Christine Armstrong

The Writing Desk | Christine Armstrong | Author

by | copywriting, The Writing Desk

Christine Armstrong, author of The Mother of All Jobs: How to have children and a career and stay sane(ish). Speaker…

Hello Christine,

Thank you so much for agreeing to be a part of The Writing Desk Blog.

Now, imagine I’m about to introduce you to an auditorium, filled with the smiling faces of folks fuelled by caffeine and an eagerness to learn. What would I say?

“Hello everyone, I’d like to introduce…

Christine Armstrong, author of The Mother of All Jobs: How to have children and a career and stay sane(ish). Speaker on diversity at work.

Here’s the part where we’d sit down and try and look comfortable next to the microphones. Are you sitting comfortably? Then let’s begin…

Can you name the business book that’s always on your desk? (I’m talking about the one that’s covered in pencil marks, coffee stains and has turned down corners…)

Much as I love your high hopes for me, on my desk are some headphones, a cup of tea, a stack of scribbled notes that only I can read (this is a lie, I mostly can’t read them), four purple hairbands and two sleeping bag sacks in a parcel for my parents.

What’s your all-time favourite advertising campaign?

I used to watch ads for a living at an ad agency. All of my favourites are weird and dark and politically incorrect. I used to love this print campaign where they threw the transplant organ out of the icepack and replaced with some dodgy local spirit. Maybe Becherovka, but I can’t find it online now.

There was lovely Aussie social observation one about the difference between trunks and undies based on how far away the sea is… 

It’s here:

For more mainstream, I always go back to the Old Spice ‘The man your man could smell like” – because of the insight that women choose body washes that smell like orange flowers and mimosa and men just use them… Not because of the hot guy on the horse. Uh huh.

“Everyone has a book in them…” Or so the saying goes. What do you think/know/believe is the secret to good writing?

Whatever the effort that went into it, it should read as effortless and it should take you to somewhere that you are not… Though, this just IS an unedited stream of consciousness and won’t take you anywhere.

If you were just starting out, what advice would you give yourself? Which book or books would you read first?

I don’t think it’s about any one life-changing book… I’d say read EVERYTHING. Tabloids, the FT, shit books, classics, cereal packets, birthday cards from aunts, comics, HMRC updates and round robins from your parents neighbours in the seventies. Observe what the words do to you mind.

But now I’ll say something that will bring on a red mist. I deeply love reading AA Gill and, when I have to choose one writer to spend more time with, it’s often him. Yes, yes, I know he shot the baboon, but his use of language, his flourishing metaphors (that shouldn’t work), the way he changes how you feel, that he knows where your mind is going before you do and is teasing you about it…. It’s a joy. And one I’ve lost friends over because he is so pathologically loathed by everyone else.

Silence? Radio? Or music while you work?

Silence. Broken up every few hours by calls with colleagues or mates who make me laugh uproariously and lift my energy. 

What are your top three novels of all time – and why?

Rather than going all Desert Island Discs on this and wanging on about Anna Karina and how Villette is seriously underestimated, I am going with the books that came straight into my head because they wholly absorbed me at the time…. I suspect I shall regret these top-of-mind choices.

Lawrence Durrell’s loose memoir, Bitter Lemons of Cyprus because it so perfectly describes the slow build-up of minor hostilities that lead to war and brought to life the history of Cyprus more than any of the real history I’ve read. We go twice a year as my husband runs a travel business ( should you be needing a week in the sun). Last time we went to Bellapais I left my family eating and, getting lost, climbed through a wasteland of weeds and mud in flipflops to see the house Durrell lived in. It really wasn’t worth it but did sum up my hankering to feel like I was in the 1950s and the only taxi had no windscreen wipers so you drove through rain with your head out of the window. On the same theme, I enjoyed Victoria Hislop’s The Sunrise.

The Flowernet by Lisa See – because I worked in China briefly about the time that I read it and she describes it so perfectly.

Oh gosh. Do you remember Judy Blume’s Forever? It was like looking through a kaleidoscope into an idealised adulthood… It literally defined what I thought about love and sex for a decade.

What’s the best thing you’ve ever written? Why did it rock your world?

Ooh, that’s not a very British question is it?!

It was the Sunday Times mag feature I wrote last August called Big Little Lies that was front page and led to me getting over 1000 messages in the next 24 hours, mostly saying ‘Thank God someone is being honest about this’ although my favourite was the woman who emailed to say ‘Look. I loved your piece and all but how is “working mums are busy” news?’.

It was still being pushed on FB and Insta by The Times over Christmas. An editor said it was the most read article ever in the Sunday Times mag. But I think they’d had too much prosecco by then. My kids love it because they are in the picture. My husband loves it because he isn’t.

What’s the last thing you bought? And yes, that packet of chewing gum counts.

A replacement gym hairbrush. Round for blow drying, squidgy handle for my delicate hands, gold because it pleases me. Some fecker nicked the last one. Who nicks a hairbrush???

Who was your teenage crush?

Tom Cruise. I know. MORTIFYING.

Can you describe the best meal you’ve ever eaten?

Florence. My best friend Pete was there for months working with a management consultancy and living in the coolest flat ever – it had a bed suspended in clear plastic in the middle of a double height ceiling. The team had some obscene expenses budget and, after they’d worked a manic 15-hour day, they would crash into the local restaurants to spend. Needless to say, they were welcomed like Gods.

I went for the weekend and he and I went into his favourite place, I don’t even remember the name though I may still have the card. Recognising him – and his expense account – the owner put on a seven-course tasting menu with wine for each course. It was perfect. The most pristine but tiny silver of poached salmon. And inch and half square of lasagna that was better than I imagined possible… I wept on the plane when I left Florence and have never been back for fear of spoiling the memory.

