Friday 10 June 2022

Careers Syndromes: Part One

Part One.
Part Two.
Part Three.
Part Four.
Part Five.
Part Six.
Part Seven.
Part Eight.
Part Nine.
Part Ten.

"If hopes were dupes, fears may be liars", says poet Arthur Hugh Clough. What’s that you say? Hopes can be dupes? I thought all we had to do was “live the dream”!

Will your career follow a narrative arc: finding your passion, early struggles, success, more success, money, a title, retirement? Or will you wear out your youth trying to break into an over-crowded profession, be spoiled by 15 minutes of fame, take a disastrous wrong turning, accept a job you know is wrong for you, fail spectacularly, try to do the impossible, spend your life waiting for "my big break", never be heard of again?

Or will you experience a second act when your skills mature and your talent is recognised? Will a second career overshadow the first? Or will you give up the thing you’re good at in favour of the thing you’re convinced is where your genius can really shine – even though nobody else agrees? What do you do when the work dries up, the village slowly dies, the bottom falls out of the market, and too many people get into the game? You may wake up and find myself famous, like Lord Byron. Or you may wake up and find yourself hopelessly dated. Take an audit, and be prepared for the following.

How to have a career in TV: go to stage school, be in a girl band for five years, get on a talent show, present a programme about fashion, do Dancing on Ice...

Actresses get paid thousands of dollars by couturiers and jewellers to wear their stuff to the Oscars. And Julian Assange took thousands from publishers as an advance on a book he didn’t want to write. 

You think you’ll be an actor/writer/composer/singer one day but never take acting lessons, watch Pop Idol, listen to other singers; never ask yourself if there’s much call for people of your age, looks, weight or height. You think you'll run a business but don't research the market price.

Don’t move to Glastonbury thinking you can make a living as a Tarot reader. If there’s one place with a surplus of Tarot readers... 

You write your memoirs but never wonder if your life is worth recording. The person with the really fascinating life won’t write it. The one who has a story to tell is unable to remember any details, or use any adjectives apart from wonderful, marvellous etc. (Keep a diary and one day it will keep you.)

Jane Austen knew she was unsuited to writing a historical novel about the house of Hanover. Conversely, you take the ill-fitting job, or pursue the career, suffering agonies in the process. Ivana Lowell (Why Not Say What Happened) forced herself through ballet classes at drama school and never became more than very bad. 

I went on to fail pretty miserably in the things I thought I was going to do – like be a radical documentary filmmaker. But I ended up taking a path that suited me much better.
 (Former head girl Anna Wright, Guardian 2015. She now works in health and social care in Camden.) 

Adrian Shine went to Loch Ness to look for the monster, never found it, but became an expert on Loch Ness and continues to research the landscape.

James M. Cain spent many years trying to become an opera singer; then, in middle life, with hope nearly atrophied, he wrote the fabulously successful novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice. (Florence King, Wasp, Where Is Thy Sting?

She, with that ignorance of scale that always afflicts amateurs, had not recognised the limits of her performance. She had seen it as the start of something. (Simon Brett, Dead Giveaway, on a woman who takes part in a TV game show as a “member of the public”)

There is painful disillusionment awaiting the man who comes to dig in Egypt in the hope of finding the golden cities of the Pharaohs or the bejewelled bodies of their dead. (Arthur Weigall, shortly before Howard Carter's discovery of Tutankhamen's tomb. See also the man who, early in his career, spotted a Titian in an auction, bought it and sold it for a huge sum. He never had the same luck again.)

People on Alex Polizzi’s The Fixer who have spent ten years running a business and not even knowing they only make £5,000 profit a year (or a loss). And they cry when it’s suggested they should give it up because it would be a waste of ten years of their lives. 

They would keep suggesting impractical ways we could earn extra money. (Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, Barbara Comyns. In real life Comyns raised money by “modelling, converting houses into apartments, breeding poodles, renovating pianos, dealing in antique furniture and classic cars, and drawing for commercial advertisements”, says Wikipedia.)

