Discover more from Spoook - the Substack of James McMahon
Exorcising the ghosts of Job Centres past
And I've got a new podcast. And I've binned off an old one
I went to the job centre the other day. I haven’t been to a job centre in decades. They call it Jobcentre Plus now, but as far as I can see all they’ve added in the years since I last went is more waiting around, worse advertised jobs, and now they don’t even offer you a cup of tea. This isn’t how I remember it. The job centre I used to attend - in Byker, Newcastle - where I signed on for six months after leaving university in the early noughties, wasn’t nearly as grim. Or maybe I was just younger. There was more ahead of me. More hope. More freedom to piss around a bit and work yourself out. Not a mortgage that needs to be paid.
I, Daniel Blake? I, James McMahon, former music journalist and music magazine editor.
I was already freelancing for the NME when I signed on. I was in a band too. I have many good memories of being in that band, but I have just as many of waking up on a stranger’s floor in Cardiff and worrying if we could drive back to Newcastle in time to collect my benefits. Sometimes we couldn’t. For the following fortnight I ate beans and toast and robbed pub ashtrays for baccy. I hoped the NME Reviews Editor would chuck me a few album reviews to tide me over. I did a bit of shift work here and there. Worked nights at National Rail Enquires. I did a few weeks at Capital One until I was forced to sell a credit card to a pensioner and resigned because I felt too guilty to ever do that again. I sat next to a man who had a tattoo of Liam Gallagher on his bicep. That was his entire personality. If your grandma is skint, he may well be responsible.
In those days, you could sign on for six months before they made you attend a course, the intention being that it would prepare you for the workplace. During the course I learned vital life skills, like how to write a CV. I also learned how to tattoo yourself using a biro and a safety pin, from ‘Boffa’, a young man from Wallsend who had a cock drawn on his chest and offered me glue on my third day. Me having a degree and a masters meant that the other attendees called me ‘Brains’. I liked it. “Like in Thunderbirds?” I said to an audience that had absolutely no familiarity with the creations of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson. “Thunderbirds the cider?” they said. I laughed and they laughed, even though neither of us really understood why.
The job centre also offered you a choice of a new suit from Burtons or driving lessons. For some inexplicable reason I chose the suit. I’d had bad experiences with a driving instructor when I was a teenager. He’d pick me up from my parents’ house, put me behind the wheel, only every time I got a bit of momentum driving he’d ask me to park up in a layby, whereupon he’d light up a cigarette and rate and review the women walking by. “Look at the arse on that,” he’d say, as a literal child walked by. One day I got in the car, and being seventeen, I had a love bite. I’d tried to hide it with my tracksuit but he persisted, asking me how I’d got it and if she was “any good”. I didn’t like this, and anyway, it was actually a boy who’d given it to me. So I chose the suit.
I’ve had a career between then and now, and perhaps arrogantly I didn’t expect to be back here, in a queue, hoping someone might ask me to slaughter chickens in exchange for minimum wage. I always thought I was winging it in music journalism though. I’m a good writer. I’m creative. I’m decent at editing and I know loads about music. But the thing with working class people is that we fall into one of two camps; we either front out our insecurities with bravado (boxers, rock stars, footballers) or we’re enslaved by them (more-or-less everyone else). That’s how I see it anyway, though I think I’ve always fallen between the two camps. My response to turning up in a magazine office aged 22 and realising that I hadn’t read anywhere near the amount of books everyone else had, or travelled to the places that they had, or knew that wearing sweatpants to the office wasn’t the done thing, wasn’t to retreat into myself but cosplay as Jack Duckworth. And then go home and retreat into myself.
I never felt worthy of the career I had, even though my abilities would suggest I deserved to be there. Maybe that’s why I ended up back here in this queue. Actually, there’s lots of reasons why I’m back in this queue. OCD didn’t help in the slightest. But I wonder what difference believing I deserved to walk through the doors of legendary media institutions would have made? Would I have approached my career with more care and self-preservation and not like a punk obsessed Viking berserker?
Oh hang on, I’m at the front of the queue. Give me a second.
“Hello Mr McMahon. What brings you here today?”
“Well, I’m looking for a job…”
“Okay, well shall we talk about your employment history?” says the man behind the desk.
“Sure. Well I used to be the Features Editor of NME. Then I was the editor of Kerrang! magazine.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t know what those things are,” says the man. He’s nice. I think I could just about, if I’d started young, be his father.
Behind him I can see the ghost of my dad. He’s mouthing the words, “I told you you’d regret not getting a proper career…”
“Could you be the editor of another magazine?” says the man at the job centre.
“I don’t think so,” I say, trying not to splutter. “There aren’t really any music magazines left now…”
“Okay, well what are your other interests?” he asks.
“Well, I’ve very interested in Bigfoot, UFOs, ghosts, lower league football, true crime, I have a mild interest in conspiracy theories, philosophy, religion… I’ve actually been listening to the bible on Audible, but not because I really believe in that version of the creation story but I just think it’s an interesting document of human history. I think humans were probably genetically engineered by aliens and the miracles the bible talks about can be explained by facets of quantum physics we don’t understand yet.”
“Could you take a shift or two in a call centre?”
“Sure,” I say.
The ghost of my dad rolls his eyes.
Oh hey. I wrapped up The James McMahon Music Podcast. It might be back at some point. It probably won’t. I explain in more detail why I’ve knocked it on the head within the last episode. I think 230 episodes was a good run, and I’m very grateful to anyone who came on the show, helped me access talent for the show, and of course, anyone who listened, especially those that rated/reviewed. That podcast gave me a lot, if only to show me that there was something else to do during lockdown other than eating crisps and crying. If you’re a fan of my voice? Don’t fear! I have a new podcast, with my friend Dana, called Brain Worms, which is about how the internet is making us all mental. New episodes every Friday – and maybe even in-between.
Do subscribe won’t you, and I do hope you’re all doing very well.
Spoook - the Substack of James McMahon is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.