Andrew Bibby is a professional writer and journalist, working as an independent consultant for a number of international and national organisations, and as a regular contributor to British national newspapers and magazines. He is also the author of a number of books.
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This article by Andrew Bibby, in a slightly different form, was first published in Teleworker 1999
Andrew Bibby: JANE SIMMONS, TELEWORKER
Best-selling children's author teleworks from her houseboat
Daisy, as you may not yet be aware, is the little duck with the big feet. Daisy is also rapidly turning into a publishing sensation. You, or more likely your preschool toddler, can now enjoy a series of Daisy adventures, from the first 'Come on Daisy' to the latest 'Daisy's Favourite Things'. Bookshops get stocks of Daisy books by the dumpbin, together with sets of Daisy soft toys for customers who want more than just a traditional board book. Daisy's publisher Orchard Books talks proudly of half a million copies sold in the first year.
For those of us no longer at the picture book stage, the story behind the Daisy books is almost as interesting. Daisy's creator, the person who both writes and illustrates the books, is Jane Simmons and the way she works could almost have been tailormade for anyone wanting to prove that teleworking really can be feasible.
For several years past, Jane has lived on boats. Home is currently an old Scottish trawler called 'Prosperity', bought by her and her partner Neil in Plymouth a couple of years ago for £6,000 and subsequently sailed around the Cornish coast to Falmouth harbour. Illustrations for the Daisy books, and more recently for Jane's followup series of nautical adventures featuring two characters Ebb and Flo, have been produced in Jane's studio, the trawler's converted wheelhouse. It is, like most wheelhouses, cramped. On the other hand, since wheelhouses have plenty of windows, it is also very light, and with the added benefit of offering some stunning views of the Fal estuary.
The only slight problem with this arrangement, at least according to Jane, has been on days when the sea is rough but book deadlines are pressing, so that the illustrations must be done come what may. "When we first came round to Falmouth, we anchored in the harbour at a visitors' buoy, and that was where the first Ebb and Flo book was produced. There were days when it was rough, and the boat was tipping about all the time," Jane says. Jane's way of working is possible, as she immediately makes clear, thanks to the computer and communications equipment she uses. "Technology allows me to do my work in the way that I want to do it. It means that I don't have to be in a design studio," she says. "I was always being told that you have to be in London to be an illustrator. You don't you just have to get your act together with modern technology." The main item of technology which Jane currently uses is a Nokia communicator, combining a mobile phone with palmtop computer power. Jane says that the Nokia holds the texts of all her stories, and is where she writes new material. The portability comes in handy: "I was going up to a meeting in London by train, and there were still a few text changes which needed to be made. So I did them on the train on the way," she says. The Nokia also goes with her on those days when she decides to leave the boat and make a temporary workspace at one of the tables in the Fisherman's cafe in Penryn or Mavericks in Falmouth.
With the option of a conventional telephone landline ruled out, the mobile phone facility is also essential. Jane says that she discovered the advantages of mobile phones early: in the midNineties, when she was a mature student at the Anglia Polytechnic University in Cambridge, home was an old ship's lifeboat at the end of a long fenland track south of Ely, and phone calls initially involved a long trek to the nearest public phone box. Faxes and emails are sent from the Nokia, and Jane has become something of an expert in her knowledge of cellular coverage of the Falmouth area. ("You don't get much of a signal at Mavericks, though it's all right if you sit outside".) Incoming faxes can prove more complicated (see box). However, life when Prosperity was moored at the visitors' buoy off Falmouth was even more of a challenge. Jane says that she was using a laptop at the time, with a mobile phone attached. Only when the laptop was put on the wheelhouse roof, with the mobile held aloft, was the signal strong enough to be reliable. The knack, according to Jane, was to hold on tight to the laptop as the boat tossed at its mooring, to stop the machine hurtling seawards off the roof.
Jane Simmons stresses that her work lifestyle may be unorthodox, but it doesn't make her unprofessional. "My publishers may have to put up with me being a little scruffy, but I've never missed a deadline," she says. In fact, one suspects that her editors quite enjoy the opportunity to travel to Cornwall to visit their author. However, Jane plans shortly to challenge work orthodoxy even more. In two years' time when her partner Neil has completed the course he is currently undertaking in Falmouth, the plan is to sail Prosperity across the channel to France, and then make their way slowly down the French canal system to the Mediterranean. Jane sees no reason why she could not work as efficiently there as she currently can in Cornwall. "As long as I can keep in contact with my publisher, it doesn't matter where we are," she says.
The planned voyage means a major overhaul for Prosperity, and a temporary change to Jane's working arrangements. The boat is currently pulled up in a Falmouth boatyard whilst the work on the boat is undertaken and Jane has recently decided to work shortterm from rented studio space on shore. All being well, she will back in the wheelhouse, and the boat will be back in the water, next Spring.
In the meantime, there is plenty of work to be done. Last year, Jane Simmons produced a total of seven books and there are more on the way this year, including stories in a new series featuring rabbits Fern and Bracken. Jane's professional success comes after years when money was tight, and she still points out the financial advantages which boats hold over houses. But the main advantage for her is clearly the flexibility of the lifestyle not to mention the opportunity to pick up your workplace and cart it off to the south of France.
|Email and faxes play an important part in Jane Simmons' work life, and fortunately the Nokia can send and receive both. Emails sent to Jane can sit on the server until she is ready to download them. Incoming faxes, however, can be a problem if they are sent when she is outside cellular coverage range.
The solution proposed by Jane's Internet service provider Poptel has been to set up a personal faxin number, which delivers faxes straight to her email account. But this by itself isn't enough. Unfortunately whilst the Nokia fax programme understands tif files (the format in which faxes are normally delivered), its email programme does not. So one further step was necessary. What happens now is that faxes received into Jane's Poptel email account are redirected back out to a new dedicated Nokia fax number. The advantage is that Poptel's server will continue to try to deliver these faxes for as long as necessary, until the machine is back in a mobile phone coverage area. As Poptel says, it sounds complicated but it works.
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