Twenty-odd years ago, I arrived at my school to pick up the envelope containing my A-level results. I knew I hadn’t done brilliantly but I was still surprised when I looked at the piece of paper that told me I’d received a D for English Literature, an E for History and a dismissive N (which meant you’ve nearly passed, but, erm, haven’t) in Mathematics. As friends around me squealed with glee at their happier results, I realised that while they would be going off to university and new lives, I was stuck in our small town with no college or university offers, no job and, to be honest, no idea what I was going to do.
It didn’t help that Mrs Y, the head teacher of the school Sixth Form decided now would be a great time to tell me how disappointed she was in me and how I’d thrown my life away by failing my A levels. Not exactly helpful. Luckily my parents were more supportive, suggesting I look into college courses for the following year that would help me on my way to becoming a writer.
I didn’t actually make it to college at all. I was very lucky and got a local job within weeks, and then started applying for every possible writing job I saw in the Media Guardian. After failing to get a job on Shooting Times (phew!), I went for an interview at Time Out Publications, the publisher behind the magazine of the same name and a group of guides to London that included an Eating Out guide to the capital’s restaurants. It was while I was there – at 18, the youngest in the office – that a movie magazine launched, and I wrote to the editor of Empire once a month for half a year until he gave in and offered me a staff writing job.
The rest, as they say, is history – it was on Empire Magazine that I learnt how to critique movies, interview actors and write features (and I met my husband there, too). From there I worked on newspapers and magazines, added ‘celebrity editor’ to my job description, and started writing film review books, too – one of which (The Parents’ Guide To Kids’ Movies) led to the movies4kids website and this sister blog.
Since that day in 1988 when I opened the A-level results envelope and thought my world had caved in, I have travelled to LA and New York to interview movie stars, voted in and attended the prestigious London Film Critics Circle Awards, worked with some of the most talented people in the media, seen some amazing movies, and made some wonderful friends along the way, too.
I’ve interviewed George Clooney, seen Dermot O’Leary in his underpants (it was during a photoshoot), bought Beyoncé a burger and chatted to Kelly Preston about her sex life with husband John Travolta. I’ve also stood, freezing, on a movie set outside Prague surrounded by hundreds of extras in Nazi uniform, and I’ve met (and, sadly, been disappointed by – but that’s another story) my childhood pop idol.
I have been extremely lucky and I am grateful for every good thing that has happened, every lucky break, and every instance when I was in the right place at the right time. I may not have dazzled the academic world with my exam results, but I have worked really hard at a job I absolutely love and will continue to do so until the day they carry me out of a screening room unconscious on a stretcher. And I am very grateful for all the editors, publishers and journalists who have had faith in me to do my job, too.
I know today there are probably thousands of teenagers who have felt their hearts sink as mine did when they saw their A level results, who have spent this afternoon wondering what to do next. All I would like to say is the same thing I would say if I could talk to that 18 year old me shaking in the school car park.
It’s going to be alright.
You are going to be okay.
You are going to pick yourself up, work as hard as you can, and in a few years look back at this bump in the road and laugh.
PS: It feels like a good time to say a few thank yous. Thank you Helen Varley, who hired a very green 18-year-old to work at Time Out. Thank you Gill Hudson, who gave me the best job I ever had (celebrity editor/reviews editor on Maxim) and Lloyd Bradley for recommending me to her. Thanks to Jeff Dawson for recommending me to my publisher, Orion, and Ian Preece for actually publishing my books. Thanks to Angie Errigo, Kim Newman, Karen Krizanovich, John Naughton, Andy Robson, Ndidi Nkagbu, Marianne Gray, Robyn Karney and Dee Pilgrim for making a reviews editor’s job so easy. And finally, thanks to my school friend Ingrid, who bumped into Mrs Y a few years after we left school and made a point of telling her I hadn’t thrown my life away and was, in fact, living in London and doing quite well working on magazines (when I imagine this in my head, Ingrid also blew her a raspberry, but I don’t think that actually happened).