bills, stolen paperclips
until some event slaps us in the face.
She was careful to add
depth and gravity to The Temp "I didn't want it to be another 'chick
lite' book," Serena admits. And it isn't. The giddiness descends into trauma,
followed by an intricate revenge, like a Greek drama.
Although most of the
"office anthropology" was drawn from personal experiences, the revenge was
made up. However, Serena hopes it will empower nameless typists and tea-makers
everywhere: "Most temps get to feel so invisible and of little worth. Their
self-esteem plummets. They don't know how much damage they could do," the
author explains with a sly laugh.
Her humour has won much
praise, and Serena's mailbag is usually bulging with temps' tales and thanks.
A postcard from Oxford even hailed her as the patron saint of temping. "I'm
really pleased that grim experience wasn't wasted," she says.
Not that it was all
nightmarish: "I did find out what I wanted to do, kept the wolf from the
door and a roof over my head. The rootlessness can be nice.
"Everyone should be
forced to do a few years in menial jobs before University. I see so much
arrogance, so many bosses with no idea what it's like to be in the worker's
The secretary's advocate
plans to climb off her temping soapbox soon, however, before she is hopelessly
pigeon-holed. Her next book, Virtue is due out in spring 2001.
Serena is coy about its topic, only revealing it is about "everything that's
bad about being good, and good about being bad."
Not bad for a drifter.
Not bad at all.
Reprinted with permission of the Oxford Times
was careful to
it isn't. The
Oxford even hailed
her as the patron saint
of temping. "I'm really
pleased that grim
wasted," she says.
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