What’s your favourite tipple? Is it wine, beer – a cask-aged malt?

I am spectacularly not fussy.

If I were to give you a private jet, David Attenborough as a tour guide and a month off work – all expenses paid – where would you go and what or who would you write about – and why?

South America is the continent I know least and am pulled towards. I would want to really explore it with Chris and the kids though, so can we have Steve Backshall instead of David? I want us to jump off waterfalls and kayak through rainforests and climb tepui and go to the temple ruins that tourists rarely get to. I want to sleep in tents and lodges and dive cave networks and drink rum around the fire. Told you I wasn’t fussy about booze.

What’s in your pockets?

A fiver, half a Kit Kat (not mine), frog socks for a four-year-old, and more fucking hairbands.

Pen and ink, pencil and paper or keyboard and screen? What’s your writing style?

Illegible notes and a Mac.

Do you read any blogs or magazines about writing? (And I mean read, not just subscribe to and delete/leave on your desk and recycle?)

I read anything that I come across but nothing religiously.

Tea – or coffee? What’s your poison?

Tea. Proper slug of proper milk. Someone said we should be buying long-life milk for a Brexit crisis. The thought makes me shudder.  

Do you have a favourite cup or mug? Can you describe it?

Mugs must be white – especially inside – and china. Always china.

What was your most adored children’s book? And character?

Swallows and Amazons, though not sure I felt I was any of them in particular.  I wrote to Arthur Ransome to tell him he’d changed my life but he was already dead. His estate sent me a very sweet letter so say so.  The Famous Five. Dick natch. St Claire’s, Malory Towers…. I read all of it.

Your favourite word?

Shit. I thought of one for you the other day and now can’t remember. It might have been vivacious.

Your most loathed word? (You know, the one that makes you shudder and say “Ew!”?

Paradigm. Always used by people trying to sound cleverer than they are.

Where can we find you? – Browsing online or lost in the aisles of a bookstore?

At the swings.

Favourite song lyric of all time? And why?

‘Is this the way to Amarillo?’ Because how could you not dance to that?

Name the artist who is guaranteed to get you up on the dance floor.

As with the drinks… I will happily dance to anything. Prefer disco but seriously unselective, massively enthusiastic, lacking talent.

Do you have any strange writing rituals you’d like to share with us?

I often send what I write to a few friends that I call my ‘don’t be a dick club’, to ask if I sound like a dick. They usually say yes. If you’re wondering, I’ve not sent this, which is probably a mistake.

What are you working on today? What’s in the pipeline?

Submitted a feature to Red yesterday (ed’s note: the piece was published in the April 2019 issue) on the future of work. Got a piece in the Sunday Times mag about the backlash against women in finance. Writing a piece for Management Today about why Diversity and Inclusion policies usually don’t work.

Can you describe the last photograph you took?

My new Frida Kahlo socks that a friend gave me for Christmas. I’d like a pair for every day of the week.

What piece of advice really changed you as a writer?

For a while I worked with a writing agency called Quietroom. I was helping them with some business planning and client relationships. Their strategy director thought I was a DREADFUL writer but anyhoooo… It was great dive into the technical side of writing. Moving up and down the ladder of abstraction – something I have used ever since – story spines and emotional connection.  I also met Jane Eden who is a seriously fucking great writer and whose ability to write and edit I remain wholly in awe of.

What was the last thing you wrote that had nothing to do with your job?

Most days it’s emails to school…. “Dear Ms X, thank you for your ongoing concern about my daughter’s refusal to eat school food/wear a coat/write complex sentences… she’s 4 / 7 / 9. Seriously, I think she’ll be fine…”

What’s your favourite quote about the process of writing?

A former boss had a framed quote on his wall that said: “No passion in the world is equal to the passion to alter someone else’s draft”. I asked him about it recently on Facebook, he says it’s HG Wells and he had it on various office walls for 35 years. The bugger would point to it as he got his pen out!

Who is your favourite Mad Man – or Woman?

I watched it in NZ in a camper van when I was as sick as a dog with pregnancy. The show literally tastes of vomit to me. I loved them all: but the edge of Don and Joan are what it’s all about right? I couldn’t watch the later series because it brought back the sick taste.  

Can you name your favourite film – and tell us why you love it?

Cabaret: politics, war, sex, singing, a pixie cut with a pointed fringe…  

Which book or books is/are by your bed today?

Becoming. What a cliché. But it’s fucking me off because it’s so big I can’t take it anywhere and end up reading two pages and falling asleep. I’ll still be reading it when I’m 90. Don’t lecture me on audiobooks… Even though I recorded one, I have yet to listen to one on account of my life being overrun with children right now.

Who was or is your greatest teacher?

Mr Crump. Year four and five English at Wentworth Milton Mount school for girls in Bournemouth. At 15 he told me I should be a journalist because I could write and was very, very nosy (this is true). It took me 25 years to follow his advice. I’d like to thank him but have never managed to track him down. If anyone reading this knows how to find him, I’ll buy you fancy cocktails at a location of your choice.

Who is your favourite artist?

Unskilled worker – see Insta – because she paints people and faces drenched in exuberant colours. My husband bought me one of her prints for my birthday and it makes me very happy.

Where do you like to work best – is it at a desk, in an office or in a coffee shop? And would you send us a picture of where the magic happens?

At my desk, ideally when my kids are out.

And finally, where can this caffeine-fuelled audience find you?

@CArmstrongLDN on Twitter

@carmstrongldn on Instagram

Written By Katherine

Katherine Wildman is a copywriter for creative agencies and multinational brands – and the Creative Director of Haydn Grey.

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