Posted on August 08 2018
Today, we catch up with Charlotte Philby — writer (The Guardian, The Sunday Times, Marie Claire, ipaper, et al), broadcaster (Channel 4, BBC Woman’s Hour, World Service), undercover reporter, consultant, epic story-teller and Contributing Editor at Marie Claire. She founded Motherland — an online magazine for women who happen to be mothers and has just finished her first novel - a literary thriller - with publication details to be announced in the next few weeks. Here’s her story:
Newnham: What were you like growing up? How would your friends and family have described you?
Philby: I grew up in North London. My mum, a teacher, is a serial do-er and my dad was a carpenter so before they split up we moved between houses which my parents bought as wrecks and spent years pulling together, on a shoestring. I’m an only child but we had loads of lodgers and animals, there would always be friends and family coming in and out and I had a foster sister for a while, so it was never boring. In fact, I would sometimes go and hide with a book to get away from the constant noise. Reading is also the only way I can effectively turn off the constant running commentary in my head, which can become exhausting.
When I was younger I was very into reading and music and horses. I rode four times a week and played cello and flute, and was in lots of choirs. I was always diligent and hard-working; then I became quite a naughty teenager. I still worked hard, though, at subjects I cared about at school — like English and Science — and had a part-time job from the age of 12, and I haven’t stopped working since.
My family would probably describe me as, “smart, difficult, fun, a relentless worry-wart, and a free spirit.”
Newnham: When did you know what your career path was likely to be?And can you describe some highs and lows from your career?
Philby: I’m not a naturally organised or structured person and I’ve never consciously mapped out a career path but in retrospect, it was inevitable that I would be a writer, and every decision I’ve made on my meandering journey, however sub-conscious and seemingly unplanned, has led me back to that strait.
For a long time, I wanted to be a detective (though I didn’t want to be a policewoman because I’m not great with confrontation, or the concept of law above humanity), or I wanted to be a human rights lawyer, or an actress. By the time I applied for university, I was too busy partying to properly think through which subject I wanted to pursue so I opted for English Literature, as it was a straightforward option and I loved writing essays. In hindsight, I would have loved to have done languages.
After my degree, I stayed on in Brighton and did my NCTJ Newspaper Journalism course, learning shorthand, media law and news writing skills while doing internships at local papers in Sussex and London, as well as stints at CNN, ITN News, and an internship at Dazed & Confused magazine. I never turned down opportunities and always made myself as indispensable as I could whilst on work experience. I went back to The Independent several times between the ages of 18 and 23, when I finished my journalism training course and landed a job there on the Saturday magazine, as a features assistant.
I was at The Independent for eight years in the end, working as a writer and editor across most departments at one point or another, and my career highlights there were when as a newspaper reporter I went undercover, posing as a student who was willing to offer sex to older business men in return for having their fees paid. I met the owner of the company offering these services and recorded him with a button-hole camera, and he was jailed as a result. We had a young daughter at the time and my husband hated me doing it and still hasn’t watched the film as it freaks him out. I also loved having a column in the magazine and latterly the ipaper, which was a sort of humorous vignette on life as a young mother.
The lows, I think, have been the moments, and there have been many over the years, when I’ve felt like I wasn’t good enough, or that in motherhood I didn’t have the emotional and physical resources to give to both my children and my job. Those moments when I’ve compared myself to an unrealistic and actually unhelpful idea of where i imagined I *should* be in my life. But in hindsight those moments have actually often been the incentive to reassess what I want from my life and my career, conceptually, and how I could change things up in order to achieve those ‘goals’.
Newnham: Talking of motherhood, can you tell us about motherland? What led to you starting it and do you think you’ll ever revive it?
Philby: I launched Motherland in 2014 after spotting a hole in the market for a smart, design-conscious platform for women who happen to be mums. There are quite a few such things now but back then there was only really Selfish Mother, which I only discovered after launching Motherland. Having recently returned from maternity leave after my second baby, I was really struggling with the hours and emotional challenges of being a news reporter and wanted a change in pace, and a challenge; something that, as I thought at the tie, would fit better around my family life.
