18 January 2013

“I can’t help it if I’m lucky”

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From “Of Cabbages and Kings”, Journal of King’s English Literary Society” (King’s College London), Issue 6, December 2012.

I find myself fighting with words as I think about the question put to me by the editors. Perhaps there are some people who start steadily, pace themselves, and then power on through to a closing burst of triumph, but to me the word “career” seems better fitted to horses and the race track. Neither can I associate my working life so far with a planned and continuous line of advance, like the solid arrows with which military historians like to represent successful troop movements in their maps of battles. I even have trouble with the alternative offered by the headmaster of the last school I attended: unaware that Michael Gove and David Willetts were waiting in the wings of history, this liberal and progressive-minded visionary urged his departing charges to remember that “Life is not a race; it’s a dance”.
So how did I get to be doing what I do? My first step consisted of a BA in English and American Literature from the University of Kent, which was then a brand new university. I found it a very stimulating degree: interdisciplinary, ambitious, and outward-looking too. But I graduated with no idea of what to do next. I wanted to write, but had no convincing sense of what or how. I also needed to earn a living. The university careers officer wasn’t encouraging (he turned out to be a poet who had at least found himself a job). After a few indecisive months, I got a job as a supply teacher at a struggling comprehensive school in Whitstable on the north Kent coast. I contributed to its underperformance for two terms, and the experience filled me with a desire to be elsewhere.
So I applied to MA programmes at North American universities, prioritising those that offered generous teaching assistantships . The first to come up with an offer was in Vancouver, where I read a lot, moved from one university to another, and completed an MA in leisurely slow motion (4 years). I also started on a Ph.D., which I eventually brought back uncompleted to England, where I soon found myself at very loose ends. I had an unfunded place at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham, and some very marginal part-time media studies teaching at a polytechnic in Coventry. Meanwhile, I was broke and living in a room at the top of an empty clergy house in Holborn, disconcertingly close to a blue plaque marking the site of the garret in which the eighteenth century poet and forger Thomas Chatterton finished himself off with arsenic at the age of 17.
It was time, evidently enough, to strike out in a different direction. I was never going to find anyone to pay me to write books, but I could at least produce an adequate sentence, and I had also taught a few writing courses in Vancouver. Armed with these modest abilities, and making no mention of my more intellectual interests (I remember being asked to promise that I was not a “Trotskyist” seeking to foment uprisings in British factories), I got a job teaching ‘communication skills’ for a training organisation called The Industrial Society.
A typical week might start with two days on public speaking to mining engineers in Wigan, followed by interviewing skills in a Kent pharmaceutical works, or perhaps letter writing for secretaries in an insurance office somewhere in the south. I saw a lot of towns, cities and cheap hotels, and I gained, sometimes reluctantly, from working with very different groups of people. Whatever I managed to do for those who came on my courses, the job definitely equipped me with communication skills that would prove unexpectedly transferable – not least when I began to present radio programmes a decade or so later. I didn’t grasp this at the time though. Indeed, I threw it in after about a year, thinking that I had earned a period of unemployment in which I might try to get back to the higher pursuit represented by my dormant Ph.D project.
I had no sooner quit than something quite unexpected started to happen. I got a call from Dublin, from a person in the management of the Irish Times, whose colleague had been on one of my writing courses, and she wanted to know if I would do some work for another friend at the Irish Export Board, whose advisers were trying to develop new European markets for Irish products. The work I did with them led to a call from a merchant bank, also in Dublin, which was having trouble calling in its loans from farmers in Cork and elsewhere. Money had been lent in better times and the farmers, who now found their repayments impossible , were winning in court on the grounds that the bank’s letters of warning were unclear or, indeed, impossible to understand.
The directors of the bank decided it was time to give their secretarial staff some brisk remedial training. On the very first day it emerged that they were actually scapegoating juniors who were quite capable of writing adequately, but had been filling their letters with so many archaic constructions – “heretofore” and “on the aforementioned inst.” – that all meaning disappeared. Far from being badly written attempts at communication, the letters flying westward out of the bank were artfully composed works of obscurity designed to guard their scribes from the accusation that they had said anything that might later rebound on them. I remember explaining to the initially very sceptical directors that the words “author” and “authority” were closely related, and that they had better think about giving their mismanaged junior employees the “authority” to say anything at all. I was back and forth to Dublin many times over that one. By the time we had finished, the bank had been quite significantly restructured. And since banks tend not to respect things that come cheap, I had to raise my already high fee at very visit. I had never set out to become a “management consultant”, but my ability to pass as one for a few days each month was soon producing enough income for me to spend quite a lot of time on my researches at home.
Meanwhile, the government, under Margaret Thatcher, was trying, even then, to roll back the welfare state, a manoeuvre that entailed encouraging voluntary organisations to take up “partnership” with the public sector. Aware of the temptations as well as opportunities created by the new funding programmes, the National Council for Voluntary Organisations decided to set up a small unit that would help its members to a better understanding of their own distinctive forms of organisation, and of what they could lose as well as gain by the change. A couple of years previously at the Industrial Society, I had been seen as an oddball with no industrial experience and not even a proper suit to wear. But I now resembled a rarely qualified person who knew about “management” and organisational training, but would not be out of place in charities, community organisations, or campaigns like CND. The job was modestly paid, but I took it on the informal understanding that, while I would certainly do the work, nobody should count my hours too closely.
For the next five years, I had a salary of sorts, an office in Bloomsbury’s Bedford Square, and a job that allowed me to spend several hours a day researching in the library at Senate House or the British Library, both of which were only a few minutes away. And all this had developed out of a low status job, which I had taken in a moment of desperation and left in another less only a year or so later (Perhaps there’s a lesson here: be careful not to stand in your own way). It was while employed by NCVO, that I returned to the project I no longer imagined completing as a Ph.D, and set about converting it into my first book. Journalistic opportunities opened for the first time when it was published. A few years later, the Guardian took an extract of my second book, and then offered me a contract as a features writer. By the time that came to an end, I was doing quite a lot of broadcasting work – on both radio and television. As for my unintended career as a management consultant to voluntary and arts organisations, that remained part of the mix until I had finished my fifth book.
Some of my academic friends seemed a little disapproving of my improvised “career”. I remember meeting the Cambridge English don Stefan Collini, who was then writing about “Public Intellectuals”. He asked me what I did, and when I told him, his eyebrows arched and he remarked, loftily, that this was quite some “repertoire of scams”. I also remember being reassured by a business school professor that I was an early “portfolio” worker: someone who, rather than having a single occupation, had several spheres of activity and was in the enviable position of being able to determine how he or she moved about between them. Maybe so, but it didn’t feel anything like so deliberate at the time. Indeed, I now suspect that I had an early and comparatively benign glimpse of the life awaiting those who nowadays join the “precariat”, a word that has been used to describe the insecure employment pattern facing graduates going into journalism, television and many other fields nowadays.
Perhaps the key thing for anyone tempted by that life is to decide what you will try to stay in control of as you move from one situation to the next. In my case, it was the books that had to be my own, and I’ve had some bloody battles with publishers to keep them as I wanted them to be. Overall, though, I know I’ve been fortunate, both in finding a way of maintaining my intellectual activities alongside other work, and in having had the time – much of it spent as a loan-free and subsidised student in English departments – to develop the critical perspective that has remained the source of my living even though I have rarely had anything so unified as a single fulltime “job”.

First published in “Of Cabbages and Kings” (Journal of King’s English Literary Society, King’s College London), Issue 6, 2012

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