Alan McIntosh: Man of Mystery Behind The Broughton Spurtle

03 Nov

I recently became a full-time freelancer, for those who are considering it, it’s awful… and brilliant. With lots to learn about my new lifestyle I’ve decided to interview the people who make freelancing work. Some hints and tips from the masters, that kind of thing. Welcome to the first in the series, meet Alan McIntosh. 

I first met Alan a year ago on twitter. We had a direct message conversation which included mistaken identity, spilled wine, some unrepeatable things and birds. Since then I’ve got to know Alan through various Edinburgh events and it’s always a pleasure, he’s encouraging, charming, interesting and wonderfully witty…

A A.J. McIntosh took his first, tentative steps towards not becoming a millionaire by studying English and related European Literature at York University. Short careers followed as a hospital theatre porter, box dismantler, roof cleaner, lightbulb technician, dishwasher and warehouseman. On his first day as a City of London courier he temporarily mislaid bills to the value of £16m and was fired. An MPhil in Publishing Studies followed at Stirling University. Since 1988 he has lived in Edinburgh.

1.How did you get started? 
I went freelance almost as soon as the publishing house I worked for in London was taken over by a multinational giant. I’d been working as a Commissioning Editor and stood to lose any autonomy, would have seen some of the smaller titles I’d fostered get the chop, and was overnight expected to dress formally for work instead of turning up like a mobile compost heap. Basically, I decided to jump before I was mulched. I remembered Edinburgh as compost heap-friendly and headed north.

2. If you could go back to when you started what advice would you give yourself?
In my first year as a freelancer, I wished I’d remembered Income Tax. You don’t get to keep all the money you earn. You have to hand some back to the government and – worse – justify your miscalculations. My advice to new freelancers is to get a large folder and carefully, methodically, file invoices, receipts, expenses and bank statements from Day 1. Dump them on a competent accountant (preferably one who’s been recommended to you by another freelancer) and let him or her sort it out for you at a time mutually agreed months in advance. This is really good, commonsensical advice which I have never once managed to follow properly over the last 23 years.

3. What do you like best about being a freelancer?
These days, I work mostly as a copy-editor on academic texts, preparing, repairing,  and occasionally rewriting typescripts for subsequent mangling by typesetters in the Far East. When the books are interesting – history, politics, literary criticism – the job is very entertaining. When the books are 500-page tomes on Egyptian copyright law translated from the Hungarian by a Dutch academic doing acid, I yearn to gut fish on a Norwegian trawler. The work arrives irregularly and in spurts, leaving ample space for other activities such as research, writing, and generally shirking from home. Being flexible about when I work has allowed me to save a fortune  in childcare expenses, and to see a great deal more of my children than I ever saw of my father.

4. What do you find most challenging about being a freelancer?
It can be difficult to plan the rest of one’s life when cashflow is as unpredictable as a Yellowstone geyser. Freelancers are also extremely vulnerable to the unrealistic expectations and occasionally exploitative practices of ‘clients’ (employers) who operate without any real sense of responsibility or affection for remote contacts they may never meet. Freelancers get good at gritting teeth.

5. How do you know when to stop working?
I tend to become lost in the work and lose track of time, but with editing – even when struggling to meet a deadline – it is counter-productive to try and concentrate too long. I rarely work after 10:00pm. It’s better to renegotiate sensible deadlines at the outset than to produce rushed, scrambled or late work at the end.

6. What do you do in your breaks?
I help on the Broughton Spurtle: an independent community paper in central/north Edinburgh. I cook food teenagers won’t eat. I hang about in Warriston Cemetery, the Central Library and National Archives researching biographies. I ride a bicycle, imagining myself to be a Spitfire pilot or Captain of cavalry. I observe birds, one-eyed, through high-powered binoculars. I mooch about, plotting revenge. I often contemplate Death and the even more awful prospect of getting a proper job.

7. Are you being paid to do what you love or do you do something else to finance what you love?
Freelance editing/journalism is a compromise with good features and bad. The good ones are all about freedom. The bad ones are all about shortage of funds and having less freedom than you imagined.

8. What are your top money saving tips?
Resist heating your home during the working day. If you’re thinking of having children, delay the deed. (Treble layers of thermal underwear will help with both of the above.) Only smoke other people’s cigarettes. Never use a tumbledryer. See a penny, pick it up. Wash your hands afterwards. Don’t waste £3.00 a week on the Edinburgh Evening News.

9. What new projects are in the pipeline?
I am rewriting parts of a science-fiction novel so innovative and enjoyable that no-one will ever publish it. I’m currently planning a similar work set in the Hebrides, and writing an Edinburgh chiller told in Tweets. I’m part of the 26 Treasures project this winter at the National Museum of Scotland, and have high hopes of getting paid centimes for a French, animated short film on which I collaborated earlier in 2011.

You can read more from Alan at the Broughton Spurtle; on twitter @thespurtle; at 26 Treasures and Strange Tales Volume III.

If you’re an Edinburgh Freelancer why not meet Alan and other freelancers at the next Edinburgh Freelance Friday on 25th November, 5.30pm at the Parlour, Leith or 16th December, 5.30pm at Sofi’s, Leith, more here.


Posted by on November 3, 2011 in Freelance Friday


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9 responses to “Alan McIntosh: Man of Mystery Behind The Broughton Spurtle

  1. Miss Edinburgh

    November 23, 2011 at 10:32 pm

    Ha ha – love this interview! I only know Alan a little bit, but it made me laugh. Will be sure to come along to a Freelance Friday in 2012 🙂


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