My husband is a graphic designer, so together we decided to create an online magazine that would speak to women who, like me and my friends at the time, weren’t being spoken to in traditional parenting media. We spent a few months developing the concept and securing a small amount of investment, which in the end came from the creative agency Protein. Then we dived headfirst in.
I ran Motherland for two years — during which we had a third baby, and moved into a wreck of a house having just done up another, alongside various other pretty full-on life events — and it came to the point where I no longer loved doing it. Running your own business is the most full-time job you can have, and I’m not good at doing things in half-speed so I was putting a lot of pressure on myself to keep pushing and growing, and it was working.
From the outside it was a huge success, but it was wearing me down without giving me the joy that would have made it worthwhile. I realised I didn’t want to do this for the rest of my life; what I really wanted, and have always wanted, is to write a novel. So one day, after a near-miss with an investor who tried to drastically change the terms of them buying Motherland (including sacking the lovely staff we had just recruited!), I had an epiphany… I decided to go out on a high and close the magazine while it was still what I’d wanted to create, and focus on freelancing, being with my kids, and, ultimately, writing the book I’d always wanted to write. I can’t say too much right now for reasons which will hopefully soon become clear, but it’s the best decision I’ve ever made and has made me realise that nothing is wasted and no path is straight!
As for resurrecting Motherland, that’s not on the agenda. I do get asked quite often if I’ll bring it back but, painful as it was, walking away was the right thing to do and while I still love and feel very proud of it, it’s definitely my past, and as well as being the stepping stone to moving into magazines — I’m now a Contributing Editor based part-time in the office at Marie Claire, which is pretty dreamy — it’s pushed me towards what I hope will be an even more exciting future.
Newnham: There are lots of mothers who turn to starting their own businesses once they have kids because returning to 9–5 is almost impossible. How do you think we can change this and bring greater equality at work and home for mums?
Philby: It’s just such a knotty question and there are so many aspects — political, cultural, social — that need to be unpicked to answer it, but what I do know is that starting a business when you have a young family is not always the solution. It’s certainly not the easy option. The onus should be on employers and society to create a more family-friendly working environment that supports and appreciates mothers in the way that they deserve — and society as a whole needs them to be — supported and appreciated.
Time and again research shows that having children makes women more productive in the workplace. Sometimes though, the pressure comes from within. Having a baby comes with so many questions and uncertainties, and as women we often tend to blame ourselves when things are difficult or confusing. And we put ourselves under huge pressure to be a so-called superwoman, which is a terrible and actually rather dangerous term, however well-intentioned it might be. There is so much dialogue right now around the notion of the #mumboss and while we should celebrate women with children who want to run businesses, and support them in doing so, we shouldn’t see the ability or desire to do both as a marker of what it is to be a modern woman. We are all human, with human limits and that’s fine. Maybe the immediate aftermath of becoming a parent is not the right time to throw yourself into a new career. Acknowledging that what you’re doing is enough, and that you are enough, already, is key.
Newnham: Your life is full of stories, from your own — such as your grandfather being a spy — to the stories you help share on your site and in the media. What made you want to be a writer? How important is it you — in this day and age — to be a storyteller and get real people’s stories out to a wider audience?
Philby: I’m essentially nosey as hell, and a shameless eavesdropper. I love nothing more than other people’s stories, and getting the opportunity to hear and share them is a dream, but also, I think, storytelling is key to greater understanding. There is a lot to love about technology and social media but it has, I believe, made many of us a lot more narcissistic. It’s important to get out of your own head and into other people’s, and stories enable us to do that.
Newnham: If there was one book you would recommend to all your girlfriends, what would it be and why?
Philby: There are so many. Christina Patterson’s The Art of Falling Apart, which is an ode to failure, is a beautiful antidote to the current narrative around success. In terms of writing and creativity, I’d always recommend ‘Into the Woods’ by John Yorke. The best novel I’ve read recently is The Girls, which is based on the Manson Murders, which I wrote my dissertation on when I was 17, and it’s beautiful and clever and readable as hell — and I wish I’d written it.
Newnham: Finally, if you could go back in time what one piece of advice would you give a younger Charlotte?
Philby: Stop bloody worrying — it’s going to be great. Also, spend time with the people you love; listen to their stories and tell them yours — they won’t be around forever, and nor will you.
Charlotte's website / Instagram