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Fiona Maddocks

Writer and SWAP'ra Patron

Fiona Maddocks is the classical music critic of The Observer. She has written books on Hildegard of Bingen, Harrison Birtwistle, “Music for Life”, and a short guide to 20th Century Music.

07 July 2019

image ©  K Rose

S: Please could you start by telling us a bit about who you are, which company you work for, and how long you have worked there? ​

FM: I’m the classical music critic for The Observer. I’ve written some books, and have been lucky enough to work in TV, radio and magazines as well as newspapers, starting off - invaluably - in news and current affairs. I’ve also been involved in three extraordinary start ups at various stages of my now rather extended career - Channel 4, The Independent and BBC Music Magazine. I’ve worked at The Observer in two chunks - first 1997-2002 and then again since 2010. The reason for the gap was domestic. As a (mostly) lone mother of two young children, living outside London, I was finding it ever harder to travel/commute and be out late. All my minimal income went on unsocial-hours childcare. I was always the mother who didn’t make the school play or the school gate, let alone the cake (no loss, my children would confirm) and it became untenable. I was offered a job at the Evening Standard as arts feature writer working mainly in the day - a great experience which came at the right time. But my heart was still at The Observer. When, out of the blue, I was asked back, I went (my children then being older but still, at first, needing baby sitters which swallowed most of my fee).

S: How and why did you decide to go into journalism? 

FM: It took a while to decide to be a music critic. I had no confidence in my opinions and spent a long time resisting the idea, doing anything but - editing, commissioning, or writing music features but still not feeling competent to go to a concert/opera and give a view. That feeling hasn’t entirely gone… Performance is so personal, a negative word potentially so damaging. Eventually, when the Observer asked me to succeed the distinguished Andrew Porter, having fended off the idea for so long, I thought perhaps a different kind of voice was needed and I should give it a try. ​

S: What do you enjoy most about your job?

FM: The music,  the variety, the challenge,  the privilege, the responsibility to those performing, the mental demands - it’s a constant, amazing education and in its own way a sort of performance requiring adrenalin and concentration. You have to give your best, just as those on stage do. ​

S: Do you see any imbalance of gender equality in the industry, and how has this changed over the years that you have been working in the classical music world? Do you think it is improving?

FM: It’s changed hugely - we all know how opportunities are opening up at last, for conductors, composers, directors. There are many more women working in all spheres (programming/administration/publishing etc) but there are still relatively few writing about music, at least in the national press which is no longer the only, or even the main, outlet. I’m glad to say online opportunities have welcomed many new voices, some women.
When I first went to The Observer, there had been other women music critics elsewhere, but none had been given the main job, allowed to cover the big events. Later, before the Independent on Sunday alas dropped its critics, there was another female chief music critic, Anna Picard, who held the post with flair and distinction from 2000 to 2013. But now we’re back in the situation of there being - as far as I’m aware - no other national broadsheet newspaper in the UK with a woman in that main role. ​

S: Have you had any chance to influence the gender imbalance in any of your jobs?

FM: At BBC Music Magazine, creating from scratch a team of nearly 40 people, I was glad to have the chance to appoint lots of women, many of whom are now out in the field, working as writers, editors, programmers, broadcasters, public relations. No special pleading or quota was needed, there were so many excellent applicants. I’ve watched, with pride (yes!), their progress: from my time, Helen Wallace, herself BBCMM editor for several years, now in charge of the amazing programming at Kings Place and giving new meaning to the verb ‘juggle’; Amanda Holloway a highly sought-after editor and writer on many publications who proved what could be achieved after a career break; Deborah Keyser, who began as broadcast listings editor and is now director of Ty Cerdd, the body which promotes music in Wales; Jessica Duchen who has made an entire new industry of her award-winning blog. Many more, of a subsequent generation, have done stints at the magazine, which continues to be a healthy employer of women I’m glad to say. ​ Did anyone notice or comment? Yes! When the first issue was published in 1992 - which now seems like the dark ages but is not so very long ago, I promise  - I had letters (all from men) congratulating me firstly on being a woman editor of a classical magazine, secondly on having a staff ‘full of musical ladies’ as one correspondent put it. Unbelievably patronising. I also had some extremely rude letters, one, after I published an article by Germaine Greer on the predominantly male habit of CD collecting, accusing me of p**is envy - a notion which is still puzzling me. Of all the things I’ve envied in life, that is not one.    ​

S: Many women that we have spoken to have been advised that having children and a career (particularly in music/opera) is not possible. What are your thoughts on this?

