How much do you earn? (and other tricky questions)

I did a talk at an inner-city school, arranged by Speakers for Schools – set up by my former FT colleague Robert Peston, to serve schools that haven’t tended to attract many speakers in the past.

Typically, these events involve big audiences who don’t give a toss who I am, and don’t mind whispering and sniggering if I lose them. And that’s a wonderful challenge for me.

At this particular school, there were 200 or so 15 year olds who had no idea who I am – because the teacher who invited me was off sick. The other staff knew little about me either. A blank canvas!

What makes a good job?

But I knew something about them: that they would soon be looking for employment. So before saying anything else I asked them to think of:

  1. A job they would love, but consider to be out of their reach
  2. A job that, if they ended up doing it, would make them feel deeply disappointed
  3. The job that they expect they will probably end up with

I asked them to share the answers in pairs. What was that like? “Fun,” said a few voices. Then I gave a short account of my experiences as a journalist. I stressed in particular:

a) meeting amazing people (I mentioned Snoop Dog) and
b) going undercover in variously dangerous / bizarre contexts.

Mostly, they seemed to be genuinely interested. They particularly sat up when I told them that, working under cover as a bin man and a mini-cab driver, I often felt taken for granted by the people I served, as if I were literally invisible. Why did that grab them so much?

Then I asked them to tell me what they consider to be the components of a great job. Their answers, in the following order, were pretty well the answers I’d have given myself:

  1. Doing something that interests you
  2. Money
  3. Fame
  4. Being good at it
  5. Helping the community

With 25 minutes to go, I asked if they had any questions. There were loads! Here are the ones I particularly remember, and some of my answers.

What did you want to do at our age?
I really don’t remember. I had no clear idea. My mother is a lawyer and my father is an actor, so I suppose I expected, vaguely, to end up doing something similar.

Did you get good marks in your GCSEs?
I did brilliantly in my mock exams: top marks all round. But then, concluding that I was a born genius, I stopped doing any work at all, and got disappointing results in the real exams. Not a single “A”.

What university did you go to?
Bristol. Wonderful place.

What work experience did you do?
I gained work experience, as a lot of people do, by pretending to have work experience already. That’s how I ended up working as wine waiter in a restaurant run by the TV chef Brian Turner. My mother strongly disapproved of me lying to get jobs. She had a point: I once served a £63 bottle of wine to a man, eating alone, who had ordered a £13 bottle.

How long does it take to write an article?
It used to take me days. After a while, I learned that starting work too early could lead to disappointment, particularly on The Sunday Times, where stories were often dumped at the last minute. As a result, I learned to start work only at the last possible moment, and to be very fast.

How long does it take to write a book?
It needn’t take as long as many people seem to think. I have taken about 15 years, with one book, and it’s still not finished. I wrote How To Change The World in a few weeks.

Do you earn any money?
The girl who asked this question immediately put her coat over her head, and received a lot of jeering. I thought it was a very good question. Because it let me know that some people might assume that I don’t need to earn money.

Why do you work at all if your dad is an actor and your mum is a lawyer?
I literally couldn’t understand this for a moment. Then it dawned on me that the questioner believed that actors and lawyers are all very rich. I explained that this is not the case.

How much do you earn?
This question received even more jeering. The questioner looked angry and hurt. But he was pretending because I’d been told they are constantly warned not to ask this question.

I said it was a good question, but that it was hard to answer exactly because sometimes I earn a lot and sometimes very little. I said that the most lucrative work I have ever done was to speak to a large group of people – as I was doing now – but the group of people in question were consultants, and paid me £3,000 for an hour’s work.

There were gasps.

I said that being paid that much, occasionally, made it possible for me to talk at schools, and elsewhere, for no fee. Blank looks. “Why do you do that?!” somebody shouted.

Do you still see Snoop Dog?
No. I went undercover in the artists enclosure at Live 8, for The Sunday Times, and walked around wearing a pass that said “artist”. At one point I stood beside Snoop Dog, who complained bitterly about the state of the portaloos. That, sadly, is the extent of our friendship.


When my talk finished, the teachers came to the front of the hall and, with very stern expressions, started to do crowd control. I went home.