The Oldie magazine — of which, until otherwise advised, I appear to be the editor — runs an occasional article about someone’s experience of being sacked. When I was young, this used to carry something of a stigma: other people found it hard to believe that you could be sacked without having somehow deserved it. But since then so many admirable people have lost their jobs for no good reason that nobody thinks any the worse of them for it. And now we are told by Anna Wintour, the editor of American Vogue and queen of the fashion world for 27 years, that to be sacked is actually a good thing. ‘I think everyone should be sacked at least once,’ she told Alastair Campbell in an interview for his new book Winners: And How They Succeed. ‘It forces you to look at yourself.’
It was in 1976, when she was still in her twenties, that Wintour underwent her one and only sacking. This was from the magazine Harper’s Bazaar, at which she had been a junior fashion editor. How or why it happened remains rather unclear — Wintour has said it was because she had made models wear dreadlocks at a Paris photo shoot, for which she was told that she ‘would never understand the American market’ — but whatever the reason, she is very pleased it happened. ‘It didn’t feel it at the time, but it was definitely a good thing for what it taught me. It is important to have setbacks, because that is the reality of life. Perfection doesn’t exist.’
Wintour, the ultimate perfectionist, may have needed to learn that perfection doesn’t exist, but most people know that already. And while her dismissal from Harper’s Bazaar may have somehow set her on the path towards a job that she finds almost perfect (‘I always look forward to coming into the office,’ she says), not everybody who gets sacked is so lucky. Many never get a decent job again. Many are left deeply frustrated and unhappy. On the other hand, some people do the same thing contentedly for years on end without apparently suffering any setbacks at all. One thinks of Robert Silvers who, at 85, is still editing the New York Review of Books having started doing it in 1963. That’s 52 years in the same job.
Well, I don’t know where I stand in all this.. Most often I’ve been sacked as a columnist: twice by the Daily Telegraph, once by the Daily Express, once by Saga magazine, and once by the Guardian. I never much enjoyed the experience; but then it was very good of all those employers to hire me in the first place, and I expect they knew what they were doing when they fired me. The most traumatic of my dismissals was from the editorship of The Spectator in 1984 (for, as Fraser Nelson knows, this is one of journalism’s most enviable jobs), but then I had been longer in the position — nine years — than any post-war editor apart from Wilson Harris and had probably become intolerably complacent as a result.
But then I can’t possibly say I have been unlucky. Quite the opposite. I have always somehow got new work after every sacking, and now, at the age of 75, I am in the improbable position of editing another magazine. Inbetween I have started two newspaper supplements — the Independent Magazine and the Sunday Telegraph Magazine (though I was also sacked from that) — have been the Independent’s first Washington correspondent, have had two spells as a senior editor on the Sunday Telegraph, and have spent a year in New York editing ‘The Talk of the Town’ section of the New Yorker. So I can hardly complain.
I may not have been 52 years in the same job (or even, like Anna Wintour, 27 years), but I have had some memorable experiences that would never have come my way without the odd sacking. However, I don’t know what Wintour means when she says that being sacked ‘forces you to look at yourself’. It never made me do that; I looked rather harder at my sackers. Nor do I think that she makes any sense when she says that everyone needs at least one sacking in order to discover that life can include setbacks. Has anyone ever not known that? Sackings are just things that happen, with good or bad consequences. They teach you nothing at all.