He tried to open several businesses on the side but none worked. (Harvard Business Review)

Dai Bradley, child star of the film Kes, “embarked on several other unsuccessful projects: a board game, a television series focused on high-stakes backgammon, and a film about medical ethics. In 1999, he began writing a children's novel. (Wikipedia)

Journalist Caitlin Moran’s father lost his job mending washing machines due to arthritis. He tried to make a go of selling cleaning products door to door, starting off with great faith in his “Irish charm” and being reduced to tears after a few weeks.

In The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach, we see young men who know that their four years on the baseball diamond at Westish College are all that remain of their sporting careers. (Publisher's blurb)

He climbs his way down the ladder from starting pitcher to reliever to glorified spectator. (Amazon commenter on Mike McCarthy who wrote about his short baseball career)

Nothing more poignant than a fading boxing career. (Sathnam Sanghera)

Ken Russell became a clapped out old buffer very early in life. (imdb review of Billion Dollar Brain)

The Western is one of those art forms, like jazz and poetry, that every few years is said to be making a come-back, but never quite returns from the grave. (Cosmo Landesman, Sunday Times, 2007. Or else come-backs are excitedly announced for things that have never been away, like knitting, craft or flares.)

Who said that the middle classes kept jazz on life-support for too long?

Early fame gets smaller and smaller in time's rearview mirror. (Guardian, 2003) 

Janice Nicholls became famous in the 60s for saying “Oi’ll give it foive” on a pop panel show. When her 15 minutes of fame were over she went back to Hednesford in Staffordshire and became a chiropodist.

You become quite celebrated for something unexpected (your toilet book is a hit) and get used to being invited to parties and having people want to meet you. Then everyone moves on to the next thing, or tastes change and you're forgotten.

American masters of self-invention who outlive their own revolutions.
(Gerri Hirshey, biographer of Helen Gurley Brown. HGB’s advice “nobody needs to be a mouseburger” is perennial, but she was almost immediately superseded by high-minded feminists who were very Puritan and Quaker and self-denying and wore drab clothes for the good of all. HGB was about succeeding in a man’s world by being ultra-glamorous and sleeping your way to the top. More about her and her books, Sex and the Single Girl and Having It All, here.)

A friend invented tech journalism and became a star. Times changed and now tech journalism is mainstream, and by the end of his career he was sidelined. 

You make a living for 20 years importing Rajasthani furniture, then everybody moves on to G-Plan and Ercol, and Rajasthani knock-offs have slid down the ladder as far as Argos. 

Sub editing used to be an enjoyable, lucrative job. Freelances had to turn down work. Twenty, 30 years on, it’s a shrinking market. One person is expected to do three people’s jobs, but the standard is ridiculously high. Rates haven’t risen in years. Sometimes you're asked to bid for a job and it goes to the person who asks for the least money. Print media is contracting, employers think technology can substitute for professionals. Qualified, experienced people are fighting each other for the few remaining gigs. They are also competing with recent graduates, and retirees who’ve done a course in proofreading. 

Once I turned my back on it, I found all the debutantes in London were learning paint finishes and starting little colleges to teach it, and the bottom fell out of the paint finish market. A friend showed me a book called “Shaker Style” and I thought, ‘The writing’s on the wall'. (Rag-rolling queen Jocasta Innes, who also wrote The Pauper's Cookbook)

Archie Rice in The Entertainer was “desperately clinging on while a music-hall tradition vanished around him”. (Susannah Clapp Observer 2009. Music-hall lingered into the 50s, with tiny audiences, says an Amazon reviewer. If Archie Rice had had any sense he'd have gone into TV, like Benny Hill and his stooges, many of whom had had long, distinguished music-hall careers.)

The hardest thing in life is knowing when it's over. Realising that your moment's passed, the mojo's gone, you are now in that terrible zone where the harder you try to make yourself relevant, the more it shows how past-it you are. (Michael Gove on Sex and the City, Times 2008)

Jack Kerouac, when a 40-something alcoholic, tried hitchhiking again. He stood in the rain for an hour, nobody picked him up, he went home

Mystery writer Margery Allingham describes a character “on whom old affectations hung like faded garments”. 

