Philip Larkin said a successful poem goes through three stages: the idea for it, the writing of it, and the understanding of it by the reader. If the last doesn’t happen, the first two may as well have not taken place. One of his best known poems is Toads. As you know, toad is his metaphor for work, a thing which “squats” on life and constrains it; it’s a burden any member of society feels obliged to carry throughout most of our adulthood.
I look around the office now and wonder, are there many people who still think this way, do they connect with Larkin’s notion of the toad? Are we all career-bots now?
Of the many, varied and often curious accolades, labels and presumptuous sobriquets folk have bestowed on me, “survivor” is one that I really like. Not that I’ve ever escaped some awful tragedy, like my ship sinking, and lived to tell the tale. Nothing so bad as that. It’s simply about getting through the nonsense of life’s work experience without too much distress and effort. I know this may seem odd to the career minded folk out there, and these days it seems to me to be a vast sea of career-minded eager-beavers, ladder and greasy pole climbers, though I’m sure there are still a few ones like me, bobbing along behind the bigger waves.
“Survivor” happened in the earlier days when it was normal to leave the workplace with colleagues and have lunch in a pub. I was introduced to a new face, an old lag actually and another freelancer, and he called me “a fellow survivor”. I’ve since added it to the list; ducker-diver-skiver-survivor. In jest, I might add, a silly characterisation. Sometimes I envy people who seem made for work, and careers; I know I wasn’t. Yet, somehow, I’ve managed to get through, and almost to the end.
I feel like I’m Pincher Martin clinging to the rock. My Career not being in the sense of a kind of useful personal development or any sort of deliberate and meaningful direction, really just a survival of one of life’s longer chapters: work experience.
It brings a stagnation of mind, stifles imagination and subverts real intellectual stimulation. We are more than our jobs, at least we should be, but employment doesn’t permit this to be.
I remember a story I heard once about the Irish footballing genius, George Best. (You’ll forgive my narrative licence in its telling, I trust?) He played for Manchester United, as you know, and the story takes place during a team tactics meeting the day before a big match, given by the manager, Matt Busby. He addressed each player individually, explaining to each in some detail what was expected of them on the day: I need you to mark this man throughout; I want you up the wing at every opportunity; I want you to dominate the centre, etc. etc.
He went around each member of the team except George Best and then called an end to the meeting. George, perplexed, spoke up and asked, “What do you want me to do, boss?”
Busby turned back around and said, “You, George? I just need you to go out and enjoy yourself“.
I’m not relating to George Best – especially not with my two left feet – and, post-football, his life was desperate, but I like the idea of people being made for work and others being made for play, and each achieving something good to look back on.
It’s funny to me how the word Career has these two different meanings.
The obvious meaning these days is relating to work and means a determined course, a chosen path, of qualifications and experience, leading to some notion of specialised expertise.
The second is to be out of control, to veer this way and that, to be at the mercy of external and sometimes extraneous forces.
I can taste the end now, like the sheen of honey left on a spoon, and the salty tang in the air on approaching the sea on that first day away. Good, proper, wholesome and individual life.