Internships are wasted on the young.
Or maybe they’re not. Maybe it’s just that mine was wasted on me.
How I look back now and wish I’d taken more advantage of the opportunity. I was 21. I applied on a whim, scrabbling together a last minute CV, and was stunned to be invited to an interview. That meant a day away from my full-time but unpaid summer job as an arts reviewer at the Edinburgh Festival. I took the 5am train down to London, the 4pm train back, arriving in Scotland just in time for my publication’s launch party.
In between train journeys I spent several hours in the offices of a national newspaper, along with a dozen other wannabe hacks. First we were just observed as we sat and chatted, not realising it was part of the screening. Next we were given a marker pen and a copy of the paper to scrawl on. ‘Tell us what you’d do differently,’ they said. I circled the headlines. ‘Too small to be effective signposts on the page,’ I wrote. Finally we were paired up and had to interview each other – ten minutes to talk, then twenty minutes to turn it into a publishable piece. That bit was easy. Everyone loves to talk about themselves. Everyone has a story.
Something in me appealed to them – I’m not sure whether it was talent, enthusiasm, or just willingness to travel – and I got an email the next week to say that I’d secured a place on the scheme. I was one of just six interns from 1500 applicants, and so proud I thought I might pop. Soon after, a letter arrived with the dates and desk allocations. The internship would be split into three blocks of three weeks, each timed to coincide with university holidays. I’d be starting over Christmas and New Year on the arts desk. I couldn’t wait.
But then things got a bit messy. I broke up with a boyfriend, three days before I was supposed to start. So I didn’t feel like being brave and going to London by myself, I felt like hiding under the duvet with a bottle of wine and a large bar of chocolate. As I was getting on the train a lecturer from the uni recognised me. ‘Gosh,’ she said. ‘You look rough.’ She helped me bash my way onto the carriage with my sleeping bag, clunky old laptop and giant rucksack, and then let me cry quietly beside her until Newcastle. After finally arriving in Kings Cross, I battled my way through the tube system and out to my brother’s flat in Ealing for sausage salad, a cold beer and the sofa where I’d be sleeping for the next three weeks.
The arts desk was difficult. It felt like everything I did was wrong. I showed up at 9am on the first day, but wasn’t even allowed into the building until my editor showed up, which was over an hour later. I had bought myself a new skirt for the first day – beautiful turquoise suede from Topshop on Oxford Street – but on the way up the stairs that same editor, walking behind me, said disapprovingly ‘Gosh, that’s quite short isn’t it?’ and I never wore it again.
There was very little to do over the Christmas spell because the review tickets had been snapped up months ago, and the end-of-year summaries were already written. During the entire three- week period I can only remember a handful of specific jobs that I undertook. When Susan Sonntag died, I was given the joyless task of phoning round her friends for quotes to put in the obituary. I was asked to track down contact details for Paul Rusesabagina – the inspiration for Hotel Rwanda – and spent several hours doing so, only to discover that someone else had found them earlier and forgotten to tell me. Eventually, after much pleading, I was allowed to write an 80-word piece on a television show I’d never seen. But that was about it. The abundance of Starbucks and Costa branches nearby meant that I couldn’t even be put to use making coffee.
At lunchtimes, I found a nearby park and sat alone, reading novels and eating sandwiches from Prêt a Manger. I spent Christmas Eve by myself, eating Marks and Spencer’s tiger prawns out of the packet and drinking miniatures of vodka from the Christmas stocking that my Mum had packed for me. I even went to a pantomime on my tod – Aladdin at the Old Vic – and felt so lonely among the cosy families and glamorous couples.
But – all that said – some bits were brilliant. One perk of being an intern was that we were able to sit in on several of the daily editors meetings, watching the head of every section make their pitch to the big boss. It was a fascinating insight into the way a newspaper takes shape.
On Boxing Day, the tsunami struck. The arts desk weren’t due in, but the news desk needed extra help – more pairs of eyes to watch the wires and keep a running tally of the terrible losses. Even though the circumstances were so awful, that one day I spent on news was the most interesting time I had, and the biggest buzz of the whole three weeks. News was still at the heart of the paper, and that showed. It finally felt like I was part of a team.
Outside the office, I was lucky enough to encounter people who helped me see sides of London I would never otherwise have known. The friend who treated me to a bottle of red wine and a steak sandwich in Covent Garden; the family kind enough to let me join them for a Christmas Eve church service and dinner in their home; the fellow intern who took my arm and steered me towards oysters and Guinness in Notting Hill. On Christmas Day itself, I met up with another student journalist from Edinburgh, and we drove round delivering meals on wheels to elderly people in Hammersmith.
So I did my three weeks. I was due to go back for six more – three at Easter and three in the summer holidays. But in February I was elected to a student sabbatical position at my university. It would be a full-time job. I emailed the newspaper to say I wouldn’t be back.
That was the right thing to do, and I have never regretted it. By staying in Edinburgh for an extra year I was afforded opportunities that would never have come up otherwise. I travelled to the Arctic. I visited Palestine. I met my husband and made a home. I wouldn’t change any of those things for all the money (or bylines) in the world.
But gosh. If I was given that opportunity now. If I could have my cake AND eat if. If I could take part in an internship designed for a 21 year old but approach it with the life experience, the confidence, the skills, and the hunger for knowledge that I have as a 31 year old. I know that I would get so much more from it, and the newspaper would get so much more from me.
I spotted the other day that Red magazine are advertising a paid internship for grownups, which is brilliant. Huge props to them for realising that youth isn’t everything, and for understanding that some of the changes that come with age actually make you more of an asset to a publication, not less.
Wouldn’t it be great to see other places follow suit?
I’m so delighted to have been shortlisted in the Best Writer category of the BritMums Brilliance in Blogging Awards. (Even without finishing that internship!). Thank you so much to you all for your support. If you would like to see DorkyMum make it into the final six, please take a few minutes to vote for me here.