“My first day working in the supermarket,” the comedian Lauren Pattison remembers, “was a year ago to the day that I’d been doing stand-up at Sydney Opera House.
“Next year, I hope I’m back on stage again, but who knows.”
Pattison started gigging in 2012 while still at university, and went full-time in April 2017. (“A real leap of faith.”) Since, then, she has been working steadily, supporting big names such as Katherine Ryan and Jason Manford.
“This January,” she says, “my goal was to tour my own solo shows. I’d worked really hard to cement and establish myself.”
Instead, as Covid arrived, Pattison saw a diary that was full up to August – when she’d planned to perform at the Edinburgh Fringe – suddenly emptied. “I was afraid to answer the phone. Every call was something getting cancelled.”
Pattison had already started prepping for Edinburgh. “I’d had my photographs taken, so that was a bit of money spent, and I had 20-odd previews booked in. I thought this was going to be my year.”
She did get a refund on the money she’d paid to be in the Fringe brochure, as well as her accommodation costs – except for the company she’d booked the flat through, who would only give her a credit note for her £500 deposit. “They’ve rolled it over to next year. But who knows if we’ll be there?”
Instead of getting her breakthrough, a month into lockdown, Pattison got a job in her local supermarket.
Previously, as an up-and-coming performer, she’d supported herself with other jobs. “I worked in Boots, and in pubs, bars and restaurants – always customer-facing roles. I’m from a working-class background, so I never felt that going back to a retail job meant you’d failed. I always knew it could all disappear.”
Still, the loss of so much work was a knock to her confidence. “I did start thinking, ‘Was I stupid for pursuing my dream?’ But no, I’m glad I did it, and even if I never get back to it – though I hope I do – I had an amazing time doing shows, meeting new people and travelling the world.”
For now, she’s travelled back to her native Newcastle. “My London tenancy ended in March, and I’d always planned to come home in between that and Edinburgh, to save up. Then I was hoping to go back to London again and get somewhere nicer with the money I’d made. My flat before had mice in the wall!”
Instead, she found the three months at home growing to seven. And not only was she her parents’ house-mate, but she wound up a colleague too.
“My mam actually works with me at the supermarket. It’s interesting – I get to see the ‘work’ side of her.” Does she boss you around? “Actually, I boss her around. I enjoy the job, and I picked it up quite easily. So I’ll be saying to her ‘That’s not how you do it!’”
Pattison has worked in several departments, including on the tills and in the café. “It’s like comedy in that I love to chat to people. It’s very sociable. You get to hear about their lockdown hobbies, like learning to make bread. I couldn’t poach an egg before this – now, I make a great breakfast in the café.” Does she try out jokes on people too? “No, my mam would kill me!”
Her favourite role was manning the phones, helping customers with their orders. “There were lots of people living alone or shielding, often vulnerable elderly customers, and they really wanted to talk. I’d actually been writing a show on loneliness for Edinburgh, and here I could actually give people a bit of time and maybe help them feel connected to someone.”
However, not all customers were quite so easy to deal with. Pattison says she feels for all key staff in this tough time, “from nurses and carers to those you wouldn’t think about as much, like delivery drivers and supermarket staff. Suddenly, there’s all this extra pressure and responsibility, having to enforce rules.
“You can understand people’s frustrations, but it’s not our fault. I want that on a T-shirt. You may not want to wear a mask, but I have to for six hours a day. You can manage for 10 minutes.”
Was there a lot of panic buying? “More in the first lockdown. Now, it’s all about Christmas shopping. People are already worried about whether it’ll be hard to get everything for Christmas, if the rules will change again. I’m getting a workout on the tills lifting all the alcohol…”
On the plus side, Pattison admits she’s a very anxious person by nature, and getting a job straight away “means I’m not sat at home panicking. In a funny way, my mental health has never been better. I’m busy, I’ve got a steady income.”
She’s also glad she got in there quickly. “So many people are looking for jobs now. We had some advertised recently and there were over 100 applicants. It’s heartbreaking. How do you decide who gets a job? They’re mostly overqualified. But what about the young people starting out too?”
Being back home has been “a blessing and a curse. I’ve not lived there since I was 18, and it’s a lot to adapt to.” However, it’s also clarified everything for her. “I was worrying about how I was going to move back to London, and then I realised I didn’t want to – I could do comedy in the North-East and be near my family. So, I’ve moved into my own place using the money I earned in the supermarket. That feels really good.”
Pattison is sad to have lost the social life that was intertwined with comedy. “Doing an online gig isn’t the same – you can’t get chatting to your mates, have a drink after a good show, go on to the pub. I did some online stuff, but I was sat in my childhood bedroom alone, using my dad’s laptop, and if it went well, I could only celebrate with another cup of tea.”
She’s also concerned about having a guaranteed income. “I’d rather do the supermarket job and write on the side. I’ve started a blog, with a Ko-fi ‘tip jar’ – that was the only way I could think of it, like getting a pound if someone was happy with my waitressing.
“I’m saving that money for my next Edinburgh show. It gives me something to work towards.”