FM: A wonderful woman who gave me my first big career break - a formidable role model, leader, inspirer - said she didn’t think it was possible to have both. She was older, single, and without children, and felt that was right for her. Rightly or wrongly, there was some truth in her view. Things had not changed by the time I had my two, now in their twenties. I realised I couldn’t hope to get a big managerial job until attitudes changed and/or I had more family support. ​ So yes, I was certainly aware of the fork in the career path. I saw contemporaries in business/banking/law taking on ever expanding roles but they were paid eye-watering amounts that allowed more extensive child care. Nor did they have a job which, by its very nature, had to occupy both daytime and, so often, the entire evening, and a constantly changing time-table. Not being under the same roof as the children’s father certainly, for me, doubled logistical complications. I couldn’t have done it without the most loyal, hard-working, much-loved, dream nanny who stayed throughout. What most of us need, balancing work and family, is the flexibility to be home more if possible, not less, while still doing a job; to be able to plan, and to be shown compassion if, as sometimes happens for myriad reasons, the domestic system breaks down. SWAP’ra is helping this happen, not a moment too soon. When I switched from being an editor to a writer I gave up all the support of an office, and any job security. I took a huge pay cut, and lost all pension/rights/security, to take a freelance contract, which is true of most non-staff journalists. Of course being a writer is more flexible - you can do it in the night or on the train if you have to, but you may also have to do it when you are sick, or when your child is unwell. It was a shock to have to be so completely self-reliant. As with being an opera singer, no one can do it for you. You have to be there. You have to write words to fill that space, to deadline, to length. And you are only as good as your last gig. It’s joy when it works.

S: How has becoming a parent affected your job?

FM: I was affected in a very specific way. When I was four months pregnant with my second child, I was invited to launch a new magazine about music - which was to become BBC Music Magazine. I said, no thanks…Another editor was sought but not found. I was asked again when I was seven months pregnant and this time said yes. Impressively, the BBC didn’t regard the impending double births of a baby and a magazine as a problem. I must give credit to Nicholas Kenyon, who had just taken over as Controller, Radio 3 and spearheaded the magazine. A father of four, he seemed entirely unperturbed by someone only on their second… The baby was born and the launch issue of the magazine went to press six week later. I was sending faxes as I went into labour. I had a fortnight’s maternity leave then for several weeks took the baby on the packed commuter train from Oxfordshire to London. At first I had two lots of childcare, one looking after the toddler at home, one accompanying me with the new baby, who slept - sometimes - in a basket under the desk where i was sorely tempted to join her. In between, the nanny tramped the streets, returning with the baby every four hours for a feed. We staggered along like this for three months, until costs and practicalities - moving to an open plan office with no privacy, not least - intervened. Going to the office so soon did force me to get over pregnancy/birth pretty quickly, and the train journey was a godsend for catching up on sleep. I can’t say I would recommend it though. It often felt like an extreme, and very difficult, sport. I won’t forget once lugging an industrial-sized breast pump on the train and having to explain it was neither a sewing machine nor a cat-box.

S: (How) has your attitude to artists with families changed since you have become a parent?   

FM: Respect and admiration. The big change is in the role of fathers, and the expectation that men really will take as near equal support as they feasibly can. This opens up real possibilities for equality. It’s vital that opera companies - any workplace - respects the need for both parents to combine professional obligations around parenthood. But that understanding should extend to everybody, those with other duties of care of any kind - which is surely all of us in some way or other.

S: What advice would you offer to anyone working in the classical music industry who is about to become a parent?

FM: Enjoy those early years. They go quickly. The easy bit - relatively, and assuming good health of parent/child - is at the start, when babies are fairly portable and their needs mainly physical. The idea that all gets easier ‘once they go to school’ is a myth. That’s when they really need you! The school day is so short and the children’s bed time becomes later. No one warned me quite what a conundrum that might be. I’m not sure I found the answer but my daughters are still speaking to me, for which I’m inordinately grateful.

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