Thursday, 4 June 2015

Bear Pits

When is an unemployed graphic designer NOT an unemployed graphic designer?

Answer: When he's a freelancer.
I spent my first couple of years in Scotland in the recession-ravaged early 90s scraping together a living as a self-employed illustrator/artist.  Times were tough and it was hard, but I gradually built up a network of clients who would never make me rich, but supplied me with steady-ish work.

Unfortunately, on those rare occasions when I did land a prestigious agency job; like buses to better opportunities two or three seemed to arrive at the same time, and I could never give each the time and attention they demanded. I never invested in equipment, charged enough or tried to come up with anything approaching a business plan. I just alternated between worrying about not having enough work to worrying about getting it all done when commissions did come in.
As a result work suddenly dried up towards the end of 1992, just at the time when we needed funds more than ever for our much looked-forward-to visit to New Zealand at Christmas-time.

It was a desperate situation requiring desperate measures and I had no alternative but to swallow what was left of my pride. I contacted one of my clients, an Events and Promotions company who I knew were busy with festive engagements requiring unskilled labour and told them that I'd do anything.

I wouldn't have imagined this would lead to me prancing about in a bear costume handing out balloons in some of Glasgow's roughest Shopping Malls, but I was grateful for the money. Bear- baiting had been outlawed in Britain centuries ago but the evil mall rats I encountered obviously didn't know this. A costume gives you welcome anonymity, but I found it also removes your normal human boundaries and respect.  You become an object, and a target for foot-stamping, zipper-yanking pre-pubescent thugs.  This bear found that the law of the jungle reigns in shopping malls, but you can barely see your attackers through the giant smiling head, never mind defend yourself.

Desperately wading back to the store-room for more balloons, dragging four or five jeering primary school hard-men hanging onto my tail, I decided enough was enough.  I pulled myself through a set of double doors and then heaved them shut behind me with all my strength.  With a sudden chorus of surprised squeaks and grunts the weight on my costume immediately vanished, as did my attackers for the rest of that day. Not into ambulances hopefully, but as I say, 'law of the jungle'.

The worst invasion of my personal space was by a couple of grandmothers who decided the bear needed his 'tummy' rubbed (urgh), but it wasn't all bad. During  gig as the Easter Bunny the following year I was mobbed by a group of young Irish women who had their picture taken pawing me in an altogether far more pleasant way by the Mall security camera. I met a brilliant group of people who opened my eyes to a more down-to-earth side of Glasgow than I'd encountered before - and speaking in squeaky voices after a gulp of balloon helium was a joke which never got old. As I say, I was bringing in money (and Easter eggs).

I made the best of it, but there was no denying that this was the nadir of my career. However, I couldn't know that a dream job leading to full-time employment as a designer lay just around the corner, and I'd soon never have to 'suit up' again.  But I'll always be grateful to John, Pearl and Anne at J&B Promotions, who gave me a role to perform and a warm fur coat to wear when I was at my lowest ebb.

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