Miss Knag still aimed at youth, although she had shot beyond it, years ago. (Charles Dickens, Nicholas Nickleby)

Those weird Americans who spent their summers following the Grateful Dead long past their sell-by date and insisting on being addressed as Wind Dancer. (Alexis Petridis, Guardian, 2010)

Middle-aged Oxford bucks who hang about the university and live with the young tufts. (The Christmas Books of Mr. M.A. Titmarsh, William Makepeace Thackeray) 

‘One can’t go on leading the student’s life. Your friends here will grow older and go away.’ ‘Others’ll come. There are always students here and people like that.’ ‘Yes, but you’ll grow older too. Is there anything more lamentable than the middle-aged man who tries to go on living the undergraduate’s life? The old fellow who wants to be a boy amongst boys, and tries to persuade himself that they’ll accept him as one of themselves?” (Somerset Maugham’s short story The Alien Corn)

You're a popular, witty partygoer in the 20s, and everybody takes up your way of speaking ("Too, too marvellous my dear!"). But then the 20s are over and you're left without talents, or a niche, or anything much to offer, and with fading looks. Other Bright Young things have been working on their acts and cultivating people who might give them jobs or publish their books (novels about BYTs were a money-spinner). They move on and leave you behind. (D.J. Taylor, Bright Young Things, digested)

As a theatre designer you make a big splash, but all too soon your sets are overpainted, costumes end up in dressing-up boxes, and your productions exist only in a few black and white pictures.

Your project was supposed to take three years but it becomes a life work. It was meant to be a stage you moved on from but you never do.

Doing a masters may be life-changing or may be an expensive waste of time. (Lee Jackson)

A couple meet at university, and stay in their university town. They carry on using the campus library, and going to films and concerts there. They befriend current students and go to their parties. They may get a job at the university, but don’t do a PhD or become a lecturer. Being cool but slightly older works until they are about 30. They befriend first-years when they are third-years. But then the first-years become third-years and then leave. They probably supply their younger student friends with dope and display an enviable hippy life style in an understated way. (I wrote about them in my novel The Fourth Door.)

You go on living like a student – binge drinking and living in a tip. And then you wake up and find you’re a middle-aged alcoholic. Conversely, there were some people who moved straight from living in a tip to hoovering their beige fitted carpets. For them, living like a student had just been a blip. Also, they conformed to the society in which they found themselves. Clever them. 

King David’s last years were marked, as in classical tragedy, by faded grandeur, intrigue, filial rebellion, the severance of old loyalties and his own declining authority, mingled with remorse and uneasy memories. (The Jewish People, David J. Goldberg, John D Rayner)

Director Edward Dmytryk, whose career would dismally end (the likes of "Shalako"), was here at the height of his powers. (Internet Movie Database, Watch his Farewell My Lovely.)

A massive and ultimately disastrous facelift was in store. (The Fortean Times on the Process Church, which went through many phases – Scientology ripoff, Utopian commune in South America, Satanism in Mayfair. The founders split up, but one male founder shuffled on for a few years with a handful of followers, until one day he suddenly left them in the middle of a park and went to work for the telephone service. He never contacted them again.)

“There comes a time when you have to hand in your gun and badge”, says Steve Coogan character Tommy Saxondale. He is the beardy, straggly-haired roadie from the Seventies trading on past rock notorieties, now employed as a pest controller. Life has slid by; people regard him, and his raddled hopelessness and tour bus stories, with contempt and pity. (Times, 2007)

It was fun, it ended, things do. 


A former bookseller regrets his flourishing, sociable career at Ottakar’s. 

I do find my life a little too monastic these days. However, I would hate to be one of those launch party stalwarts who never move on, still knocking back the bottles of Becks in their mid-40s, unsuccessfully trying to chat up a publishing assistant who could be their daughter. 

The weekend staff were merely taking a brief pitstop on their way to a glittering career (at least, that's what they told me)... For [the slackers], bookselling was a continuation of university life, with its constant shortage of money and cramped bedsits; redeemed only by brilliant conversations with like-minded people and long periods of inertia. 

But Amazon happened, book chains closed. He went independent and sold books over the internet. The business was quite successful at first, but instead of growing year by year, it shrank. He worked from a converted farm building surrounded by cows, with birds nesting in the rafters. He looked forward to getting a job doing anything – anything – that would bring him in contact with people again. But as he says, people get too old for offices at 35. 

You can follow him on Twitter as @Lord_Steerforth.

No comments:

Post a Comment